Monday, June 09, 2008

BIFF: August

Indy filmmakers seem to share Hollywood’s contempt for the supposedly evil businessman, but if there is one exception to the stereotype, it is the tech guru. Internet start-up wizards who created business plans with no appreciable stream of revenue are not typically portrayed like the crass capitalist. A fresh example would be Josh Harnett’s Tom Sterling, a one-time Wired magazine cover-boy with an ugly neck tattoo, whose spectacular fall is told in the upcoming film August (trailer here), which screened at the Brooklyn International Film Fest.

Sterling capitalized on his younger brother’s innovations to create Landshark, the last of the tech start-ups to get Wall Street’s blessing. What they do is kept purposefully vague. Harnett tells a potential client: “We’re not the e-commerce, we’re the e.” So how is that “e” working out? Not well. After a blockbuster IPO, Landshark has come crashing down to Earth and desperately needs an infusion of capital to stay afloat.

Harnett’s Sterling is portrayed as a snake oil salesman without any oil. His brother’s breakthroughs are the real deal, but their revenue projections are not. There simply is no market for whatever Landshark has to offer—at least not yet. All Sterling really has to sell are image and rhetoric, running the company in his words: “on fumes.” When Sterling finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of old school moneymen, personified by David Bowie, it is stone cold business.

Sterling might be self-important, but he is also self-destructive, as witnessed by his sabotage of a second chance with Sarrah, an ex-girlfriend, played by Naomie Harris, who brings a distinct charm to a thankless role. He also has issues with his parents, former sixties radicals who sold out to academia, but cannot understand his dreams of capitalist glory. (They do listen to John Coltrane and Benny Goodman, so they can’t be all bad).

August moves at a lightning quick pace as the Landsharkers scramble against time to save the company, but it is hard to fully sympathize with Sterling along the way, due to the limitations of its lead. For his part, Hartnett is totally convincing as an arrogant jerk, but less so expressing more complex emotions, so director Austin Chick wisely plays to his strength.

When Landshark crashes, it is pretty dramatic, but August seems to keep it all in perspective. The title refers to the specific time in which it is set, August 2001, a month before September 11th. The implication seems to be that in a September 10th world, the doings of Sterling’s start-up could considered quite important, but in a post-September 11th world, much less so. In effect, August depicts an innocent time that thought it was cynical, as evidenced by clips of the moron media’s celebrity coverage and manufactured controversies.

August is pretty smart in its portrayal of the death rattle of the internet boom. Much of it will ring true to those who first heard constantly about stock options from friends at dotcoms, and then suddenly nothing, when their company’s stock certificates became cheap souvenirs of the late 1990’s. It effectively recreates a specific time and place, as well as the attitude that went with it. It opens in New York at the Village East on July 11th.