To chronicle and, more importantly, to morally assess the go-go years of the Reagan ’80s, we had a handful of outstanding fictions, including Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (forget Brian DePalma’s misfire of a movie). To capture the dot-com gold rush of the late ’90s, though, fiction is either too slow or too exhausted to do the job, so we’re given the real-life drama of Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Startup.com. Though viewers may ultimately wonder if this D.A. Pennebaker-produced film owes too much to the paradigms of fiction, it is unquestionably one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking movies of the year, as well as arguably the work that will explain the dot-com mania to future generations.
As documentary fans will know, Pennebaker started out back in the ’60s making groundbreaking documentaries such as Don’t Look Back, films that owed their existence to a technical revolution in filmmaking: New, lightweight 16mm cameras and portable sound recorders allowed documentarians to go mobile, slipping in and out of intimate spaces that would have been impossible to visit previously. Startup.com in turn is made possible by the recent advent of small, inexpensive digital cameras, which allow filmmakers to do what Hegedus and Noujaim did here: spend months and months following their subjects, ultimately taping 400 hours (that much film stock would have been prohibitively expensive for most projects like this one), which was whittled down to the crisp, fast-moving narrative that we see in Startup.com.
The movie may survey events, but its focus is on character. Early in 1999, Noujaim got wind of a couple of guys who were about to start their own dot-com venture. After gaining their permission, she and Hegedus started shooting, thus getting in on the action early enough to chronicle the enterprise almost from the very inception. Of course, the idea of the film in itself is a good one, but no guarantee of meaty results. The gods of film must have been smiling on Noujaim and Hegedus, however, because they hit on a case that not only ended up following a classic rise-and-fall arc (a pattern as basic to narrative as it is to business) but also included an unbeatable human drama: the testing and bust-up of a friendship.
Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, who have been pals since high school, are a pair to prove the adage that opposites attract. Beefy, gregarious and outwardly a paragon of business-school bravado, Kaleil is the dynamic extrovert of the two. Bespectacled and often bearded (his indecision about facial hair seems to mirror an inner confusion), Tom is the quiet, buttoned-down technogeek. Obviously, these two are ideally suited to running an Internet company together. Tuzman’s job is to hustle up the capital–huge amounts of it, which only recently was sluicing through the economy like waves of raw optimism. For his part, Herman will oversee the technical side of things. Not only are they natural collaborators, but these ambitious 20-somethings profess to revere, even love, each other.
The action begins as Tuzman decides to leave his job at Goldman Sachs; the dot-com frenzy is at its peak, and he doesn’t want to be left behind by history. The company he and Herman start–they dither over a name and eventually choose govWorks.com–will allow people to deal with their municipal governments, paying parking tickets and such, online. Is it a good idea? Who knows? The important thing is, it sounds good at a time when far unlikelier ideas were attracting investors in droves. Tuzman and Herman evidently believe in it, and that, in the early stages at least, is what counts. Like missionaries with the word of the Lord in their vest pockets, they launch into the world propelled by belief and naive enthusiasm. They lead their team in pep rally-like cheers, which are hardly necessary; there are clearly few doubters in the ranks of the dot-com shock troops.
They have only a handful of employees and a largely empty office in downtown Manhattan’s Silicon Alley when they start. Just a few months later, there are hundreds of employees. By every indication, Tuzman is not only a spirited, effective, charismatic leader of the troops, but an extremely capable money raiser as well. Their empire keeps growing and growing, even before govWorks.com has proved to anyone that it’s a viable concept.
For all this early, mostly on-paper success, it’s hard not to look at its propagators and think, Jeez, these guys are children. Yes, they wear the clothes (sharp suits for Tuzman, techie-casual for Herman) and talk the talk, but they seem like kids trying on the grown-ups’ gear while doing so. Behind their veneer of bluster and professionalism, you sense they’re wondering when the world will discover that it’s all an act. Their personal lives give off the same aura of immaturity. Herman has a daughter who looks about five and obviously misses him greatly during his long hours at work. (He is apparently split from the child’s mother; we never hear about her or any present romantic interest in his life.) Tuzman meanwhile starts the film with a dazzlingly superficial girlfriend who wants him to give her a dog–or perhaps a baby. His reluctance to provide either speaks volumes.
That such wet-behind-the-ears entrepreneurs could get so far on just a business plan and a smooth line of talk might seem anomalous, but Startup.com‘s most salient point is that it’s anything but. If the entire economy isn’t constructed on a foundation of snake oil and blind faith, those were certainly prime ingredients in the dot-com boom. During that quicksilver heyday, the glib analysts of MSNBC et al. assured the world that technology had changed everything, yet it was a couple of much older factors–sheer human credulity and cupidity–that led investors and V.C.s (remember when those initials referred to a Ho warrior rather than a high-finance ho?) to surrender their reason to this modern children’s crusade.
It is, nevertheless, hard to dislike Tuzman and Herman even at their most hubristic, because their foibles indeed belong to the culture at large. One of Startup.com‘s fringe benefits is that it affords every group of viewers an interesting post-screening session of comparing notes as to which of the protagonists is the more likable and believable. Personally, I ultimately sided with Tuzman. His gung-ho corporate fervor and superconfidence may be offputting to some, but he seems far more honest with himself and others than the squirrely, passive-aggressive, self-deceiving Herman.
Compared to where they started, the two businessmen buddies reach stratospheric heights. Perhaps the symbolic zenith comes when Tuzman appears on a C-Span show hosted by President Clinton, to whom Tuzman nervily slips a business card. The drop comes shortly after, and is as precipitous as the ascent. Soon, the two friends are at loggerheads and Herman is being forced out of the company that he co-founded only a few months before. One bleak day after Herman’s asked to vacate the office, Tuzman gives his picture to the building’s security guard with instructions that his old pal never be allowed on the premises.
What causes this rupture, which is tense and sad rather than acrimonious? The film implies that Herman wasn’t doing his job as well as he needed to be–there are hints that the technical side of govWorks.com aren’t up to snuff from early on–but it’s never clearly spelled out. Does it matter? From the standpoint of human drama, not at all. For anyone who looks to Startup.com to provide a factual equivalent of a novel or a fictional movie, it couldn’t be more involving and compelling. But for viewers like myself, who want a certain amount of information and explication along with the human interest, the film’s style, which eschews interviews and narration, involves sacrifices that are inevitably questionable.
I had the same reservations about The War Room, Pennebaker and Hegedus’ colorful and celebrated account of the 1992 Clinton campaign. In the ’60s, when Pennebaker started out, he and other filmmakers (the Mayles Brothers, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman, etc.) pioneered what the French called cinéma vérité and their American counterparts termed “direct cinema.” The idea was to record life without the mediation and manipulation of old-style (and TV-style) documentary techniques such as narration. Many claims were made for the truthfulness of such an approach, claims which now sound at once naively high-minded and silly, in that familiar ’60s fashion. My purpose isn’t to rehash those debates here, but rather to note one thing: A cinéma vérité approach is far more appropriate to some subjects than to others.
For “an afternoon in the flower shop,” say, it’s close to perfect, because the important action is all public, visible and relatively contained in both time and space. The rise and fall of a dot-com, like a campaign for the presidency, however, is altogether different. It invokes many issues that are either abstract and thus impossible to film (the economics of Internet investment), or that are personal and happen off-camera. From an informational and analytical standpoint, Startup.com would definitely benefit from some well-chosen interviews and voice-overs. The avoidance of such techniques, which keeps the film in the patented Pennebaker style, strikes me as an inappropriate aesthetic decision. That is, it’s inappropriate because it is aesthetic; it means to make the film play like fiction, like entertainment.
Though this is a serious objection, it doesn’t take away from the accomplishment of Startup.com, or its value as a document. Tuzman and Herman are as complex and interesting any movie characters I’ve seen this year, and their story bears endless reflection and discussion.
Though Startup.com is now headed into local theaters for a regular run, it made its first area appearance at the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, which took place May 3-6 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. The return of Startup.com prompts me to express my appreciation of DoubleTake overall. Though it’s been in the Triangle for four years, this was the first year I was able to attend the festival and I must say it exceeded my expectations in every department.
I’m lucky enough to attend film festivals all over the world, but it is not at all regional pride that makes me say that DoubleTake is one of the best I’ve encountered. It simply is. One reason is the films: Documentaries these days as a group tend to be far more interesting than fictional films, and DoubleTake had an enormous and exceedingly well-chosen selection. On top of that, thanks to the genial environs of the Carolina Theatre, the festival parties and the hard-working hospitality of Nancy Buirski and her staff, DoubleTake has a very welcoming atmosphere, at once cosmopolitan and down-home. I urge any cinephiles who haven’t discovered this festival’s pleasures to make plans now to do so next year. I certainly plan to return as often as I can.