The Social Network proves one thing clearly: the internet is a dangerous place. Many people are aware of the dangers which afflict people using the internet, but few are aware of the consequences of creating an internet site, most of which derive from the simple fact that many sites, like seemingly everything else in the world, are businesses. And like many businesses, they’re prone to be run by egotistical, asocial madmen in human clothes who desire, above all, to shape society to their own terms when they may have had trouble fitting in to its. Due to this, the internet can lead to great riches as well as a number of far more devastating and de-humanizing effects, and The Social Network, the excellent David Fincher-directed adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, deals with both sides of the coin in a fascinating, invigorating, and often scary manner.
After Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has a fight with his girlfriend, he decides to develop a website, known as FaceMash, for the purposes of comparing the attractiveness of female students at Harvard. Like all great ideas, this one is: A. Based in the desire to judge other people superficially, and B. Birthed in a combination of intoxication and rage. The site becomes a hit, even going so far as to crash the Harvard network. Attracting the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Yes, they are as white as you would expect), Mark agrees to help start up a social networking site known as “Harvard Connect.” However, Mark decides his talents, or at least his ego, would be better suited to creating his own website, and, along with his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), serving as co-founder and chief financial officer, Mark creates “Thefacebook”. Soon enough, the site rapidly gains popularity, all the while attracting jealousy from the Winkevosses, or the Winkevi as Mark snidely refers to them.
Soon enough, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), co-founder of Napster and an entrepreneur looking to fatten his wallet with “Thefacebook”, which he later advises Mark to change to “Facebook”, decides to give financial advice to Mark, which has the unfortunate side effect of further damaging his already strained relationship with Eduardo. Eventually, this leads to a fallout between the two, bringing us to the film’s present day and framing device, with Mark being sued simultaneously by the Winkevosses for stealing their idea and Eduardo for unfairly cheating him out of his shares of the company and his accreditation for his role in founding Facebook.
What ultimately elevates the film from merely compelling to an excellent character study is its unwillingness to pander to the audience’s desires to create an entirely sympathetic lead character. Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed in The Social Network, is a selfish, egotistical, highly flawed individual who remains consistently less than sympathetic, although not entirely un-empathetic. Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, however, Zuckerberg is depicted as layered, complex, and driven by ambition, but clearly unsure of the morality guiding his actions. It is readily apparent throughout the film that Zuckerberg is not free of doubts concerning his treatment of his dear friend– he just hides them under his egotistical quest to belong in the only way he knows how.
Make no mistake, this film is both a provocative exploration and scathing indictment of internet culture. But it does so in the most unique of ways: it’s not a cinematic op-ed piece or a documentary, but a character study about the creator of the de facto face of the internet and its premier case study for its potential to “bring people together”. Throughout the film, we come to realize that Zuckberg’s desire to found an internet site is rooted in much more than money; it’s about connecting people in a way he can’t in his real life – it’s about his own loss, his own inability to communicate, and his own desire to meld society’s communication to fit what he is good at. In Facebook, he finds a distance that still allows him to connect. He’s not blind to the trauma and exacerbated loneliness this will create in his personal life, but he doesn’t really care. Zuckerberg isn’t alone here; he’s an avatar for a nation, capturing a zeitgeist of individuals who’ve become simultaneously more connected and more distanced from the real world. The film works as a pure character study, and in fact it goes out of its way to succeed primarily as a study of egotism and a fragmented shell of a person hiding himself in his work. One needs not see any wider social commentary to appreciate the depth of the script or the unflinching way Fincher essays the narrative – it’s far too universal and timeless for that – but it bears unmistakable implications for a society of Zuckerbergs who find connection only in distance.
In the acting department, there is no weak link in the cast. This represents Eisenberg’s most challenging role to date, as he has to simultaneously convey Mark’s external assurance and his internal uncertainty, and he acquits himself amiably, providing a layered portrayal to match the script’s layered treatment of the character. Garfield, meanwhile, gives us nuance and confusion but also a profound likability. It’s easy to see why he was chosen for the new round of middling Spider-man movies, and why he remains the best thing, by far, in them. Justin Timberlake meanwhile gives a far better performance than he has any right to, indicating that stereotypes about not crossing the musician and actor streams may not always be well-founded.
In some way, The Social Network has so much going on underneath its sleeve that it is difficult to truly unlock all of its mysteries. In addition to being a character study of one Mark Zuckerbeg, the film also goes to great lengths to explore elite institutional culture and how it encourages human distance as any internet institution does– a scene of fraternity pledging in the middle of the film emphasizes how they share alcohol manically but must, to fit some bourgeois conception of tradition and order, face only the backs of their fellow pledges. It’s fitting then that Zuckerberg went to Harvard – he’s an asocial, distanced genius who wants to shape the world because he doesn’t feel like he fits in, consequences be damned. He’s a man of vision, and other people’s desires don’t fit in.
But best of all is the undeniable ambiguity to the interpretation of Zuckerberg’s character. It’s hard to discern a sense of reality in the film, to truly explore who Zuckerberg is, and that’s the point. The film is, of course, based on a book whose primary source of information was Saverin, and it presents, at the least, a fascinating portrait of his view of Zuckerberg. The film, in its very framing narrative, emphasizes how this is a work of fiction, the product of one man’s view of another man, and few scenes, pointedly, feature Zuckerberg on his own because, primarily, this is not a story about Zuckerberg but a story about people who have spent time with him looking back on him in a courtroom. The movie doesn’t strive for that age-old “based on true events” cop-out – it exists, comfortably and defiantly in an age of a continual media drive for “realness” – as a work of fiction. And here is the film’s greatest strength, and I think, the reason why Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay actually works wonders for the film.
This is all the more impressive for the simple fact that, quite honestly, I really dislike Aaron Sorkin. His writing is suffused with an “isn’t this cool” Tarantino-vibe matched to a theatrical stuffiness and artifice so as to remove any of Tarantino’s ballsy swagger and danger and ingest a surfeit of middlebrow SERIOUSNESS so that people can have fun listening to characters walk around hallways and speak on end without pause while still thinking the writing is “mature”. His films are idealized reality about too-smart people struggling with the boredom of life’s minutae, and as such they reek of contempt for everyday people and also, more simply, try to make something that is in fact resolutely clean and unfettered seem big and importantly tense. They approximate reality and try to exist within reality – no, they desperately want and need to tell us they exist in reality – and yet it’s all steeped in idealized artifice. More simply, he has no ear for how people actually exist, breathe, reflect, doubt, and express. Worse, his presence usually forces the weight of the film onto his writing, allowing the director to just kind of milquetoast the whole thing and coast along on the known quantity that is an Aaron Sorkin screenplay without really giving any effort of his own to transform what would work better on a stage to, you know, a film which actually has the power to tell its story visually rather than through Sorkin’s stilted, conceited dialogue.
I’m probably being a little too harsh with all this, but it’s nonetheless important for how wonderfully Sorkin’s and Fincher’s set-up actually manages to use the artificial writing as a benefit rather than a crutch. What makes this film wonderful is that it is subversively well aware of its artifice and throws it in our face – thus Sorkin’s stagy manipulative dialogue does not try to approximate reality but highlights the gulf between the reality of the events in the past and the artifice of the character’s dialogue about Zuckerberg in the present.
This ambiguity, and only this, also saves the film from its one true flaw: the courtroom drama of the framing narrative purely serves this purpose, and once this is established, the rest of the material runs like a superior courtroom TV show but nothing more. This is a small flaw though, especially when the film does reveal a conception of “truth” to Zuckerberg’s character at the end of the frame, in a heartbreak of a final scene where he stares at his own creation, reloading a friend request to his ex-girlfriend every second. It is here that he is most sympathetic, but also most scary: we get the sense that, if she accepted, he wouldn’t even care to reach out to her. It’s not her, but the thought of her accepting his friendship on “his” terms, the terms of his invention, that matters to him. The Social Network isn’t just a great film: it’s a great statement about modern society, a film for its era, not just important, but essential. It lays everything out early on: a man sleeps with a girl, only for her to realize who he is afterward when he is about to leave – who she is, getting to know her, isn’t important to him. But it’s ok, – he can just friend her on Facebook.
Score: 9/10 (altered upon revisit)