[1 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Just think of it - your current obsession with Farmville would never had existed had Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg not been dumped by his fed up girlfriend Erica Albright (allegedly). Without his simmering rage, his geek domain desire to get back at the gal who gave him the emotional (and intellectual) brush off, the Harvard head case would never have hacked into the social circles of the fabled university, never created a callous online competition between coeds, and by evidentiary extrapolation, linked the entire campus together on something later dubbed a “social connection”. Of course, a few of the men who sued Zuckerberg for their rights to claim the “like” button as their own would argue with such facts, but such is the stuff of Internet legend - and motion picture myth.
Based loosely on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 nonfiction novel The Accidental Billionaires and expertly assembled by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, The Social Network is sensational. It also doesn’t pretend to be pure truth. This isn’t a docu-drama. Instead, what the duo has done, with the help of some spectacular performances and a narrative rife with inherent intrigue, is cast a light on the post-dot.com bubble, illustrating the drive and determination of those who would still try and milk the www-medium for all its available interactive potential. Sure, money was also a consideration, as was one’s wavering love life, but the biggest element in Zuckerberg’s push toward popularity was the novelty and invention of where the technology was taking him.
We first meet the man (played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) as he’s being let go, his repartee with Albright a screwball comedy without the superficial subtext. We get it from the very beginning - this is serious business, and all cutting edge satire and specific laughs aside, there will be much pain before it’s all over. Taking his success with the various exclusive circles as a sign, he pairs up with roommate Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield). Inspired by a meeting he had with University “players” Divya Narendra and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Zuckerberg comes up with “The Facebook”, a program that reduces the college experience to a series of profile pages and personality quirks. From there, he eventually collaborates with former Napster bad boy Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and as the financial potential grows, so do the hurt feelings…and lawsuits.
Structured around a series of depositions given by Zuckerberg in defense of the claims of others, Fincher’s The Social Network is a fabulous post-modern fable. It’s Bonfire of the Vanities without the Wall Street weaknesses or the DUI dilemma. It’s a fictionalized look inside Harvard, complete with exclusive clubs, gargantuan GPAs, an ever-present sense of privilege, and the outsized arrogance that comes from a combination of all three. On the outside, our heroes and villains are vain, snotty tools, taking their self-assessed superiority to newfound levels of ludicrousness. With the creation of Facebook, however, everyone’s true colors are exposed. Mark just wants respect, Eduardo the entrepreneurial push. The rest see dollar signs and demand their part of the pie - no matter their part in the eventually baking.
For Fincher, this material is a godsend, made even more majestic by Sorkin’s way with words. This is a film where dialogue pops off the screen like that by now overused gimmick of 3D. No one handles confrontation and conflict better than the mind behind A Few Good Men and The West Wing. But the script goes deeper, delving into places where Fincher’s IKEA catalog psychological dissections brilliantly shine. The Social Network is both timely and unstuck in same, as current as a Twitter feed and yet as reminiscent of the past as previous megalomaniacal models such as Charles Foster Kane. In Zuckerberg, we see the amoral need to succeed, no matter who gets stepped on or slighted. It’s right there in his sinister eyes, hidden by a self-deprecating deadpan manner that shouts of someone setting up their own ethical universe.
Even better, his compatriots in complaining all have their own similar agendas. Fincher finds the right tone for everyone here, from Eduardo’s almost accidental upward mobility to the Winklevosses school and country jingoism. Even Parker, who shows up halfway through and turns his time with Facebook into a cocaine and supermodel fueled ‘redemption’ is out to prove his past failures wrong. With his choice of locations, his magical use of lighting, and precision in both his framing and his compositions, Fincher formulates the arena in which these combatants will draw weapons and fight. Sorkin merely provides the swords, sharpened and honed for an unbelievably literate battle.
There is so much to love about this movie, from its intelligence to its insights, that to pick just one thing does a disservice to the others. Still, standouts include the performances all around, especially from our main leads (this is especially true of the Winkelvosses who, without spoiling it, offer their own F/X take on family) as well as the marvelous music developed by Nine Inch Nails guide Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The score simmers along like a hard drive about the crash, the balance between melody and noise providing an incontrovertible sense of dread. There are aspects of the thriller in this film, as well as the whistleblower tell-all, the coming of age comedy, the interpersonal drama, and the closed knit character study. Fincher and Sorkin maneuver through them all like genre-jumping masters, and the results are truly amazing.
In fact, The Social Network just might be the first truly great film of the next ten years, an iconic statement about where we were as people in the aftermath of Y2K, easily accessible WiFi, and the entire nu-media shift toward the online experience. At its center is the story of some incredibly smart guys who couldn’t get along well enough to share credit and eventual profits - and main predator being Zuckerberg and his easily bruised uber-nerd ego.
But in the broader sense, the entire movie is a meditation on the latest modification of the American Dream, a version where getting rich quick requires little except a great idea (or someone else’s) and the lack of principles to callously crush anyone who’s in your way. That it’s children of advantage sniping at each other makes the experience all the more satisfying. Mark Zuckerberg may have been an asshole unfamiliar with the way people are supposed to treat each other, but the result of his programming acumen has changed the way we interact with our peers forever. In some ways, he’s dehumanizing us as well…which makes sense, especially when you consider the event that supposedly caused its creation.