The Social Network (2010)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and a typical illustration of how he copes. “The Social Network.”

Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires,” by Ben Mezrich. Produced by Dana Brunetti, Ceán Chaffin, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin, Kevin Spacey. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Photographed by Jeff Cronenweth. Edited by Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall. Production designed by Donald Graham Burt. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Brenda Song, Arnie Hammer, Max  Minghella, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara.

The Social Network begins in a crowded college pub and ends in a silent, solitary conference room. Both scenes involve a person desperately attempting to connect with another. In between those two points, it charts the story of a brilliant young man who reshapes the entire world to better suit his personality: isolated, aloof, and unafraid to treat acquaintances like commodities. Do I need to explain that this is the man who would one day invent Facebook? No, of course not.

The man’s name is Mark Zuckerberg. He may or may not have anything to do with the real man named Mark Zuckerberg, who did indeed invent Facebook. I don’t know the man. Nor does director David Fincher, or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, or actor Jesse Eisenberg. What they do know, however, is how to tell a good story, and also how to restrain facts from getting in the way of one. The film’s accuracy is as hotly debated as it is irrelevant, because Fincher and Sorkin are not filing a report; they’re crafting a parable about both human nature and our current world, adapting the “truth” into a language that can best make their thoughts clear.

They succeed. The Social Network is a dazzling display of storytelling savvy, turning a story based on true events into a spellbinding experience. That’s because of the direction, the writing, the acting, the polished technical credits, and also because it trusts our interest in inspecting the success story of such an unlikably mesmerizing person. In structure, The Social Network recalls films like There Will Be Blood and Citizen Kane, as it shows a man pursuing a goal with single-minded, grotesquely destructive ambition. Yup, I just compared the Facebook movie to Citizen Kane. Deal with it.

Zuckerberg’s goals are fluid throughout The Social Network, but they’re always fueled by parallel needs for both revenge and to demonstrate his mental superiority. And also perhaps to compensate for his social ineptitude, which is illustrated perfectly in an opening scene set in 2003, where hyper-intelligent Mark sits down for a nice date with a college student named Erica (Rooney Mara), and ends up engaging three different passive-aggressive conversations with her at the same time, cruelly (and cluelessly) insulting her in each. She leaves in disgust, and he doesn’t understand.

Mark goes back to his dorm at Harvard, drinks, and then makes nasty comments on his blog about poor Erica, whose only crime is that she has a low tolerance for the patronizing behaviors of Mark Zuckerberg.  After several more beers, Zuckerberg expands his operation to create a website named FaceMash that crudely ranks Harvard coeds, which crashes the university’s web server as a result. In one bold keystroke, Zuckerberg gives form and definition to the Internet’s last great frontier: its potential to give every person with a keyboard their own personal pigpen.

Mark’s top friend (ha) is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who has resources that Mark does not, including money. Zuckerberg, in the wake of his FaceMash stunt and ensuing disciplinary action, is approached by the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) to help design their Harvard-exclusive social networking website, and Mark poaches (or perhaps reconstructs) their idea for his own use, enlisting Eduardo’s financial help. Without seeming to truly realize what he’s doing, he keeps the Winklevosses at bay while he sneakily beats them in their own race. The site becomes a hit, the hit becomes a phenomenon, and the phenomenon becomes…yup, Facebook.

There is an electric, driving pulse to these early scenes as Mark sets about his mission, and the screenplay employs an ingenious device of juggling time periods to both foreshadow future events and create a seed of doubt about past ones. Sorkin cuts between lawsuit depositions on behalf of both Eduardo and the Winklevosses, acquiring dueling narrations that subtly shift our perspective on Zuckerberg, and never allow us to get too comfortable with him. He’s not quite aloof, just…difficult to fully pin down. The entire film, when you really look at it, is pitched at the level of not what Mark is thinking, but what other people think he’s thinking.

A lesser script would try to answer our questions about Zuckerberg; to excuse his behavior, or condemn it, or at least explain it, but Sorkin isn’t interested in that—he’s interested in the questions themselves, and the inherent fascination for a subject that they contain. Does it register in Mark’s mind that his behavior is hurtful? I can’t say. I’m not sure if Zuckerberg is exacting and spiteful or dedicated and clueless, and that indecision creates one of the most unpredictable (and compelling) characters I’ve seen on-screen in years, enhanced by Eisenberg’s nuanced portrayal. When Mark greets the Winklevoss twins’ promises of status promotions through association, we recognize his reaction as an unsettling echo of Erica’s when he condescendingly promised her the same.  But does Mark intend that? What is he thinking? “I don’t hate anyone,” Mark says, plaintively, at one point. I both believe him and yet I don’t. There’s evidence for both cases.

What is definitely true is that things take a turn when Mark and Eduardo fall into the orbit of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster, a self-employed superstar who loves the sound of his own voice and possesses enough intellect to make people want to hear more of it. It is Parker who catches Zuckerberg’s ear, convincing him to move to California and court adventure capitalists. Eduardo, meanwhile, stays back east and tries to solicit advertisers for the site, which leaves him trailing behind the burgeoning empire despite ostensibly being at the core of it. If business is being at the right place at the right time, then The Social Network illustrates the dangerous speed of an internet business, where Eduardo was at one point exactly where he needed to be, then wasn’t, and lost huge.

If this sounds dry and unappealing, then you can imagine what was thought when it was announced that the creation of Facebook would become a movie, directed by no less a talent than David Fincher. But Fincher, and Sorkin, have proved their doubters wrong, because The Social Network is not a trendy cash-grab, and it’s not a boring story about business deals and stock dilution. Facebook is not the focal point of Social Network, but is instead the MacGuffin, lending a stage for these people to act out a drama drawn from emotions as old as drama itself: greed, ambition, friendship, betrayal. All the technology is meant to do is provide a front end for the material, suggesting new tools that are molded by the same archetypes: instead of King Lear’s land, it’s the most valuable piece of digital real estate ever. Instead of knives and poison, it’s phone calls and contracts. What’s the difference?*

But in addition to all that, the movie finds a way to be current. Not hip, but instead incisive as it uses the story of a billion-dollar monolith to explore a youth culture. Commentary on the Facebook generation is peppered throughout, with its casual embrace of sexism and shallow hook-ups. And also the way it celebrates careless rebellion, and how it depicts young people who grow more and more comfortable with using a computer instead of talking to a person. And there are pages that could be written about the zeitgeisty moment when Eduardo’s girlfriend (Brenda Song) dumps him when she’s convinced he’s cheated on her. After all, he hasn’t updated his relationship status…because he doesn’t know how to change it. Most welcome is the fact that the movie declines the opportunity to tell us how to feel about any of this, preferring to let us make up our own mind.

The most threateningly didactic moment in the movie it even gets away with, because the character who makes it deserves the scorn it holds. When Mark encounters Erica again, after launching Facebook, she sizes him up in a way that gains something, I think, from the fact that it doesn’t come from an angry place–more like one of cold certainty. “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays,” she says, presaging the entire blogging/Facebook/Twitterverse mentality that we still occupy, where the small feel big by tearing down others every day.

And then there are the Winklevosses, Harvard elite who represent the old ways: staying in your social class and exploiting your “inferiors,” not getting duped by them; the Mark Zuckerbergs should know their place. For Cameron, the prospect of suing Zuckerberg is abhorrent. They’re Harvard students with silver spoons, and he’s a poorly dressed, socially retarded kid on a scholarship. It just isn’t done. Instead, they complain to the president of Harvard, who isn’t very receptive to their woes, incredulous to their claim that Mark has stolen a priceless idea. And indeed he has, and his story marks a new chapter in the democratization of business, as a poor kid with borrowed money and a computer bends the world to his will. Only at last resort are the Winklevosses motivated to sue, and the moment is milked for a bit of introspection: this new era of business simply allows people of all ages and backgrounds to have the means to screw each other. I think there’s even some humor here: since Facebook is a device that allows so many people to create confusion about their identifies, it’s neat that two of the key players in the film are so difficult to tell apart.

Parker, the proverbial devil over Zuckerberg’s shoulder, with his parties and cocaine and women and acumen, is so cool that even the Harvard kid doesn’t clue into the fact that he’s a nasty cipher, until too late. Mark sees his good business sense and overlooks his lack of soul, favoring him over the oppositely-balanced Eduardo.  Timberlake is very good in the tricky role of Parker—we have to dislike him while understanding why Mark buys into his aura, and we do. And notice the nice exchange towards the end, where a drugged up Sean phones Mark and registers real—for the first time—panic, while Mark has a miniature crisis of conscience befitting for a man entrenched in the most valuable internet empire in existence. Money may not be everything, and money without anyone to share it with is even less (another nod to Kane).

The Social Network is a triumph of direction for David Fincher, who has made a movie about keyboard tapping and depositions somehow visually arresting—credit also goes to his cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth. It evokes the autumn nights of the country’s most prestigious school, and also uses a dark color palette to suggest the tempting parties of campus clubs, which feel like forbidden, arcane rituals. Like its protagonist, it deploys a style that is precise, cutting from present to past, and then past to other past, in ways that keep us oriented and excited.

Fincher also employs cutting-edge technology the way he usually does: to tell the story, nothing more. Digital effects enhance the illusion of the Harvard Campus and, in an sfx tour de force, both Winklevosses are played by the same actor, Arnie Hammer, and the effect goes far beyond the old split-screen device: the trick, which involved painting Hammer’s face on a body double. is seamless. And other moments illustrate perfectly why Fincher is one of the best directors of visual effects in the business, like when a high shot of a club tracks until it finds Sean and Mark at a second-floor table, traveling through a pillar. Why? Because the shot is more effective in a straight line, from that angle. That’s why.

But what truly brings The Social Network to the level of “great” is its screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men). It’s the kind of movie that does something special: illustrating in great detail how something that most of us will never be a part of functions, like Casino and mob-controlled gambling, or like Apollo 13 and the space program. Here, we get the ins and outs of the startup of an internet business, are privy to its conversations about making income, its grassroots methods of expansion, the way it blows through capital and asks for more, the step by step process of moving from a Harvard dorm to a bustling office in Silicon Valley.

And there’s dialogue. Whip-smart, clever dialogue, which is a Sorkin trademark. Even when talking about serious business, the script has a sensibility that’s been likened to screwball comedy, with its wit and wordplay, and the way motivations of characters bounce off each other like pinballs. The goal is not to make us laugh, however (although it sometimes does), but to show how intelligent and excited these kids are, and how momentous the end result must be when they are left, for once, speechless. This film is Fincher and Sorkin’s first collaboration, and the two men complement each other perfectly: Sorkin’s script creates a warmth that Fincher frequently does not have, and Fincher’s technical skill and cool emotional temperature keep Sorkin’s characters from making off-key speeches, which they sometimes do. There are no gestures in Social Network, only little moves, and the yin/yang sensibilities of both men keep that in check.

I think what makes Social Network such a valuable film is its depiction of an age, one that is personified by this film’s Mark Zuckerberg. He is difficult to like but impossible to hate, because he contains so many feelings that we completely understand: alienation, rejection, the concept that your own intelligence is going to seed. Even at his meanest and most conniving, I sympathize with Mark, because he will always be on the outside, looking in, and the film suggests the tragedy of Mark Zuckerberg is not that he lost friends, but that by virtue of not knowing how to keep them, he never had any to begin with. There’s something heartbreaking about his Asberger’s-like inability to process the world. And there’s something so nasty and yet relatable about the way that he decodes and shapes it into one he does understand, but is ultimately empty. I mentioned how nicely the film bookends itself, but what I failed to note is how the film’s final scene contains a double irony that I didn’t process until months later. That is how effectively Facebook has entered our lives and swayed (others might argue “poisoned”) our idea of social interaction. That is the legacy of Mark Zuckerberg. Poor sod.

The Social Network is the eighth film directed by David Fincher, who has, since 1992, become one of America’s most valuable directors. Although his career has had some clunkers (Alien³, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and one or two experiments that aren’t nearly as clever as some would have you believe (Fight Club), he remains an impressive stylist who frequently marries his ideas with ruthless storytelling that says important things (see Se7en and its mature counterpart, Zodiac). Here he finds a terrific story and tells it, using every trick in the director’s toolbox to make his work seem invisible, while at the same time making it completely of a piece with his oeuvre, and fashioning an artist’s statement out of the most unlikely material. He is nominated for an Academy Award tonight for his work on The Social Network, and I think he will win, or at least I hope he does, since his work is so much stronger than the other forerunner, Tom Hooper (for the pedestrian King’s Speech). Together, with Sorkin, he did the impossible, and created an exhilarating film experience out of such a seemingly thin idea. It’s an impressive achievement.

Since we now live in a world that treasures the brevity of a Facebook posting, I can think of no greater compliment that can speak to this generation when I conclude with the following: I don’t just “like” this. I like this. A whole hell of a lot.


NOTES: You didn’t ask, but I strongly recommend a double feature of The Social Network with the documentary/mockumentary/what-is-it? Catfish, which explores the effects of social media in an entirely different way that acts like an answer to a question posed within The Social Network. Between the two of them, they make a concerted statement about the nature of how we live now.

* I know the answer to that, by the way. “People not literally dying.” No matter.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1982 – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1995 – Before Sunrise & 2004 – Before Sunset

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