'Startup.com' an utterly engrossing intimate portrait of the rise and fall of a doomed web business
"Startup.com" may well be seen in the future as the definitive time capsule of the Turn of the Millennium internet boom and bust.
A documentary that set out to take a candid snapshot of a typical dot-com rocket-fueled ride onto the NASDAQ leader board, filmmakers Chris Hegedus ("The War Room") and Jehane Noujaim hitched their wagon to Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman -- a pair of 20-something tech millionaires, high school pals and the driving force behind govWorks.com, a web site designed to grease the wheels of local government for the end user.
Abashed but well-adjusted tech maestro Tom and cocky, charismatic, obstinate CEO and front-man Kaleil have a great idea -- they'll contract with cities around the nation (and the world) to be a one-stop destination for doing everything from paying traffic tickets to attending council meetings via streaming media.
As the filmmakers begin shadowing them in August 1999, finding venture capital is job one and spirits are high. In a very few months their little company has gone from eight employees using laptops perched on dining room chairs to 233 workers in a Manhattan office funded by more than $100 million from investors.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year, you can guess what happens next: The bottom drops out of the dot-economy and govWorks.com implodes. But even before their world caves in on them, problems plague Tom and Kaleil -- not the least of which is a rift in their friendship that forms because of their wildly different approaches to business and life.
The filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to make "Startup.com," even following their two main subjects home, where we see clearly that Tom's larger perspective is based on his angelic 3-year-old daughter being his No. 1 priority, whereas Kaleil's life is dedicated entirely to aggressive business strategizing.
Watching "Startup.com" with post-crash hindsight is in many ways like watching a horror movie -- even without knowing anything about the site being created, you know going in that it's going to get bloody and you almost want to watch it with your hands over your eyes.
Directors Hegedus and Noujaim do an incredible job of capturing the personalities and how they cope with the incredible stress that goes along with creating a multi-million dollar company out of thin air, and the almost crippling stress of having it collapse beneath them like a deck of cards.
Hegedus and Noujaim even manage to find some humor in the irony that seems to plague this company -- from an industrial espionage break-in to the fact that only hours before going live they discover their search engine is all but useless (someone types in "pay parking tickets" and it brings up municipal employees with the last name Park).
Aside from feeling a bit long at times -- probably because in many ways it's painful to watch -- "Startup.com" is nothing short of a profound illustrative portrait of the obscenely high highs that defined this pivotal moment at the apex of 20th Century progress, and the self-devouring lows that followed all too quickly in the wake of all this fleeting success.