Jehane Noujaim left her job at MTV to make documentaries just as her roommate, Kaliel Isaza Tuzman, was leaving his job at Goldman Sachs to run a new Internet company. They combined their two ventures when Noujaim, in conjunction with Chris Hegedus (maker of “The War Room,” about the first Clinton campaign) agreed to follow Tuzman’s venture to tell the story of what they were sure would be a sensational success. Instead, they ended up telling the story of a spectacular failure.
We first see Tuzman leaving Goldman Sachs for the last time, kicking the cardboard box with his belongings out to the street. He is about to join his high school best friend, Tom Herman. Tuzman will be the CEO and Herman will be in charge of technology. The company, which they decide to call govWorks.com, will be a place for citizens to pay parking tickets, taxes, and other fees to local governments. Tuzman’s first job is to raise money.
From 1999 to 2001, govWorks went from eight employees to more than 200, and then down to none. They raised $60 million and ended in bankruptcy.
Noujaim and Hegedus shot over 400 hours of film, not just in the office, but in the bedroom, the gym, the car, in a pizza parlor, on a company retreat hosted by Herman’s parents, and even at the circus. We see Herman braiding his daughter’s hair and hear Tuzman’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend complaining that he does not call her. We see arguments over priorities and presentations. A competitor visits the office and then there is a mysterious burglary that appears to be espionage. Finally, we see the almost unbearably painful moment when the friendship is shattered by the business, as Herman leaves and then, on advice of counsel, tries to return only to be formally terminated. Herman says, “I’d rather see govWorks fail than risk personal relationships.” Tuzman says, “The thing that I’ll remember most from last year is when you told me you don’t trust me.” At the end, though, Herman, still wearing the t-shirt of the failed firm, tells Tuzman that “I had a great time over the last year and I love you.” And we see from the end credits that they are still in business together – using their expertise to advise distressed dot.coms.
In finding one story to tell among 400 chaotic hours of footage, there were probably a million options. They story the filmmakers chose to tell is the story of the Herman/Tuzman relationship and the way that the very qualities that made the two men good complements for each other ultimately led to catastrophe. Maybe it is because their access to the principals of the firm was extensive but they were not allowed to film the backers or board, so the story they told was determined by the pictures they had to show it. Maybe it is because the filmmakers were women, so they saw the story with a Deborah Tannen-esque yang to Tuzman’s testosterone-driven yin.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language and tense and emotional moments. One of the great strengths of the story is the way in which a group of people from very diverse backgrounds and cultures works together with great loyalty and commitment.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we make choices when our work and professional lives conflict. At one point in this movie, Tuzman, under intense deadline pressure, calls for an all-weekend meeting. Herman refuses, saying that he promised to be with his daughter. Families should talk about what happens next, and what they would do in that situation.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The War Room.”