December 6, 2001 -- "Startup.com" is a fascinating documentary combining both a personal and a historical perspective on a remarkable period of American history, the boom and bust of "The New Economy."
The movie follows two friends who start a new Internet company, govWorks.com, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, who quits his job at Goldman Sachs to start the company, and computer whiz Tom Herman. The two, in their 20's, have been friends since childhood. The idea behind the company is sound. The company will set up a web site where people can pay their parking tickets, and do other government business from home, using the Internet.
The problem is, the two haven't developed the software yet. They have no product, just a business plan, and Kaleil's business experience. Nevertheless, govWorks.com is able to attract some $60 million in venture capital, and sign up dozens of cities, including New York City, to contracts. The two friends hire over 200 employees to develop and sell the product and to attract more capital. Kaleil and Tom become famous, appearing on television as successful young entrepreneurs in the glamorous world of Internet-based businesses.
Their success is hollow, however. There are problems getting the web site to work correctly. A competitor, EzGov.com (which is still in business), appears with a better-looking product. There is a break-in at the govWorks.com office; industrial espionage is suspected. An unexpected market crash in technology stocks hits the company hard just as it is trying to become profitable. As the pressure on the young company mounts, conflicts between Kaleil and Tom escalate. Can their friendship, or the company survive?
This movie was shot using video equipment, not film, yet the video quality of the movie is quite good. Much of the camera work was done by the movie's co-director, Jehane Noujaim. The other director is Chris Hegedus, who also directed the award-winning documentary, "The War Room." Hegedus' husband, D.A. Pennebaker, another experienced filmmaker, produced the film (Pennebaker and Hegedus also shot some of the video). The filmmakers followed the govWorks.com team for 18 hours a day for months on end as the young entrepreneurs struggled to keep their company, and their friendship, alive. They ended up with over 400 hours of video footage. That much video tape makes it very difficult to edit the footage down to a final product. Reportedly tape editors Hegedus, Noujaim and Erez Laufer wound up with some 25 different cuts of the movie before settling on one.
The result is a fascinating story of a friendship and a company under enormous pressure. Noujaim herself decided to quit her job at MTV to make this film. She was Kaleil's roommate and friend, a big reason she was able to get such close access to Kaleil and Tom. She and the other filmmakers did not know where govWorks.com was going any more than Tom and Kaleil did. Making this film was as much an act of faith by the filmmakers as Tom and Kaleil's belief in their startup company.
This is also the story of the height, and end, of an era in the high-tech Internet industry. It shows the wild, exuberant days when capital venture money was flowing freely, and how the money suddenly dried up. It shows how inexperienced young men got in over their heads and how people with different personalities deal with stress. It is also a story about greed. A third founder of the company sought an $800,000 buyout for his original $20,000 investment. Later in the story, another cash settlement is sought.
Arching over the entire story is the personal friendship and conflict between Kaleil and Tom. Each one wants to run the company his own way, but there can be only one victor in this Darwinian struggle. Tom seeks comfort in his family. They see the terrible toll that conflict and stress has taken from him. Despite his seeming overriding materialistic bent, Kaleil seems to be the first to realize that something more important than mere money is at stake in the fight over govWorks.com. This is a high-stakes game in more ways that one.
Most documentaries rely on off-screen narration to fill in the gaps in the story. This film relies on the video and the candid conversations caught on tape to tell the whole story. The result is not as clear or as uncluttered as narration, but this choice also makes the film more realistic and more powerful. The movie is not only very dramatic, but it also documents an important time in history. It may be years before we understand the "new economy" but this movie is an important footnote in high-tech economic history. This film rates a B.
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