Saturday, November 01, 2008

"August" is a probing drama about the underlying "values" of Internet businesses


August” certainly sounds like a prosaic name for a movie. Probably most movie buffs know that it is this film about an Internet start-up struggling in August, 2001, one month before 9/11. Indeed, the film starts with an image George W. Bush on his Crawford, TX ranch, about when he got that Aug. 6 memo on Al Qaeda; then they mention Ben Affleck’s rehab. Funny, the day I watched it, Affleck will host SNL.

“August” is a neat name, all right, a sleepy month. I remember 8/11/2001, a day that I spent at Rehoboth, when I saw a tornado driving back to DC, which would have a big manhole fire that day. Funny how you remember something like this. I even had a commander in Basic Training whose last name was "August".

The film "August" is directed by Austin Chick and written by Howard A. Rodman. It’s short (88 minutes) but looks ambitious (2.35:1). I don’t recall the theatrical release in DC this summer, but it’s been out on DVD for a while. The distributor is FirstLook, and it continues the trend for more indie pictures to use A-List actors.

Josh Hartnett plays Tom Sterling, a brash-spoken young man who does the sales and business side of the new startup called Landshark. His brother Joshua (Adam Scott), is much quieter, seems to be the brains behind the concept, having designed and coded it. The stock has been tanking because, as Tom says, the “business model doesn’t add up.” Joshua has married and has a kid, and has to start making this profitable to live on something. So there is a real crisis, in both business and “morality.”

At the movie’s midpoint, Tom gives a speech, with some rather coarse language, at a luncheon, where he bad mouths the greed and superficiality of a lot of the dot-com business, which is already sinking. The nature of LandShark is not specified (it seems to be more than mortgages and land); Tom says that his brother imagines a “global village” where people share information and perhaps social or political perspectives in a structured way. (That sounds like my “do ask do tell” doesn’t it. They could have called the fictitious company “Do Ask Do Tell” and it might have actually made more sense! (Yes, I had the feeling that this was a movie about an imaginary company extrapolated from me or what I have proposed.) Tom throws around the buzz words like "lockup" on the offering, or "aggregate eyeballing" of web content. The trouble is, it is hard to make a business model work. With so much free content and open source, you have to think in terms of a long term social effect (look, for example, at how Wikipedia works); in the short run, however, investors need their profits. How do you make money with an abstract social good? (Ask Jimmy Wales.) The movie suggests that this is THE problem, without giving much direction as to how to solve it.

Tom is always chain smoking (how depressing!); the tattoos on his neck and wrist look a bit distracting. They do fit the character; I presume they are applied as makeup with temporary ink. I was living in Minneapolis and networking with IFPMSP a lot as Hartnett (from St. Paul) got his career startedr so (I recall seeing one of his first films, “Halloween 20” (1998); he became a regular news story in Twin Cities papers, living in Minneapolis [moved to NYC since] and helping with local film events, before breaking out as a big star with “Pearl Harbor” in June 2001; Minnesota seems to produce a lion’s share of Hollywood’s talent, almost as if it were a Canadian province.) This is Hartnett’s “roughest” role so far.

One could look at Tom and Joshua as two sides of the same personality (rather than brothers). The investors keep Joshua because he has "paid his dues" in real life, but throw Tom out on the street, locked out of the venture forever. Sorry for the spoils, but you can get pushed out of your own business in the dot-com world.

The film does leave us to wonder what would happen on 9/11.

The film could be compared to “Startup.com”, directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujlam, from Artisan Entertainment in 2001.

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