One of the best documentaries of the year, startup.com harks back to producer D.A. Pennebaker’s classic cinema-verite studies such as Don’t Look Back, a cogent account of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour. A clever combination of topicality and intimacy characterised these films, and Don’t Look Back was both a concert movie and a revealing portrait of Dylan and his cohorts. The same qualities are present in startup.com, which was produced by Pennebaker but co-directed by his partner Chris Hegedus and newcomer Jehane Noujaim.
The film looks at the rise and fall of a new business set up to capitalise on the internet revolution. Intended to act as an interface between local government and its clients, govWorks.com was the brainchild of Tom Herman, the son of a New England WASP family. To help run the enterprise, Tom recruits his high-school friend Isaza Tuzman, the son of recent immigrants and now a whiz-kid with financiers Goldman Sacks. The pair set about raising millions of dollars from investment houses across America. In one tensely amusing scene, they receive an offer of $17 million but have to sign a contract before leaving the company’s office. The only trouble is that the tyro entrepreneurs can’t locate their lawyer on the telephone. Before long, however, govWorks has tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, even though the outfit hasn’t yet launched its services.
Fascinating as an insider look at a business area where inflated ideals and dreams of instant wealth have been supplanted by harsh economic realities and broken promises, startup.com is made all the more compelling by the personal drama being acted out between its chief protagonists. As the dynamic, hard-nosed Tuzman becomes increasingly frustrated by Herman’s technocratic approach, the partnership is tested to its limits. When the crunch comes, Herman is sacked and escorted off the premises of the business he founded, while Tuzman is unable to save the situation when the dot-com bubble bursts.
Part of the film’s success has to do with the privileged access accorded the filmmakers, which was made possible by co-director Jehane Noujaim’s friendship with the subjects and enhanced through the use of unobtrusive digital cameras. But sheer luck also played a part. Even the most cynical Hollywood scribe would blush as many of the events that unfold here. As in a carefully scripted thriller, there’s a crucial break-in at govWorks’ offices, a case of industrial espionage and possibly an inside job. Tuzman becomes a business celebrity who meets Bill Clinton and offers him a future job with the company. When disaster strikes, Herman and Tuzman patch up their differences and set up a new company to help failed dot-coms.U.S.A., 2001. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 103 min.