"How about parking tickets?" someone said to someone else in the mythical early days of GovWorks, a Web site that was supposed to revolutionize the way government operates. The idea was simple, a New Economy version of Emerson's better mousetrap: Instead of having to go through the laborious process of writing a check and licking a stamp, we'd be allowed to pay a traffic ticket or renew a license or even contact our local representatives online. For a small fee, of course. But look at the upside: Red tape would magically unravel, and the government would become more responsive to we the people. Oh, and one more thing: GovWorks' founding fathers, two former Harvard classmates still in their 20s, would become gazillionaires when the company went public in one of those dot-com IPOs that were hogging all the headlines a short time ago. For Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, the pie in the sky was the limit.
The sky fell, of course, and the pie landed in the guys' faces. And wouldn't you know it, the whole thing was preserved for posterity via Startup.com, a cinema veritÃ documentary that includes stuff even the proverbial fly on the wall would have missed. Drawing on 400 hours of videotape, directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim have created a Horatio Alger story for the Digital Age, a moral tale in which friendship is sacrificed on the altar of the Bitch Goddess Success. Although the movie contains enough raw data to compile one of those Harvard Business School case studies, it's primarily the story of two guys who thought they were best friends right up to the moment one of them pink-slipped the other and had him escorted from the building. It's sad to watch their Internet bubble burst, I suppose, sad and wickedly enjoyable.
Tuzman, the company's CEO, is the people person ' a hefty glad-hander of Colombian Jewish descent who seems to have modeled himself on Bill Clinton. He has the same poker player's smile, the same ability to dole out warm fuzzies like they're pieces of candy. When Tuzman meets Clinton at a White House roundtable on the tech biz, he takes the opportunity to slip the president his card and offer him a job. What Clintonian chutzpah! Meanwhile, Herman's the company's computer nerd, Steve Wozniak to Tuzman's Steve Jobs (before things got wormy at Apple). Herman's nice-guy cluelessness can be inferred from his facial hair, which changes literally from scene to scene. He obviously isn't comfortable in his newfound role of Internet poster boy, and he may not have what it takes to launch GovWorks into the dot-com stratosphere. He lacks the killer instinct, whereas Tuzman's is growing by the hour.
Unlike most movies with rise-and-fall arcs, which luxuriate in the rise, Startup.com seems drenched in flop sweat from the get-go. Tuzman and Herman are clearly boys sent to do a man's job, and although they (Tuzman in particular) are a lot better at faking it than most of us would be, we know things they don't know, like where the NASDAQ is headed. We accompany them on an endless round of pitch meetings with venture capitalists, and at first it seems like the movie is going to be about their failure to raise any cash. Then we learn that, on the contrary, they've raised $60 million, a remarkable sum given how late in the tech boom they started looking for financing. All of a sudden (in the movie, anyway), GovWorks is a player. It gets written up in The New York Times, and Tuzman appears on CNN, where a business reporter completely garbles the pronunciation of his name.
Mere months later, nobody cares enough about Tuzman to mispronounce his name. And GovWorks, which once had as many as 233 employees clicking away at their keyboards, is now down to 50. What went wrong? Alas, we don't really know, because Hegedus and Noujaim don't tie everything together. That's on purpose, of course. The nice thing about cinema veritÃ, which forswears devices like narration, is that it lets us figure out for ourselves what's going on; the not-so-nice thing is that we may not have enough information to go on. (That fly on the wall isn't exactly the smartest critter in the world.) Startup.com sometimes seems overwhelmed by the sheer eventfulness of the story it's telling. For instance, the company's demise, which, even in the tech sector's gold-rush days, must have happened over time, seems to happen overnight in the movie. One minute they're up, the next minute they're down.
Perhaps only a book ' Michael Wolff's excellent memoir, Burn Rate, for example ' can do full justice to the Internet boom and bust. Instead, Startup.com focuses on personalities. "I refuse, refuse, REFUSE to lose," Tuzman says at one point, and you get the impression that, despite the loss to come, this guy won't be a loser for long. But it's Herman, the mild-mannered geek, who comes out smelling like a winner. Although he gets more and more pathetic as the movie wears on (culminating with a request for a moment of silence during a company retreat in Michigan so he can listen to the wind whistle through the pine trees), Herman never loses sight of his humanity, even after GovWorks has gone down in flames. In fact, not only does he forgive Tuzman for firing his ass, he agrees to start a whole new company with him, a consulting firm for ailing dot-coms. You can visit their Web site at recognitiongroup.net.