review by Elias Savada, 11 May 2001

I just love those stories in The Wall Street Journal. The in-depth, behind-the-scenes, tear-it-apart exposés, perhaps about some unscrupulous penny stock promoter finally imprisoned. Or a legendary financial tycoon with a deep, dark secret now public embarrassment. The other day there was a piece about how the continuing stall-out of over-ambitious Internet and computer companies was jump-starting the repo business in California. Then, especially over the last year or so, the weekly sad sack tale of the latest fiasco. These are indeed fickle and cyclical times. follows that type of disaster story, perhaps without the picayune nit-picking detail of an ace reporter, but with the same skewered, sour-tasting, light-headed effect. It certainly wasn't the intention of directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim to write a virtual obituary of when their project started in 1999. With the guidance of legendary filmmaker D A Pennebaker, they paint a refreshingly frank picture of open-eyed optimism, Machiavellian aspirations, loyalties strengthened by inflated dreams then subjugated by harsh economic realities, and friendships ultimately reborn. This fascinating feature delivers a personal get-well card that even in the abyss of financial collapse, the movers and shakers of one such next-great-website can scavenge personal victories from the ashes of fiscal defeat.

A pick-me-up for the lost dot generation?

In a way, yes. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman where childhood buddies with alternating strengths in financial and marketing know how and as a savvy technologist. Co-director Noujaim, a graduate from Harvard University in Visual Arts, was Tuzman's roommate who coincidentally quit her job as a producer for MTV at the time Tuzman traded in a secure position with a brokerage firm for the imagined pot of gold at the end of the Internet rainbow. Hegedus, a partner with (and later wife to) Pennebaker since the mid-1970s,was anxious to explore the world wide web revolution. She had been trying to find the right entrepreneur to latch her video equipment to, before hooking up with Noujaim—through mutual friends—only days after "filming" had started. Both filmmakers saw the opportunity to get in from the start with the two young visionaries. Two partnerships were born.

With Pennebaker, Hegedus had already collaborated on the five-hour documentary The Energy War, co-directed by Pat Powell, which explored the Congressional battle over President Carter's 1977 proposal to deregulate natural gas. Other documentaries, about automobile romantic John DeLorean and noted choreographer Bessie Schonberg, followed, as well as music videos by Pennebaker and Hegedus. Of course if you just mention the name Pennebaker you have to remember his two classics in cinema verité: Don't Look Back (a bookend in my DVD collection), the marvelous 1967 portrait of Bob Dylan as he visited England during his last acoustical concert tour; and Monterey Pop, a quintessential rock documentary with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

As opens, maroon-robed college graduates toss their caps in the air of sanguinity. Moments later we are introduced to Kaleil as he packs his belongings late one night from his soon to be former cubicle at Goldman Sachs. Asked what he's going to do (forget Disneyland), he smugly responds "Start an Internet company."

Next stop? New York City's Silicon Alley. The road to young fortunes. Kaleil and Tom have a simple marketing strategy in the earlier days of their company. Ask strangers at a local pizza parlor what they think of various names for their enterprise (the initial frontrunner was Next Town). As chief executive officers for a million dollar startup, these boys coul barely pay for their dinner. Yet they shoestrung together enough money to jet out to Silicon Valley in search of venture capital. Investors were biting at the bit back then. No one saw the trouble ahead. The Nasdaq was moving higher every day.

Back home they make some sensible decisions. Like taking the subway to v.c. meetings, with one pitch session videotaped (the feature was shot on digital video by Noujaim) from dramatically low vertical angles, only showing Kaleil and Tom. One can only assume this nostril view was predicated by the money people's desires to remain invisible to the camera and not be distracted by the filmmakers.

In May 1999 financing, beyond that provided by the founders, eventually finds its way to govWorks, set up to enable a web-based model for paying municipal parking tickets. Employees, at one point numbering more than 250, participate in revivalist pep rallies ("Incidentally, we're going to make a lot of money."), even if the workload is grueling. Tom always takes the weekends off to be with his daughter in New England, Kaleil has a floundering relationship with his girlfriend Dora and her one-sided marital agenda and hopes for a pet. An hour into the film, silent partner Chieh Cheung becomes a thorn in the govWorks rosebush, hardballing Tom and Kaleil for a $700,000 ransom. On the lighter side, an item on tv's Digital Jam brightens the company's balance sheet with a valuation of $50 million. Trying to maintain focus, Tom brings the employees up to his parent's Camp Interlochen for a weekend retreat to listen to the silence in the New Hampshire woods. Despite the refreshment, internet financing is starting to sour as the stock market began its now legendary collapse in the spring of 2000.

There's one chutzpah moment when Dora arranges for an impressionable presentation of the company for a Spanish WakeUp America television show. She is frantically drilling the decidedly non-Latino work force with a whiteboard scribbled "¡Siempre!" and the generally white faces sport an obviously inspired yet clueless expression.

On one hand: Huge gobs of publicity follow, even a televised meeting with then President Clinton. The competition comes for a visit and seems impressed.

On the other: The office gets robbed. The software doesn't work. Tom gets fired. On Memorial Day weekend, 2000.

Like any of the more than 130 online firms that died of bloated infrastructure and misguided daydreams by the end of 2000, govWorks bled through $60 million during its 19-month existence. Compressed into 103 minutes, is a compelling rags-to-riches-to-rags tale, with a lifelong friendship on the ropes as the contestants do battle. You really have to admire the two principals for exposing themselves to the cameras for 400 hours. That works is because of their candidness. Noujaim, Hegedus, Pennebaker, and their obviously exhausted crew provide a terrifically insightful story. Do you know where your internet startup is tonight?

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' interview.

Directed by:
Jehane Noujaim 
Chris Hegedus

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult




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