We gave it an A
It’s not every day, or every decade, that you get to see a film as eye-opening in its timeliness as Startup.com. The movie, which documents the heady rise and even more spectacular fall of an Internet start-up company, feels as if it had been shot through a crystal ball — it seems to anatomize the whole debacle of the dotcom universe — yet its remarkable prescience is more than a matter of happenstance. Startup.com is a revelation not merely because a couple of smart filmmakers got lucky, hitting the news-headline jackpot just as the Nasdaq nosedived, but because the film, which for sheer dramatic wallop outpowers virtually every fiction feature I’ve seen this year, embodies the story of our time, the way that the collusion of money and technology has taken over our dreams.
Produced by D.A. Pennebaker, and codirected by his collaborator Chris Hegedus and by a new member of the team, co-director Jehane Noujaim, the movie follows the path of two naively ambitious entrepreneurs in their late 20s. The hulky, high-fiving, charismatically bullheaded Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and his nerdish, compartmentalized tech-head partner, Tom Herman, have been friends since high school. As the film opens, in 1999, they pool their desire to get rich into a kind of new-millennium vision quest. They bark and strategize into their cell phones, pumping up their troops with group cheers. They visit the offices of venture capitalists, raising heroic sums of cash, and they stand around a Manhattan pizza parlor, debating the name of their new company like teenage rockers trying to title their garage band. They’re digital-geek Horatio Algers, and they brandish a willed attitude of locker-room swagger descended from the fast-lucre Wall Street cowboys of the ’80s.
With much noise and fanfare, Kaleil and Tom declare their intention: They will launch govWorks.com, a bold new website designed to link people up to local municipalities. In essence, this comes down to a newfangled way of paying parking tickets. From the outset, though, there’s a frantic, often very funny instability to the way that these young men’s fantasies of mega-success appear to be driving their business plan, rather than the other way around. Kaleil is the CEO, and his baby-faced bravura sets the tone for what is, essentially, a group of overgrown adolescents posing as businessmen. Their showy and advanced communications systems — the cell phones and computer flow-charts, the magic-jargon phrases like ”first-mover advantage” — are really go-go signifiers, a way of imparting an aura of importance to everything that occurs, so that the act of forging a destiny becomes more central than the destiny that’s being forged.
These guys have all the trappings of success, and the investment cash, too. So what goes wrong? A failed trip to Silicon Valley provides an early omen of doom. Along the way, there’s an amusing visit from an Atlanta competitor (he strolls through the govWorks offices as wily in his folksy charm as Bill Clinton), as well as a hilarious glitch in the website itself; an office break-in may even be sabotage. More than any of that, though, govWorks, like so many online ventures, turns out to be a half-baked concept, a traditional, even banal idea with the mystical cachet of dotcom attached. The site launches, but it is hardly the oasis of convenience it’s meant to be. The whole fake-patriotic generosity of the idea — i.e., that the company exists to ”help people” — is driven by the same cult-of-the-Internet arrogance that allows the act of sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen to be dubbed a ”revolution.” Does anyone at govWorks even realize that a parking ticket is already quite easy to pay?
The central figure, and one of the indelible movie characters of the year, is Kaleil, who has left his job at Goldman Sachs in an act of lone-gun ”rebel” moxie. (The joke is that he’s behind the curve: By mid-1999, dotcom pioneers were already starting to cash out their options.) Sexy yet soft-bodied, a Jewish Colombian who prays before deals, Kaleil, with his you-know-I’m-right grin, can be unbearable in his New Age Art of War sharkiness, yet it’s the depth of his self-delusion that makes him such a complex and strangely appealing figure. Amid the market frenzy, he ends up as a guest on Digital Jam, and also at a White House roundtable broadcast on C-SPAN, where he’s introduced by President Clinton (to whom he slips a business card). Yet the more we see of Kaleil, the more we catch the boyish glint of self-doubt that dances beneath his bluster.
Edited down from 400 hours of video footage, so that each scene plays like a rich chapter of its own, Startup.com may be to our time what Wall Street was to the ’80s — a defining myth of capitalist excess. True, this is a documentary, but that’s precisely what makes it such a quintessential reflection of the ’90s boom, when financial news, fueled by the numbers-crunch melodrama of CNBC, became entertainment — a drug rush for a nation of day traders, inflating the very market that had seduced their inner greedhead. Kaleil and Tom express loyalty, even love, to each other, yet as their business breaks down, so, inevitably, does their trust. The entire relationship is filtered through fickle layers of profit logic, so that what we’re seeing isn’t just a harbinger of the dotcom downturn. It’s the fallout of a society in which the prospect of instant riches has become a surrogate for identity, a replacement for self. Startup.com lays bare the moment when America embraced the grand illusion that said, I go public, therefore I am. A