Startup.com

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 
Just after Jehane Noujaim quit her MTV job to take up filmmaking, her roommate
Kaleil Tuzman left a job with Goldman Sachs to team up with friends in founding
a dot.com.  Documentarian Chris Hegedus ("The War Room") met Jehane while
looking for a project on the Internet and the two teamed up to co-direct the
rise of govWorks.com from ground zero.  They didn't get what they had expected,
but they did capture drama aplenty in "Startup.com."

Laura:
As much the story of the rise and fall of a dot.com as of the unravelling of
a lifelong friendship, "Startup.com" focusses on govWorks cofounders Kaleil
Tuzman and Tom Herman.  Friends since childhood, Kaleil is the darkly exotic,
charismatic money man who convinced multiple venture capitalists to invest
millions of dollars in govWorks.com while Tom is the all American kid who
stayed in the background guiding development.  Kaleil's ruthless, workaholic
drive contrasts so sharply with Tom's laid back, trusting nature we know
we're in for major conflicts.  The cracks begin to show early on, when Tom's
enthusiasm for the technology during an investment meeting causes Kaleil
to accuse him of being unfocussed.  On the flip side, Tom makes design
decisions without waiting for Kaleil to return from one of his countless
business trips.

The film is frequently, often unintentionally, funny.  Reporting from an
early meeting in the Silicon Valley, Kaleil sputters on about how their
proposal was criticized for being presented in hardcopy rather than
computerized presentation, for their lack of IT experience, lack of startup
experience and for being 2-3 years behind the curve.  'He just doesn't get
it!' Kaleil remarks on the obviously prescient investor.  Later on, when
their company's grown to over 50 employees, they're all trooped
out to Tom's parents' Camp Interloken retreat for a mandatory morale
weekend.  Tom hikes them into the woods where he tells them he likes to
meditate - the wind whistling through the pine needles is particularly
inspirational he tells the awe-struck group as the video camera records
utter silence.  Occasionally, we're treated to Kaleil's girlfriend Dorita
complaining about his refusal to understand that just one phone call from
him can 'keep her going' for up to three weeks (another relationship hitting
the skids).

Kaleil 'I refuse, reFUSE, REFUSE to lose!' Tuzman's chutzpah knows no bounds,
as he invites competitors to visit their office (Atlanta's ezgov.com eventually
beats them at their own game) or slips President Clinton his business card
right in front of CNN's cameras.  On the eve of their launch, though,
govWorks' search engine is declared a dud and the company never regains its
footing.  Tom gets philosophical and is sacked by Kaleil, who can't believe
Tom no longer trusts him when Tom begins to protect his own self interests.

"Startup.com" is conventionally filmed on video by a filmmaking team with
exceptional access to their subjects.  While they've captured the story of a
generation who surfed the Internet wave with dreams of untold wealth, when
their own subject was one of the ones who wiped out, Jehane and Hegedus
seem to reel with them.  The documentary has a long and dramatic build,
marking time with the build up in govWork's employee base, yet suddenly,
it all drops off.  Tom's ejection is given weight, but the gradual
disintegration of govWorks is not.  The abrupt feel of the film's wrapup
is also a casuality of the filmmakers' decision to concentrate on Kaleil and
Tom without so much as naming almost any other employee.

Still, "Startup.com" packs more drama than most fictional films currently in
release and documents a distinctive moment in America's business landscape.

B

Robin:
Only two or three years ago, a few smart guys with a little bit of capital
could parlay an idea into a multimillion-dollar Internet business and have
their fortunes made. Docu filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
rolled their camera at the birth of just such a company and planned to
follow the meteoric rise of its founders, until the bottom fell out of the
market in 2000, in "Startup.com."

In 1998, four young entrepreneurs - Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, Thomas Herman,
Chieh Cheung and George Fatheree - founded PublicDataSystems, Inc., a firm
whose goal was to build a government Internet portal that would ease the
public's pain in dealing with the bureaucracy we have all come to know and
loath. Longtime documentary filmmaker Hegedus and newcomer Noujaim followed
their group of web entrepreneurs from the very beginning, at the first
discussion of the idea of their business to hiring the first folks into the
company to their almost arrival at the top. The plan was to show the rags
to riches success of their govWorks.com website and the making of
20-something multimillionaires.

But, in true documentary style, things do not go off as planned and a
variety of circumstances happen that signal the end of the ambitious plans
for the company. Venture capital dollars are a fickle thing and can dry up
without a moment's notice. The company offices are broken into and valuable
documents, outlining business and strategies, are stolen. The volatile
personalities and differing viewpoints of the founders creates conflict and
threatens the future of the govWorks.com. Then, in 2000, the bottom fell
out of the Internet marketplace. The rags-to-riches tale becomes the rise
and fall of an American dream.

"Startup.com" is a sometimes-interesting document that suffers from a major
problem - none of the individuals being followed are likable and, with
their arrogance, bickering and techno-automaton behavior, create no empathy
from the viewer. The makers do a decent job of capturing all aspects of the
making of a startup company but they, unfortunately for the viewer, picked
the wrong subjects. There is an attempt to introduce humanity into the mix
by showing Thomas taking care of his young daughter and Kaleil having
girlfriend troubles, but these are mere distractions and only serve to make
an overly long film even longer. Perhaps some judicious editing would help,
but the subjects, themselves, are the real problem.

"Startup.com" documents the rise and fall of four guys' dreams, but, in the
end, I don't care, and that's not good for a documentary movie. I give it a
C.
 
 

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