‘San Francisco 2.0’: TV Review

HBO
A shallow examination of the West Coast tech revolution.

A short HBO documentary barely scratches the surface of the pernicious influences undermining the City by the Bay.

Alexandra Pelosi’s heart, to slightly tweak the tune, is clearly in San Francisco. The documentarian best known for the 2002 presidential campaign trail profile Journeys With George was born and raised in San Francisco, and she narrates this sketchy, barely 40-minute film about her hometown with the impassioned fervor of someone trying desperately to avert disaster. 

She has reason to be concerned since the so-called “IT invasion” is changing the face of the city for the cultural worst. Ever since the local powers-that-be enticed companies like Google, Adobe, LinkedIn and others to set up shop, the cost of living has skyrocketed. And the diverse pockets of people that make up this great metropolis (a place Pelosi herself notes has a “long tradition of embracing nonconformity”) are being cast aside as young, moneyed techies and entrepreneurs take over.

There’s a great story to be told here, one that could surely incite the changes that would help prevent total gentrification of a borough with such a rich history. (An introductory montage touches on some of Frisco’s more well-known episodes like the 1906 earthquake and the Harvey Milk-led gay rights marches.) But Pelosi never focuses, opting instead to go broad and brief in a smattering of interviews with politicians, techies, and the down-and-out. Every time she hits on an interesting perspective that begs for deeper analysis — like a 50-something man who has gone from college-educated and in-demand to homeless and unemployable with alarming speed — she moves on.

Read more: 'San Francisco 2.0' Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi: "Trump Is Uber"

Coupled with the frequent Google-sourced onscreen graphics (Google Maps is used to orient us in San Francisco’s different neighborhoods), this has the unfortunate effect of making it seem like we’re watching someone click around the Internet searching for sky-is-falling agitprop, all the while ignoring the connective tissue that would make the issues under scrutiny really hit home. It’s a waste, considering Pelosi gets one-on-ones with current and former mayors of the city (Ed Lee, Willie Brown and Art Agnos) as well as California governor Jerry Brown, all of whom have about one or two sentences supporting their various positions.

The tech-industry folk are given similarly short shrift. Why — when you have access to older and newer powerhouses like Salon’s David Talbot and Dropbox’s Drew Houston — do you let them do little beyond expressing their skin-deep caution about or embrace of the unbridled new landscape created by the tech revolution? That should be the start of the conversation, not the sum total of it. The only voice that comes through with any authority in San Francisco 2.0 is Pelosi herself, and that’s purely because of the gravelly tone of her persistent narration, which couches Frisco’s problems as primarily her worry, her anguish to deal with. She’s like Chicken Little by way of Nora Ephron.

San Francisco 2.0 feels especially disposable in light of the fact that it’s premiering on HBO at the same time Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights (a multilayered and moving portrait of a similarly diverse community threatened with gentrification and other ills) is making the theatrical rounds. That movie sounds the alarm, and stirs the soul, in ways that this effort never manages.

Twitter: @keithuhlich

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