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The Bubble Bursts in 'Startup.com'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'Startup.com' Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, the public face of a dot-com, examined in the documentary "Startup.com." (Artisan Entertainment)
Talk about your fabulous story arcs.

The narrative trajectory of "Startup.com" – a classic parabola of rise and fall set on the battlefield of Internet entrepreneurship – is a story of imploding hubris and broken heroes crawling from the wreckage of laptops and failed Web sites, and it can be charted by the numbers. The numbers, that is, of employees working for its central characters: two ambitious twenty-something dot-commers named Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, who in a couple of years built a company (govWorks.com) on the intriguing idea that people would flock to a Web site if it let them pay parking tickets in their pajamas. Never mind that for most people paying parking tickets is not the time-sucking black hole Tom and Kaleil seem to think it is. Ever heard of a 34-cent stamp, guys?

Anyway, when the documentary by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim opens in the spring of 1999, it's basically Tom and Kaleil (plus a couple of pals with a little cash and a lot of dreams) hammering out a name for the new company in a pizza parlor. Soon they have a staff of 25, then 50, then 250. And the money starts to pour in, too, with influxes of cash from venture capitalists arriving by the millions.

Anyone want to take a guess where this is heading?

"Startup.com" is much more than the story of a doomed dot-com, though (yet it is that, and a fascinating one to boot). It is also the story of two people, and that's where the real drama lies. Best friends since childhood, Tom (the behind-the-scenes tech guy) and Kaleil (the schmoozing former Goldman Sachs man and public face of the business) allowed themselves to be shot nearly 18 hours a day as they built their company, then presided over its destruction. Let's see: Leaving time for eating, sleeping, bathing and bathroom breaks, that's pretty much round-the-clock. I guess it helped that filmmaker Noujaim was Isaza Tuzman's roommate, and thus could film middle-of-the-night action without having to get dressed.

As the company grows, we see Tom and Kaleil working together and living apart (barely), and this enables us to experience the fully fleshed dynamic of a personal-professional relationship from all sides. Can it get ugly? You bet it can. And the scenes where the coolly Machiavellian Kaleil and the more touchy-feely Tom figuratively wrestle for control of the company and of their friendship as both start to spin out of control are among the film's most uncomfortable . . . and unforgettable.

Noujaim, a former producer at MTV, teams with Hegedus and her longtime producing partner DA Pennebaker (who together made the Clinton campaign documentary "The War Room") to focus a virtually unblinking lens on a world most of us have only read about in the business pages. "Startup.com" has "plot" and "characters" ripped, as they say, from today's headlines; but in addition to the built-in drama – whose pulse-quickening tension gives "Wall Street" a run for its money – it also has heart and soul, two commodities all too often in short supply in the field of garden-variety cinema verite.

"Startup.com" (R, 103 minutes) – Contains obscenity.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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