Review by Kim Hollis
September 21, 2001
A documentary that simultaneously tracks the rise and fall of a potential billion-dollar dot-com and the path of a long-time friendship, Startup.com is so compelling that at times it's hard to believe the film is showing real events and people.
The main players in this story are Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, the money man and a guy who looks like The Rock of the Internet world (if only he referred to himself in the third person); and Tom Herman, the brains behind the technological aspects of the developing site. The film opens with Isaza Tuzman leaving his job at Goldman to join his high-school friend, Herman, to embark on what turns out to be a wild dot-com adventure.
Through the first portion of the movie, we see the friends attempt to obtain financial backing for their business. Looking at this activity after seeing the collapse of so many companies that were based solely in the Internet world, it is almost incomprehensible to imagine the sums of money that were being floated on pure speculation.
The company they're selling is called govWorks.com, and the concept behind the site is to give people a place to go to pay taxes and parking tickets with ease. Of course, there are many other potential uses for the site as well, and boy, does Isaza Tuzman ever get ticked at Herman when Herman starts to bring some of them to the attention of a potential investor. In fact, the emotional outburst that follows somewhat sets the tone for the rest of the film, as the two very distinct personalities of the friends are illustrated quite clearly. Of course, it's easy to forget that the filmmakers took hundreds of hours of film that they had to edit and cut down to achieve the final product, and necessary to realize that we're seeing only a brief glimpse of these individuals' lives, so making snap judgments about the personalities of real people feels inappropriate to me.
Startup.com was co-directed by Jehane Noujaim (who happens to be a friend of Isaza Tuzman) and Chris Hegedus, who also recently directed The War Room, which was a behind-the-scenes look at the Clinton campaign. One of the particularly fascinating qualities about Startup.com is the startling intimacy the camera is able to achieve with all of the major players. Part of the reason behind this is the fact that the documentary was shot in digital video (which also means that there is a bit of shakiness à la The Blair Witch Project), but much of the credit would have to go to the filmmakers themselves. Apparently Noujaim's relationship with Isaza Tuzman allowed her to get closer to him than Hegedus may have been able to on her own. The editing in the film is superb, not to mention the usage of particularly appropriate music in a few key moments.
In fact, the movie moves along quite quickly, and while perhaps some additional detail and background information would have been interesting, the action, such as it is, is so riveting that I don't know whether any extra footage that could have been added would have been of much extra value.
The familiarity the viewer feels with Isaza Tuzman and Herman as the film progresses does make some of their mistakes a little painful to watch. They basically appear to get bilked out of $700,000 by a third, non-active partner (though again, it's almost certain we're not getting the entire story here), and it's also easy to understand why staff members of govWorks.com are incredulous that Isaza Tuzman would allow a competitor in the offices before they have even taken their site live.
By the time the site is only days from going live and testing reveals their search engine is extremely weak, it starts to become apparent that despite all the money and 80-hour work weeks, these people were in way over their heads. As govWorks.com goes live, the relationship between our two protagonists degenerates to a level that is both sad and slightly disgusting. Concurrently, govWorks.com falls into oblivion as well.
The DVD doesn't have an incredible number of extras, but I'm not really sure if that's to be expected from a smaller documentary in the first place. It does feature both the teaser and standard trailer, which I always thought did a really good job of drawing in the viewer. Also included is background information on the two directors as well as the executive producers. Some of these details are actually rather absorbing, as it was here that I learned that co-director Noujaim was a friend of Isaza Tuzman's and that she had actually started doing the filming on her own when she suddenly ran into Chris Hegedus, who had been looking to do a documentary on a dot-com.
A short interview with the two filmmakers is also included, and it isn't particularly memorable. They do discuss how the project came to fruition and it is a little amusing when Hegedus teases Noujaim about how she was so obsessive over filming every minor detail that cutting was an arduous task.
If you've already seen the film in theaters, I don't believe the disc is going to add much to your viewing experience; however, since I doubt whether many people had the opportunity to see Startup.com during its brief limited release, I think the DVD is worth a recommendation.