Building a Fortune on a Grudge
The Social Network is something Hollywood has largely abandoned: a combination of from-the-headlines immediacy, muckraking, and social commentary. Ever since the movies ceded that territory to television, the place where both grown-up viewers and long-form narrative has gone, the big pictures have been little more than gimmicks and spectacle. The Social Network, which was directed by David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac) from a sharp screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (taken from Ben Mezrich's account of the founding of Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires) gives you a glimmer of hope that mainstream movies can still be entertaining, adult, and connected to the recognizable world around us.
Fincher and Sorkin are using Facebook to anatomize our present cultural moment. But at the center is something you don't expect in so ambitious a movie: a gnat.
The name of the gnat is Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook and, as played—astonishingly—by Jesse Eisenberg, is something like the first Asperger's visionary.
Fortunes have been built on a whim. The Social Network shows us billions built on a grudge. Dumped in the first scene by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, star of Fincher's upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Zuckerberg hunkers down in his Harvard dorm room, simultaneously bitching the poor girl out on his blog and setting up a site that allows the university's female students to be rated for hotness. Nine hours and 22,000 hits later, Zuckerberg has crashed Harvard's server.
Zuckerberg earns Harvard's ire. But he also earns the attention of jock twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played with lantern-jawed bonhomie by Armie Hammer, great grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer) and their pal Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) who've come up with the idea for a Harvard social-networking site. Zuckerberg agrees to make their idea a reality but keeps brushing them off while setting up his own site with funds from his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, who's very touching).
That tangle is at the heart of the lawsuits that Fincher and Sorkin use as a narrative arc to tell the story of how Facebook went from campus to campus, and then from country to country, on the way to its current valuation of about $25 billion. (The Winklevosses sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea and settled with him for a sum said to be about $65 million. Saverin, who became Facebook's CFO, also sued Zuckerberg after the latter slashed Saverin's ownership stake and removed his name from the website. Saverin's settlement got his name reinstated and, reportedly, hundreds of millions.)
What separates The Social Network from other stories about success turned sour is that the movie doesn't take the Pollyanna view that Mark Zuckerberg is corrupted by success. He's as arrogant and self-absorbed and vindictive at the beginning as he is at the end. Centering a movie around a character who doesn't change or grow is usually a disastrous choice. But the character of Mark Zuckerberg, a petty-minded genius, is crucial to what the movie is saying about the culture he crystallized.
Fincher and Sorkin present Facebook as the emblem of an online world that's both disconnected and exhibitionist, both cruel and thin-skinned. When Zuckerberg later meets up with the girl whose whose rejection inspired him she tells him he "writes his snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays."
It's a terrific line, and one I'm sure that will be cited to prove the case already circulating against the movie in some circles as two old-media types penning a hate letter to new media. (Filmmakers Fincher and Sorkin are in their late forties). That there is an element of hate letter in The Social Network is part of the movie's thrill.
In Fincher and Sorkin's view, the Web has a lot to answer for. They're not Luddites or fuddy duddies, but they avoid the mindless optimism of the Web cheerleaders who ignore the hard questions about how the technology is transforming society. The kneejerk reaction to most criticism of digital culture is that every new technology has been greeted with suspicion and claims that it will change society for the worse. Given the roots of Facebook in Mark Zuckerberg's feelings of inadequacy, Fincher and Sorkin, at the very least, are aware of the way that, too often, the alleged democracy of the Web functions as mob rule.(The anonymity and instantaneous response capability of the web has been a boon to bigots of all stripes.)
Fincher and Sorkin are savvy enough to show us some of what feeds Zuckerberg's resentment: The closed society of Harvard, as depicted by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. It's the domain of more shadowy wood-lined rooms than any American movie has shown us since The Godfather. It's also a place where people still talk of "the Jewish fraternity" (Zuckerberg is a member) and the president, the hapless Larry Summers, has such a lofty vision of his place in the universe that he regards dealing with students as beneath him. The sliver of Zuckerberg you root for is the part that refuses to be cowed by anything, least of all the WASP entitlement that expects deference.
But that refusal extends to everyone else. Of course, there's irony in so prickly and socially inept a character as Mark Zuckerberg creating a social networking site. But in ways that are more elusive, Facebook becomes the thing that allows him to cross every social boundary and yet remain untouched. He's orchestrating the party and still shut out of it. And it's to Fincher and Sorkin's credit that they don't soften, don't use that to elicit pathos for Mark Zuckerberg.
Jesse Eisenberg doesn't soften him either. Eisenberg bursts out of the gate in the first scene, showing us someone whose mind works on so many tracks, so fast, that he's three topics ahead while the people he's talking to are still trying to process what he said two minutes ago. The movie hadn't been on for five minutes and Eisenberg had my jaw hanging open. Until now, in pictures like Zombieland and Adventureland, Eisenberg seemed an appealing, soft, unassertive actor, a more melancholic version of Michael Cera. What Eisenberg does in The Social Network is fearless for a young actor taking his first starring role. There's never a moment where he allows a trace of fear or hurt to cross Zuckerberg's face, and yet he conveys every resentment, every suspicion roiling around inside this kid. It's a stunningly disciplined piece of acting.
It's a measure of how fast digital culture moves that, we're seeing this movie merely seven years after Zuckerberg's night of dorm-room revenge. And it's a measure of how that culture is affecting business that we are watching a film about a company whose founders have already had the kind of falling out that used to take friends in business a couple of decades to work up to; a company valued at $25 billion without going public; and one whose founder is already a billionaire likely to equal or surpass the wealth of Bill Gates if the company does go public.
What Fincher and Sorkin are showing us here is familiar from other stories we've seen of success putting paid to friendships. And the betrayals and hurt and business machinations are all real enough. But the youth of the protagonists, going through all this before they've had much life experience, makes their troubles seem, on some level, as virtual as the experience they are selling. There's something very wrong about Garfield's Eduardo Saverin sporting the look of someone who's had a dagger plunged in him by his best friend while still looking like a kid growing into his first suit. It's that inexperience that makes Zuckerberg so willing to be seduced by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, who's superb). The Napster co-founder strides into the movie on waves of charm and Appletinis, part new media guru, part party boy, and it's a measure of the movie's refusal to make any easy judgments that, while it's clear he's bad news, he's not without vision.
The Social Network does not attempt anything so phony as prognostication about either the future of business culture or culture in general. The strongest business comment The Social Network makes is on the movie business. I don't think it's an accident that the task of translating a compressed business saga and portrait of a cultural moment into a detailed yet swift and compelling narrative went to a writer primarily known for his work in television. Series TV has evolved into long, multistrand narratives that can go on for seasons, while the scripts for most mainstream movies often feel far less important than the marketing. The sort of pictures that would once have been popular hits, The Social Network or perhaps Anton Corbijn's The American are, compared to what surrounds them at the mulitplex, almost art movies. The wickedly witty and frightening sci-fi thriller Splice sank without a trace earlier this year. Warner Bros. had so little faith in the film it didn't even buy print ads in The New York Times. And 3D, touted as the the future of movies (oh, who put on that record again?) and the inspiration for something like 5,000 digitally-equipped screens, is already being talked of as past its prime.
It's this in atmosphere that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have made a movie that is both about this shallow and speeded-up culture and stands in opposition to its general disposability: the script is layered with information yet clearly, neither the direction nor the editing appear to have been done by someone suffering from attention deficit disorder, the lead character is not softened to make him more likable. The Social Network both captures the zeitgeist and defies it.
The question that remains is: Will people accustomed to the speed of digital culture slow down enough to watch it? And will they be able to recognize themselves if they do?