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The hubris behind the e-conomy bust comes to vivid life in Startup.com

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Recently, one of those ubiquitous e-mail “forwards” outlining a generic dot-com failure story was making the rounds. This history of a mock dot-company came complete with a visionary leader, a rush for venture capital and a dubiously “revolutionary” product concept—in this case, providing users with the ability to adjust the tint on their computer monitors over the Internet! The company grows exponentially, reaching an insanely high valuation until it finally dawns on everyone that maybe the idea can’t possibly work (and maybe no one would actually care, even if it did). Funny in a faintly “sad-because-it’s-true” way, this tale pointed out how, with the benefit of hindsight, the e-conomy surge of the late 1990s looks as ephemeral as the virtual world itself. It was a revolution based less on business reality than on one generation’s sheer force of will to define the paradigms, and its ability to inspire in the previous generation an abject terror of being left behind in Gen-X’s silicon dust.

The endlessly fascinating documentary Startup.com plays like the filmed realization of that generic dot-com failure story, only the people and their hubris are real. Directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus (the latter a veteran of docs like The War Room with her husband/partner D A Pennebaker) follow two 20-something childhood pals with a dream to start their own company. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman is the charismatic Harvard grad with the aura of a born salesman; Tom Herman is the more introverted technology-minded guy. Their eventual brainchild is govWorks.com, a website intended to facilitate such mundane local government transactions as paying parking tickets or renewing a driver’s license. It’s a brilliant concept, they believe, for an untapped marketplace … and it comes just on the brink of the April 2000 tech crash.

Like most of the best fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Startup.com benefits from the kind of plot developments you could never script, and that incredible Pennebaker/Hegedus knack for being in touch with historical turning points. There’s a suspiciously genial visit from the CEO of govWorks’ chief competitor, an office break-in that may have involved corporate espionage, interpersonal conflict between Isaza Tuzman and Herman over the direction of the company and, of course, the aforementioned NASDAQ shakeout. The twists and turns of the story are charged with so much tension, it’s easy to forget that Startup.com is a documentary.

But its brilliance ultimately has little to do with individual narrative details. Like the best stories of any kind, it captures something universal through an understanding of specific individuals. Isaza Tuzman and Herman become wonderfully tragic protagonists, because it should have been obvious from the outset that their business model wasn’t ultimately about the specifics of helping people pay their parking tickets over the Internet. Grand pronouncements about helping people aside, their dream is simply to start a successful business, and it never seems to matter much to them exactly what kind of business that turns out to be.

The two men admit as much when they describe conversations they had over a space of months, tossing out one possible concept after another. One telling scene finds the company-in-the-making’s principal players suggesting possible names for their new project, the brainstorming session turning into more of a game than a marketing exercise—they’re like high school students, trying to decide which garage band moniker looks coolest when written on a PeeChee folder. Their specific glitch-ridden product drifts into the realm of the almost incidental, since no one in govWorks’ upper management appears to have much working knowledge of the government’s day-to-day operations. Personal relationships shrivel and die over money quarrels. Behind the rah-rah corporate retreats and the hustling for investors lies a very simple goal: getting stinking rich by cashing in on the apparent willingness of investors to throw mountains of capital at anything with “dot-com” attached to the name.

Hegedus and Noujaim construct Startup.com so effectively as a portrait of gung-ho capitalism gone awry that it’s just as easy to sympathize with Isaza Tuzman as it is to find him obnoxious. The glad-handing govWorks frontman may be shameless enough to hand President Clinton a business card at a White House technology summit, but he’s also a businessman who thinks he sees the future. While it never occurs to him that the soaring high-tech sector could sour on them, it’s clear that his tunnel vision is part of what makes him such a natural leader. His utilitarian approach to his romantic and business partnerships marks him as shallow, but his battering ram determination to take over the world marks him as someone you’d want on your corporate team. No fiction film this year has offered such a complex, fascinating character.

The film leaves a few holes in the personal stories of Isaza Tuzman and Herman, which might have made for even more compelling viewing—the story behind Herman’s three-year-old daughter, whose mother never appears, remains enigmatic—but the characters are still plenty rich. They’re just not rich in the sense the characters themselves expected they would be. Startup.com brings vivid focus to the generic dot-com failure story, and it’s even more vivid because this one is true.

Startup.com (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim. Featuring Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman.

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