Anyone who suspected that the late 1990s boom in Internet stocks was just a lot of hot air — an economic boom perpetrated by enough smoke and mirrors to make junk bonds look like a good long-term investment in comparison — should see Startup.com. This documentary chronicles the rapid rise and precipitous fall of the Web site govworks.com.
Using all the utopian doublespeak of Internet moguls, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, co-founders and childhood friends, rally investors around an idea whose simple logic seems profitable: create a site which makes local government more accessible to an increasingly wired United States, so that tasks like paying parking tickets can be done online. The intimate Startup.com is very much a document of its time, shot on digital video (an inexpensive, flexible medium now making inroads as a serious rival to film stock) and ripe with the optimism of a new information society linked via cyberspace.
The co-directors, veteran Chris Hegedus (The War Room, DeLorean, Moon Over Broadway) and newcomer Jehane Noujaim (a friend of the millionaires-to-be) are seemingly everywhere, following the bullish Isaza Tuzman — who seems to have been told early on that he was a born leader and thoroughly believed it — and mousy Herman through the construction and destruction of a company which epitomizes just why the Internet bubble burst.
From almost the beginning of Startup.com, it’s clear that they are building on a shaky foundation. Neither Isaza Tuzman or Herman appear to be gearheads, and their sheer lack of technical knowledge is shocking. What they base govworks.com on is a slim concept, and they seem more interested in raising capital and becoming successful than actually seeing it work. It’s a new brand of capitalist arrogance which Hegedus and Noujaim capture here, perhaps the best manifestation of an instant-gratification generation’s eagerness for overnight success.
What Startup.com lacks is context. Although these documentary makers eschew traditional narration and stick to a linear story line, they could have included more information about the backgrounds of Isaza Tuzman (who’s shown devotedly praying, but never discusses his religious beliefs) and Herman (the mother of his young daughter, to whom he’s devoted, is never seen or even discussed). What made them dive into this venture in the first place? Was it merely greed?
That’s a tempting oversimplification, one which Startup.com doesn’t directly address. Initially, the Internet was idealized as the key to creating a global village: It was the soul in our new machines. How did it become a global marketplace instead? By following these new entrepreneurs, Hegedus and Noujaim provide a glimpse of just how that may have happened.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Visit the official Startup.com Web site at www.startupthefilm.com.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.