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With: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, Tom Herman, Kenneth Austin, Tricia Burke, Roy Burston, David Camp, Jose Feliciano, Dora Glottman, Julian Herbstein, Christina Ortez, Jonathan Angus, Chieh Cheung, Sean Coar, Ambika Conroy, Patrick Cromer, Jerry Greenberg, Richard Herman, Susan Herman, Tia Herman, Bob Higgins, Maynard Jackson, Brian Locke, Bryan Mundy, Spyros Poulios, Marvin Pritchett, Robert Tisch, Ani Tuzman, Kathy Wylde, Kristen Kimball
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Chris Hegedus, Jehane Noujaim
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 107
Date: 01/21/2001
IMDB

Startup.com (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Tangled Web

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Midwifed by no less a talent than documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Primary, Dont Look Back, The War Room), and featured at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, Startup.com feels like the story of our times, the American Dream as defined by the year 2000. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim began following and documenting her Harvard roommate Kaleil Isaza Tuzman from the moment he and his friend Tom Herman decided to start their own Internet company, GovWorks.com. Meanwhile, Pennebaker and his partner, veteran Chris Hegedus (The War Room), were searching for a similar project. The filmmakers teamed up to make this documentary.

Though Startup.com tells an extraordinary story, it skimps on details in favor of speed. We follow Tuzman and Herman as they search for an idea, a name, and apply for venture capital. We watch as their company grows to hundreds of employees, as they launch their site, and as competitive sites spring up. In the end comes the inevitable fall, filmed, miraculously, just five months ago.

Pegging the dramatic arc of a documentary is important, and Startup.com succeeds like gangbusters at this element. But it would have been nice to see more routine details and get some basic questions answered. For example, in the beginning Tuzman and Herman had a third partner who took the money and ran, getting a few hundred thousand dollars for handing over his third of the company. In the end, he turned out to be the smart guy, but the film spends barely five minutes on him.

On the other hand, Tuzman makes an extraordinary protagonist. He has just the right combination of sleazy salesmanship and bravura leadership that makes a company run, but also makes him a compelling subject for the camera. (He even slips a business card to President Clinton.) He leads his team in these weird little pump-you-up rituals and speaks in a strange neo-business talk that sounds like it was made up by young executives who grew up in their bedrooms without much human contact. He burns through girlfriends as well; we see him with three different women over the course of the story. The first one seems to have a strong personality and a willingness to stick with him, but she's soon gone, replaced by more easily won trophy babes.

Tuzman's partner Herman is a family man with a daughter (a product of an interracial marriage, never shown or mentioned). As soon as we see his affection for her, we know that he, figuratively, is a dead man. No dot-commer can work a mere 40-hour week and also spend time with his family. To run one of these high-tech companies, a CEO needs to spend nights at the office, working 80 or 90 hours a week. This detail works as dramatic foreshadowing, and the filmmakers know enough to leave it at that.

The filmmakers also had unprecedented access into the most intimate legal meetings, which is a feat in itself. You can only imagine the merry-go-round they had to ride to get access to everything we see in the film. Yet there it is, so unassuming you might even forget that there's a camera in the room.

Startup.com also correctly refrains from commentary about the events in the story, leaving it to the audience to question what's going on. I couldn't help wondering exactly what GovWorks.com does. From the sound of it, the site allows customers to pay for traffic tickets online. In my experience, it's already pretty easy to pay traffic tickets by mail, and I can't see the advantage of paying by Internet. Elements like this make the film even more captivating.

What I wanted from Startup.com that I did not get was: more. This film would have made a brilliant epic TV miniseries, maybe four or six hours long, with all the intimate details about the executives' home lives, where the millions went, and what exactly these guys do with their time all day long. As it is, the film feels like a tantalizing truncated version of the real story, but still fascinating.

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