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After the gold rush 

Startup.com stresses intimacy over context

"Information wants to be free" is considered a cardinal principle of the Internet. The original hacker ethos meant "free" as in "unfettered," but the increasing base of online customers prefer things be free in the sense of not having to pay for them. That philosophy has set up roadblocks against the gold rush of online companies, and even electronic success stories like Amazon.com have trouble making profits on paper.

Perhaps coming late to the game was govWorks.com, founded in May 1999 with such practical goals as letting citizens pay parking tickets or file taxes from home. Ceasing operations in January 2001, govWorks.com may have had a short lifespan even by the accelerated standards of its fellow dot-coms, but its get-rich-quick wishes and technical difficulties were no doubt shared by hundreds of companies across the nation and the world.

The short, fractious life of govWorks.com is chronicled in the documentary Startup.com, directed by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus and produced by D.A. Pennebaker, Hegedus' husband and collaborator on such films as The War Room. Offering govWorks.com as a model for the Internet boom and bust, Startup.com proves better at exploring the relationship of its two founders than the larger trends of the online "e-conomy" and the wired world.

Hegedus and Noujaim focus on govWorks.com's founding partners, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends since childhood. Tuzman, a former employee of Goldman, Sachs, is more social, success-driven and temperamental (and has a burly handsomeness that suggests The Rock's kid brother). Bearded, bespectacled Herman maintains a cooler head that, when their venture hits turbulence, can seem maddeningly blasé.

Startup.com captures some quirky events in the period spanning govWorks.com's incorporation, IPO and collapse. Former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, a member of govWorks.com's board of directors, leads the budding executives in an "enthusiasm shout." In one meeting they have a $17 million deal on the table but can't get their lawyer on the phone. Nearing their launch, they receive an uninvited visit from a friendly but sinister honcho of rival site "ezGov," identified as "The Enemy."

As in The War Room, which followed George Stephanopolous and James Carville through the 1992 Clinton campaign, Startup.com maintains a remarkably intimate, fly-on-the-wall perspective. We see Tuzman grumpily waking up in hotel rooms or praying privately in a time of stress. At one point his girlfriend complains about feeling neglected, then we see him canoodling with another woman. Herman braids his daughter's hair and resists giving up his quality time with her to tend to the company. When govWorks.com takes a downturn, we cut between Tuzman and Herman conversing on cell phones as their personal and business relationship frays.

In contrast to, say, Michael Moore's in-your-face advocacy, the filmmakers clearly want Startup.com to be as objective a document as possible, to let the events speak for themselves. One of its rare examples of "narrative interference" is a montage of Tuzman meeting investors, with the clichéd "Money (That's What I Want)" on the soundtrack. Its subtler device identifies the month and number of employees, from eight in May 1999 to 233 a year later.

But Noujaim and Hegedus frustratingly avoid providing context for govWorks.com as part of a global wave of Internet companies. Apart from the occasional magazine cover, we get no background about the economics of the Internet on a national scale, the technical challenges of developing a profit-based website or the Gordian Knot of red tape involved with signing on municipal governments. Even a handful of statistics -- the number of millionaires created by the Internet, the number of homes going online -- would add to our understanding of the climate Tuzman and Herman work in.

And we only get a vague sense of what govWorks.com's employees actually do. Tuzman's function goes without saying: He's the leader, the deal-closer and the public face for company. But though we know Herman has more of a technical background, we get little understanding of what he does on a day-to-day basis. Administration? Programming? Other partners are merely faces in the crowd.

Startup.com offers a precise snapshot of Internet entrepreneurs in the 1990s and the pressures they face personally and financially. At times, though, the documentary feels like a missed oppor-tunity, skirting the chance to reflect on the Internet itself. But one shouldn't review the film that Noujaim and Heged us didn't make, and soon enough another filmmaker will take the macro view of the World Wide Web. The Internet isn't going anywhere.

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