Few storytelling documentaries have been more of the moment than "Startup.com."
Directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus chronicle how two young friends and partners helped found a company called govWorks. com while the Internet bubble was on the rise, and lost it and their friendship when the bubble burst.
The giddy excitement of "Startup.com" comes from feeling as if you're inside the bubble as it soars into the stratosphere - and pops. The contrasting strengths of Kaleil Isaza Tuzman - beefy, forceful and exotic - and Tom Herman - bespectacled, ethereal and kind - carry an audience through the complexities of capital acquisition and research and development. The atmosphere these guys move in is so heady that only at the fade-out do you feel the downward pull of gravity.
Yet "Startup.com" may be too much of the moment. It doesn't compel absolute belief in the manner of the best films of, say, Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, U.S.A."; "American Dream"). Here the symmetry of Kaleil as the hard-driving financial whiz and Tom as the gentle nerd seems too perfectly imperfect - especially when Kaleil pushes Tom out as co-CEO, charging that Tom has failed to keep their technology cutting-edge.
At some point, the directors must have decided that Kaleil would be the star of the show: he has charisma enough to lead full-throated cheers and chutzpah enough to offer tips to President Clinton. They do portray Tom as a loving single father to his young daughter. (Their opening scene together is the most charming one in the movie). And they don't exactly deify Kaleil - indeed, they make you wonder whether there's anything beneath his big-boyish, Ivy League confidence.
"Startup.com" becomes so enmeshed in its manic-depressive financial world that it ends up depicting Kaleil as the kind of smiling manipulator a dot-com needs to stay afloat. Amusing as it is to see Kaleil with his girlfriends, I wanted to know more about the running of govWorks.com (and its competition), which planned to ease transactions between citizens and local governments, down to the paying of parking tickets. I wanted to get a bearing on whether Tom was actually holding his own, and Kaleil was just throwing his weight around.
Part of the movie's point is that the dot-com economy values "ideas" that are often no more complex or substantive than Hollywood "high concepts." The philosophical Tom enrages Kaleil when Tom doesn't stay on message and begins blue-skying with potential investors about setting up digital cameras in City Hall.
The filmmakers indicate that in even its simplest form, gov.Works. com has civic merit, but don't back it up.
They let the tail of Kaleil's comet become their storyline.
Still, no one who wants to know what it's like on the human insides of the Internet can pass up "Startup.com."
The picture captures the adrenaline overdrive, the fierce and sometimes devious competition, and, most critically, the confusion of personal and business issues that occurs when employers and employees are working 24/7 - or, more accurately, 24/365.
Starring Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, Tom Herman
Directed by Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus
Rated R (adult language)
Released by Artisan Entertainment
Running time 103 minutes
Sun score ***