Make ‘Friends’ with ‘The Social Network’

You don’t need to be one of Facebook’s 500 million subscribers to appreciate The Social Network. Directed by David Fincher, this intelligent and compelling movie tells the story of Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg, his creation of the world’s most popular social networking website and the enemies he made while building Facebook into the international behemoth it has become.

But it’s also about, according to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class, power, betrayal.” To this reviewer, the film is more about understanding the vagaries of genius than deciding who to “friend” or not. One of the most critically honored films of 2009, it is sure to be a major Oscar contender.

But the film has also inspired much criticism about its veracity from publications and online sites ranging from the New York Times and the New Republic to Slate and the Daily Beast. These criticisms have questioned the accuracy of Sorkin’s script and Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg as a socially awkward, resentful young man with a misogynistic attitude towards women.

Sorkin’s screenplay was based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook — A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, which most closely expresses the views of Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin (portrayed by Andrew Garfield). Saverin, Zuckerberg’s closest friend at Harvard and Facebook’s first financial officer, was later pushed out of the company. He eventually filed a successful lawsuit against Zuckerberg, receiving a settlement reported at more than $1 billion.

On the other hand, Eisenberg’s take on Zuckerberg certainly captures the description of the Facebook founder by one of the few writers who has been permitted significant access to him. As Jose Antonio Vargas wrote in his profile of Zuckerberg for The New Yorker last September, “His affect can be distant and disorienting, a strange mixture of shy and cocky.” In the DVD documentary How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?, Eisenberg himself describes the man he portrays as “very bright, very introverted, which often appears as disinterested or kind of dismissive of those he’s with.”

No one has challenged key elements of the film — depositions involving suits against Zuckerberg, one by Saverin and another by three other Harvard students, the twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (portrayed by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) — which were based on the actual transcripts of the proceedings.

The new DVD won’t settle any of these disputes, though Fincher is careful on his audio commentary to refer to “the character of Mark Zuckerberg” and to admit that some characters and scenes were created for dramatic purposes. But the DVD will offer viewers an abundance of special features about how The Social Network was made.

The best of these is the aforementioned feature-length documentary, a model of what a behind-the-scenes DVD doc should be. It includes fascinating footage detailing the near-obsessive perfectionism of Fincher, whose directorial credits include Fight Club, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Viewers get to watch early read-throughs and fine-tuning of the script involving the director, Sorkin, Eisenberg and Garfield; the making of the now-famous opening scene where the Boston University student (played by Rooney Mara) who had been going out with Zuckerberg breaks up with him, which required 99 takes before Fincher was satisfied, and other scenes where we see Fincher working closely with his young actors. There’s also some informative stuff about the film’s use of “face replacement” technology for the scenes involving the actors portraying the identical Winklevoss twins.

In addition, shorter features examine various aspects of the filmmaking process, including the cinematography and how Fincher and his crew dealt with Harvard’s very limited cooperation; the editing, which is particularly crucial for a director who records as many takes as Fincher; the composition of the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and two interactive segments in which viewers can watch particular scenes from different angles and with different music.

The Social Network DVD comes with two audio commentaries. Fincher’s remarks are quite interesting throughout. He notes that Sorkin’s incredibly fast-moving dialogue in the opening scene establishes the pace and style of the entire movie that follows, and describes being knocked out by Eisenberg’s audition tape of this very scene. He’s expansive in discussing Reznor and Ross’ score, the subbing of Johns Hopkins University for Harvard in several scenes and how he chose to depict Zuckerberg’s computer hacking (“he’s more of a graffiti artist than a seditious terrorist”). Fincher also explains his casting decisions, takes on critics of his portrayal of Harvard and its social milieu and praises the “effortlessness” of Justin Timberlake’s performance as Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster and a key influence on Zuckerberg’s decision to move Facebook to Palo Alto, Calif., and obtain outside financing from venture capitalists.

One oddity of Fincher’s commentary is that Sony has elected to bleep out every f-bomb the director drops in normal conversation; Sony even bleeps Fincher’s jocular citation of Aaron Sorkin’s e-mail address. I have no problem with Fincher’s language — his use of profanity seems both natural and appropriate — and Sony’s censorship of it is heavy handed.

The second commentary combines the thoughts of Sorkin with cast members Eisenberg, Garfield, Hammer, Pence and Timberlake. Eisenberg is particularly interesting here, revealing his deep understanding of the character he is portraying and noting the irony of a young man who couldn’t relate to his social world creating an online social world in which he fit right in.

Some of the criticisms of The Social Network do raise interesting questions as to how an actual living person should be portrayed in a movie. This is not a documentary on Mark Zuckerberg, after all, and Sorkin and Fincher have made some departures with the facts of Zuckerberg’s life in order to tell a dramatic story. For me, the perspective and tone of The Social Network does not come across as inappropriate, nor does the characterization of Zuckerberg seem unfair. But then again, I’m not one of Mark Zuckerberg’s friends.

RATING 8 / 10