Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Social Network: Movie of the Moment

Ah, to be tapped into the zeitgeist. When I first saw The Social Network, I was sitting behind a woman who was updating her Facebook status on her iPhone, saying that she was watching a movie about Facebook. Such is the world we live in. 500 million people can’t be wrong.

David Fincher’s film was bound to have a built-in-audience; Facebook is only probably the most significant website to be created since the invention of the internet, the story of its genesis is a tale that stirs curiosity. Socially inept computer geeks creating a website does not sound like movie material at first, but the scandal, betrayals and overall salaciousness to grow out of Facebook’s origins proved to be dynamite. Not to mention, we now live in an age where the ability to post one’s feelings on the internet in an instantaneous manner moves people’s dirty laundry from private business to information so urgent we’re obligated to prioritize it on a need-to-know basis. People love rumors. We want the juicy details. Snap judgments need to be made. Fincher, working from Aaron Sorkin’s frankly outstanding screenplay, understands that audiences love the juice, that we thrive on the he-said, she-said. The Social Network is a reflection of how human beings communicate. The power of the film comes from a great irony at its core—that the man responsible for connecting the globe at the click of a mouse is woefully inept when it comes to face-to-face communication.

The already legendary opening scene of The Social Network finds the subject of the film, Mark Zuckerberg (played with biting intelligence and obvious insecurity by Jesse Eisenberg, who is brilliant) on a date with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara). For Mark, the date is going terribly. He barely lets Erica get a word in edgewise. He’s completely insensitive to her participation in the conversation. He realizes, all too late, that Erica is there to break up with him. When she finally has Mark’s complete attention, all she tells him, “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” Erica’s comment upends Mark; a man clearly uncomfortable with having that which he is most insecure about thrown back in his face. Eisenberg plays the scene beautifully; he knows that for all the technical genius his character possesses, the Mark Zuckerberg as a Harvard sophomore cannot crack the code of communicating with the opposite sex. Erica’s comments are a massive put down, and Eisenberg plays the scene with Mark looking mortally wounded.

Better still, is Fincher’s decision to stage the conversation in a busy college pub. Most directors wouldn’t want to risk such rich dialogue possibly blending into the din of background conversation. And were the film set in say 1993 instead of 2003, maybe Erica breaks up with Mark in a more private setting. Both Fincher and Sorkin know though, that such notions of privacy have been rendered irrelevant in this age of instant communication. Setting the scene in a place where anyone within earshot could casually eavesdrop is clearly commentary on current social interaction. What’s even better is that this all serves to establish Mark’s character. Erica’s words not only have the effect of Mark getting his dick caught in his zipper, but because they’re at a bar, everyone there can be made aware of Mark’s impotency. It’s the fear of appearing powerless which eats at Zuckerberg; he rushes home to blast Erica in a vitriolic blog posting, hardly aware of the creative potential his vengeful motivations possess.

Key to the theme of The Social Network is the idea that in our time, inspiration is born not out of passion, but insecurity. Mark’s nasty blog post mutates into the idea of being able to rank photos of the faces Harvard girls side by side and make a snap judgment on their attractiveness. Mark seems to hardly care which girl is hotter—he is enamored with how quickly his idea spreads like wildfire throughout the Harvard campus, eventually crashing the school’s servers. When he is disciplined, he doesn’t seem in the slightest bit contrite or remorseful; in fact, he feels he “deserves recognition” from the panel at the hearing for pointing out the flaws in their security. Mark is always letting everyone know that he feels he is the smartest person in the room at any given time. On the date with Erica, he mentions he scored 1600 on his SAT’s. He’s not a world class athlete, he’s not rich, he’s not handsome—his genius is his lone distinguishing characteristic, and it isn’t enough to gain acceptance into the exclusive Final Clubs Mark desperately wishes to be a part of. The resentment fuels his ambitions. Through Zuckerberg—and several other characters in the film—The Social Network makes a conclusion about this modern generation: inspiration is born not out of dreaming, but seething.

Mark’s idea does catch the eye of three members of the Harvard elite—Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (or as Zuckerberg calls them in a fabulously condescending manner—The Winklevii—played with the aid of digital enhancement, by Armie Hammer in both roles) and their partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The trio recognizes Mark’s coding genius, and they ask him to develop their idea for the Harvard Connection, which as explained in the film, allowed the members of the Final Clubs to create profiles and share information amongst each other. From here the film shows Zuckerberg as a man of opportunity. Zuckerberg isn’t merely content to have his idea be shared exclusively throughout the Final Clubs, his ambition, as he explains it to his friend and eventual business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is to take the “entire social experience of college” and put it online. Zuckerberg also comes up with the idea of adding the “relationship status” feature to the website, as he knows that sex is the overarching motivating factor behind the social decisions college students make. Eduardo expresses moral doubts over their creation, thefacebook, especially when the Winklevii and Narendra threaten legal action, but Mark says, “Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair. They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.” The Social Network is also saying that in today’s times, creation of an idea does not necessarily preclude ownership of that idea; vision, ambition and most of all—opportunity—is what is needed to secure ownership.

Much ado has been made about did Zuckerberg steal from the Winklevii and Narendra. The veracity of events portrayed in Sorkin’s script has come under inevitable attack, but in terms of the movie, it doesn’t matter who stole what or who had the idea first. The Social Network clearly comes down on the side of Zuckerberg as the creator of Facebook, no matter whose idea it originally was. Sorkin certainly makes an effort to show the class distinction between Zuckerberg and the Winklevii and Narendra. Zuckerberg isn’t winning any ethics or morality awards, but unlike the three men suing him, he doesn’t have a sense of entitlement. In many ways, Zuckerberg is seen as the David to their collective Goliath—especially as the Winklevii stand 6’5”, have movie star good looks, and tons of connections. In dealing with Zuckerberg, Narendra says “I want to hire the Sopranos to beat the shit out of him with a hammer,” but the twins reply, “We don’t have to do that. (Cameron’s line) I’m six-foot-five and there’s two of me. (Tyler’s line)” Cameron also adds that the three of them are “gentlemen of Harvard” and such physical altercation is beneath them. Yet when none of their tactics cause Zuckerberg to desist, they do a very un-gentlemanly thing: they whine to the President of Harvard—who they use their connections to get a meeting with. The President of Harvard is thoroughly unimpressed by this argument, stating that the three men would be better served by coming up with a new idea, and that “Harvard students believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

In the depositions—which Sorkin cleverly uses as a framing device for the film—the Winklevii and Narendra are subject to further abuse. Their lawyer—who is also the lawyer to Winklevoss Sr.—is clearly overmatched by Zuckerberg. In the depositions, Zuckerberg seems to hardly care what anyone is asking him. At one point, the lawyer asks him, “Do you think I deserve your full attention?” (There’s that word “deserve” again…) Zuckerberg replies, “I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.” The lawyer is flabbergasted, and Zuckerberg knows the opportunity is ripe for attack. “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” Zuckerberg pauses, before adding, “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” Sorkin gives Zuckerberg this line of dialogue, effectively closing the case against the Winklevii and Narendra to the audience of the movie: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

The Winklevii and Narendra are subject to some of the harshest dressing down I have ever seen characters in a film receive (the nasty lines Annette Bening’s character gives Mark Ruffalo’s in fellow Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right are tame by comparison). These guys have all physical and economical advantages in the world, yet they whine like little bitches, hiding behind an outdated code of honor and when that doesn’t work, their Daddy’s lawyer. Zuckerberg, scrawny and by comparison, working class, takes the fight to these entitled pricks. I don’t condone Zuckerberg’s behavior, but I was rooting for him to embarrass these three clowns and embarrass them solidly. Sorkin’s script is genius in the sense that the viewers can find reasons to both love and hate the character of Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg’s performance illuminates this dichotomy. Still, for as even handed as Sorkin presents some of the events in the film, there is an undoubted position against entitlement taken in the screenplay.

It’s thrilling to watch a film that dares hold a mirror up to contemporary society. Nowadays, movies are so disposable, so superficial that precious few craftsmen within the industry realize its potential as a piece of art, something that can make a statement. The Social Network gives us a lead character that does despicable things and has a personality laced with strychnine, but yet shows the flipside to Zuckerberg’s personality. Sorkin comes down hard on elitism and the sense of entitlement it brings through the Winklevoss twins and Narendra, their minion. He also presents a scathing critique of rampant egomania.

About halfway through The Social Network, the conflict between Zuckerberg and the Winklevii is mostly concluded, and a new character makes his entrance into the story—Sean Parker, the wunderkind who founded and lost the file-sharing site Napster (ably played by Justin Timberlake, riffing on his own image). Parker represents everything that Zuckerberg desires to be—powerful, sophisticated, and above all, cool. Parker gives Zuckerberg the final, crucial idea relevant to the creation of Facebook, “Drop the ‘the’. Just ‘Facebook’. It’s cleaner.” Parker treats Mark and Eduardo to a fancy dinner where both are impressed, and Mark is especially impressed by this tenet: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool—a billion dollars.” At that point, Zuckerberg is wholly Parker’s acolyte.

The two characters share much in common. Relatively humble upbringings. Coding genius. Grand ambitions. A pronounced anti-authoritarian streak. In framing the film with the two separate lawsuits served to Zuckerberg, the character is imbued with the impression that people are always out to get him. Parker immediately recognizes this, and ensnares Mark with stories of how Napster scared so many people in the music industry it had to be destroyed and how none of the CEO’s and executives he worked with would ever take him seriously because he was young. The script is wise to show that both Zuckerberg and Parker feel that they are underappreciated and unrecognized geniuses. From there, Parker exhorts Zuckerberg to think bigger, to move Facebook to California, to make the website global.

Parker’s entry into the film serves as a wedge between the friendship of Mark and Eduardo. There is a genuine bond between the two young men, but Sorkin is wise to include details that Mark needed Eduardo for two key reasons: startup money for thefacebook and his connections to the Final Clubs, of which Eduardo has been accepted into. Sorkin also implies that because Eduardo was accepted into the Final Clubs and Mark wasn’t, Mark held a jealous grudge against him. Parker’s appearance into the story quickly turns their relationship toxic, as Eduardo mostly wants Facebook to remain on the path of steady growth while Parker and Mark are ready for their idea to explode. As Facebook blows up, so does the friendship between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

Parker, in the guise of mentorship, really clings desperately to Zuckerberg’s coattails. While Parker is the life of the Facebook party, he uses Mark to live out revenge fantasies on people who he feels has slighted him. He encourages Mark to attend a meeting of potential investors wearing his bathrobe, pajamas, and flip-flops, and instructing him to merely tease the idea partnering Facebook with the investment group. Parker convinces Mark that it would be a great idea to print up business cards reading “Mark Zuckerberg—I’m CEO, bitch”. In short, the details in the script imply that Parker’s lack of professionalism is what ultimately derailed his previous ventures. He also proves to be a coward. When Eduardo and Mark have their final confrontation—prompted when Eduardo learns that the shares in Facebook have been diluted to .03% (another one of Parker’s ideas)—Parker lingers in the back, taunting and sneering at Eduardo while calling for security. Parker goes too far when he presents Eduardo for a check in the amount of $19,000—the amount representing the cause of an earlier dispute between Mark and Eduardo—but tells him that the funds were drawn on a bank account Eduardo had already frozen. Eduardo, who though tall is not physically imposing, turns to punch Parker, Parker cowers. Eduardo tells him, “I like standing next to you, Sean. It makes me look so tough.” The final fate of Sean Parker in The Social Network sees him being arrested for snorting cocaine and providing alcohol to minors in a party celebrating the one-millionth Facebook account. His egomania proves to be his undoing.

Sorkin provides another scene demonstrating the dangers of egomania. It is the one scene where Zuckerberg is shown having remorse for his actions. His business cards are delivered to him, and as he reads “I’m CEO, bitch” under his name, Eisenberg gives Mark a look of regret, understanding how childish and immature having thousands of business cards printed with that phrase actually is. It’s an excellent character moment, closing the door on Parker’s antiauthoritarian antics, and providing the slightest glimpse into a possibility that Zuckerberg may overcome his own insecurities. Again, Sorkin’s screenplay draws a line in the sand on a moral issue.

The story, in another lovely bit of screenwriting, closes with a scene where Zuckerberg is again being called an asshole by a woman. After much deliberation, Mark’s junior counsel, Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), instructs him to settle. While she thinks Mark’s position has legal merit, she knows that if his lawsuits reach a jury the sordid details about the founding of Facebook and Mark’s own prickly personality will prove too unsympathetic. She tells him, “Creation myths need a devil.” Mark understands this because in many ways, he is now part of the elite he once despised. Mark is now so wealthy, that the hundreds of millions of dollars the settlements will cost him will be no more burdensome than a parking ticket. Mark says he isn’t a bad guy. Marylin says, “I know you’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one.” The Social Network closes as Mark, alone, sends a Friend Request to Erica. She proves to be his Rosebud as the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (excellently used) plays while he refreshes the page every few seconds, again hoping to be accepted. For all his phenomenal success, Zuckerberg ends up lonely. Sorkin refreshes an old theme for modern times—no amount of fame, money, or even notoriety can fill an empty soul with love.

I have heard The Social Network be called the “Silicon Valley Citizen Kane” and clearly, David Fincher’s modern film shares much in common with Orson Welles’ classic one. Fincher, a filmmaker better known for mindbenders and visually imaginative movies is wise enough to know that a great story is the best special effect. Fincher used his perfectionist style—he demands many takes of scenes—to help the actors fine tune their performances and create a tone reminiscent of the great screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Normally, dialogue heavy stories can drag, but Fincher assures that his film is zippy. He is wise to remove nearly all of his usual trickery and visual flair (Fincher has a background in music videos and commercials) and place his trust in the actors and screenplay. The result of these choices is a film that comes off as almost clinically non-judgmental—any impressions one takes away from The Social Network are supplied by the prejudices of the individual audience members watching the film.

However, Fincher is astute enough to know that The Social Network is, as is said in Hamlet, a play that holds a mirror up to nature. While Facebook is an undeniably awesome invention—marvel at how the power of social networking was able to organize massive protests for democracy in Egypt—it also holds the flaws of its creator. We can “friend” someone a continent away, but are we really any more interconnected as human beings? Did Mark Zuckerberg become a wiser or more popular person because of his creation or did the creation end up consuming him? In the film, Sean Parker says, “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” If we now live in cyberspace does that mean we have to sacrifice personal connection? The Social Network is the movie for our moment. It holds a mirror up to its viewers, and ultimately, it is on us to decide if we like what we see.


The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer*, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscar Nominations: 8 (Best Picture—Dana Brunetti, Ce├ín Chaffin, Michael de Luca, Scott Rudin; Best Director—David Fincher; Best Actor—Jesse Eisenberg; Best Adapted Screenplay—Aaron Sorkin; Best Cinematography—Jeff Cronenweth; Best Editing—Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter; Best Score—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Best Sound—Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten)

* The performance of the Winklevoss twins is also credited to Josh Pence, whose body was used but with Armie Hammer’s head digitally superimposed on it. Pence has a cameo in a scene where Mark and Eduardo are coming out of a bathroom after getting laid.

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  1. Thanks for this detail about this movie. After reading it I really wanted see this film. This film is appearing to be a great one.
    The Social Network

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