You should watch the upcoming PBS film chronicling the dawn of Silicon Valley just to see how far and how fast technology and this place have advanced. But you'll get a lot more than that out of the American Experience documentary "Silicon Valley," including a deeper sense of the valley's place in our national fabric.

First, the movie, scheduled to air Feb. 5 on KQED-TV, is a good telling of a great story. And more important than that is something valley historian Leslie Berlin pointed out when I called her to talk about the documentary: The fact that the film is screening as part of the venerable American Experience -- a program known for examining the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, etc. -- says something about the valley's place in the history of the country.

Think about it. The technological revolution that erupted here was one of the most significant watersheds that history has to offer. Its after-effects have touched billions of lives, killed and created entire industries and left us with the promise of infinite innovation.

"Sometimes people tell the story of Silicon Valley as if it is not part of a larger American story," says Berlin, who wrote "The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley" and who was interviewed for the documentary. "Having it appear as part of American Experience, I think, really reinforces that this is a very American story."

Yes, an American story. The birth of Silicon Valley is the story of pioneers who took a plunge into the unknown hoping to make a better life for themselves and for an untold number of others. "Silicon Valley" focuses on the evolution of Fairchild Semiconductor, a company started in Palo Alto in 1957 by eight brilliant innovators who abandoned Nobel laureate William Shockley to pursue their vision of a world-changing electronic device.

And like every American story, it produced heroes, in this case technological and entrepreneurial geniuses who not only built an industry, but a new way of living surrounded by gadgets that are at times as smart as we are and as necessary as breath itself. There is the late Noyce, a founder of Intel (INTC), who is heard from in the film, but not seen on camera. And Gordon Moore, Intel's co-founder and author of Moore's Law, which accurately predicted ever more powerful circuits.

And Andy Grove, the Hungarian immigrant who helped start Intel and steered it as CEO for years before retiring the post in 1998. His on-camera interview provides an unintended poignant moment, as Grove, 76, who is battling Parkinson's disease, shows obvious signs of the affliction's debilitating effects.

"I had horrible nightmares," Grove says of the early Intel days. "I never took a business course. I was inventing what to do as we went along."

No question, filmmaker Randall MacLowry saw echoes of other historical movements in the quest of the so-called "Traitorous Eight" and their team to move the country into the digital age. "People were coming to California from all places in the country," MacLowry tells me. "It was that sort of mentality of the Gold Rush all over again. You have the possibility of doing something different and kind of recasting or reinventing yourself."

The movie is a reminder of just how little was known when Noyce and Moore, Jay Last, Jean Hoerni, Julius Blank, Eugene Kleiner, Sheldon Roberts and Victor Grinich launched Fairchild in a building surrounded by farm fields. Could they make a practical integrated circuit? Was there a market? What tools and machines would they need to do the job?

"The building had no electricity, no phones, water," Last says in the film, recalling the earliest Fairchild days. "We didn't have any toilets. We had to go to the gas station down the street."

But they persevered, coming up with the first practical mass-produced integrated circuit, the chip that the U.S. military and space program had been waiting for. It was the government, really, that ensured Fairchild's initial success -- a fact that helped convince American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels that the time was right for retelling the story of the valley's birth. Perhaps, he says, the program can help inform the debate about the proper role of government in economic growth. The valley, he says, grew from a public/private collaboration.

"Silicon Valley, like the space industry, is a collaboration," Samels tells me. "There is so much debate about government investment. I think this is a story of the really central role that that partnership played in developing a really important technology."

And maybe that's the thing about telling history -- and why we tell the most significant stories again and again. The truth is, the historical facts might not change, but the lens through which we view them is constantly shifting.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.

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American Experience: Silicon Valley
Date: Feb. 5
Time: 8 p.m.
Station: KQED-TV
To see the American Experience trailer go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BahCmU5ugsU