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The Social Network

How does one define success?  Is it an external influence, be it acceptance from peers, money, or power?  Or is it more of an internal state that requires a strong sense of self-awareness and satisfaction with one’s current station?  That question is the heart of The Social Network, the “Facebook movie” as it has unsatisfactorily been called.  Mark Zuckerberg, the real life creator of Facebook, is here represented in movie form by Jesse Eisenberg, and his success (or is it?) plays out on-screen.  To be honest, I don’t know how true to real events the film is.  After seeing the film twice though, I’ve come to realize; it doesn’t matter.  Director David Fincher (who has some other films you may have heard of, such as Zodiac, Se7en, and a little thing called Fight Club) didn’t set out to tell the true story of the founding of what is now one of the biggest companies in the world.  What he set out to do, and has amazing success at, is capture a moment in time when the rules changed.  The internet is responsible for a zillion things, but none more important than as a platform for social interaction.  How truthful the movie is in the details doesn’t matter because the larger picture is all that is needed;  Mark Zuckerberg became the youngest billionaire ever by bringing all the social aspects of the web to the mainstream.  That’s enough of a backdrop for a quality film.  In the hands of a director like Fincher however, a quality film elevates itself to the best movie of the year.

Zuckerberg’s inspiration actually has its roots in something Facebook users deal with everyday; failed social interaction.  (Note:  I want to make it clear when I say Zuckerberg, I don’t mean REAL LIFE Mark Zuckerberg.  We have the whole “based on true events” thing going on here, and I have no idea what’s accurate or not.  That’s the name of the character in the film, and that’s all I’m talking about.)  The opening scene involves a rapid fire conversation between Mark and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who have been dating.  After said conversation in which Mark managed to imply she’s shallow, he is as well, and also she’s kind of dumb, Albright ends the relationship.  It’s his reaction that is the first sign of Zuckerberg’s struggle throughout the movie.  After attempts to change Erica’s mind fail, he gets drunk and posts scathing remarks about her on his blog.  Still feeling the burn of rejection, he then proceeds to hack into Harvard’s computer system (almost all the principal characters are Harvard students), steal all the headshots of the female students, and set up a webpage that invites visitors to compare the two pictures and determine who is better looking.  Harvard, as you can imagine, is not thrilled.  Zuckerberg is tracked down and put on academic probation, and becomes something of a pariah amongst the female student body at the school.  The ability to hack and build websites in a single night while drunk does not escape the notice of the Winklevoss twins Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer) and their friend Divya Narenda (played by Max Minghella.)  They have an idea about creating a website exclusively for Harvard students that lets them see some information about their friends, the Harvard Connection.  Lacking the technical know how to build such  a site, they recruit Zuckerberg, who agrees to help.  He then ignores them for weeks, all the while working on his own website that does essentially the same thing.

Did Zuckerberg steal the idea?  I think yes he did, although shades of gray exist.  His best friend and financier, Eduardo Savrin (a soon to be Spider Man Andrew Garfield) wasn’t even aware that they could have a problem with the Winklevoss twins and Narenda until a letter threatening legal action arrives.  That’s what I find so fascinating about Zuckerberg as a character.  He simultaneously seems to be doing all he’s doing so that people will accept him and not think he’s a jerk while also stealing others ideas and keeping things from his business partner.  He makes the excuse that he didn’t think the letter was important, but Savrin doesn’t buy it, nor should the audience.  It’s this trampling and ignoring of other people that define Zuckerberg.  As he starts to gain popularity for “the Facebook” site at Harvard, which was ostensibly what he wanted, he seems to revel in that popularity less and less.  All he seems to want to do is work.  As him and Savrin encounter two “groupies” shortly after the local Harvard site goes live, it’s only Savrin who forms a relationship out of it.  I’m not saying Zuckerberg should have started dating a girl who would blow him in the bathroom 30 minutes after meeting him, but it’s the last meaningful action we see him have with a female for the rest of the film.    As the film masterfully cuts between two different depositions in which Zuckerberg is involved, his attitude remains much the same.  He wants out of there to get back to work.

Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara

The film itself takes this plot and makes it fascinating, and I give the lions share of that credit to Fincher.  I remember thinking when I first heard that there was going to be a “Facebook movie” that it was probably just a cash in on a brand name.  When Fincher’s name became attached to direct, I took interest.  Given the subject matter, this film is dark, both literally and figuratively.  There is no sunny student center featuring a bunch of bustling happy faces, merely drab and cold buildings while students scurry to their next destination.  Fincher nails the idea of the pressure’s of college, particularly in a place like Harvard where being smart and working hard just makes you average.  As the one of the Winklevoss twins points out, in today’s world being first is everything.  It’s this almost desperation that permeates the entire film and gives a real sense of urgency to what is basically a movie about people sitting around and talking.  Small touches that are almost too weird to not be true to life abound, giving the movie a sense of authenticity that’s very impressive.  Savrin having to care for a chicken for a week as a hazing ritual to get into one of the exclusive finals clubs, or Zuckerberg being offered a foot long sub when being invited in to one such club, The Phoenix Club, by the Winklevoss Twins (he’s not allowed past the bike room, which is apparently well stocked with sandwiches.)  The Social Network won the Oscar for best editing and it deserved it.  Whether its cuts between both of Zuckerberg’s legal proceedings (sometimes so fast that a question asked in one will be answered by someone in the other) or an inspired section of the film showcasing a spirited rowing race that the Winklevoss Twins are in, the shots move at a quick pace while still being easy to follow.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (newly minted Oscar winner as well) is known for his sharp dialogue on the small screen (West Wing) but produces an absolute masterwork in this script.  Even when totally incomprehensible (Zuckerberg’s running commentary as he hacks the Harvard computers is as dense as anything I’ve heard and makes no sense if one isn’t a computer expert, but it remains captivating regardless) just the words themselves seem interesting and have a life to them.  This may not be how normal people talk, but it very well might be how the super elite students of Harvard talk.  Superb dialogue goes nowhere without strong actors to deliver it, which The Social Network has in spades.  The first scene in the film, the end of the relationship between Eisenberg and Mara, is literally the fastest talking I’ve ever heard in a film.  It also establishes two very important things.  One is that Rooney Mara has a real career ahead of her, and this isn’t just me projecting.  Fincher must have been as impressed as I am, because she’s the title role in Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, which incidentally is Fincher’s next film.  (Another I had zero interest in because the Swedish film was so good I wondered why remake it.  Then I saw it was Fincher.  I’m in.)  The second is that Jesse Eisenberg is not just that one dude who fights for roles with Michael Cera.  We know he can be funny (Zombieland!) but his work here is anything but.  The most impressive thing to me was his disdain for all the authority figures in the film, be it Harvard’s board punishing him for hacking, or either legal team attempting to get him to break down during the depositions.  I’m sure it was made easier by working with high quality actors around him, most notably Andrew Garfield as Savrin.  Savrin is everything Zuckerberg isn’t, for good and bad.  As Zuckerberg pushes ahead into uncharted waters on how to start a company or business (we can’t start making money yet, advertising would make it not cool!) it’s Savrin that has to worry about the finances.  His insistence on shopping the site around to ad executives is smart, but flawed.  Garfield’s role represents the old guard.  As his traditional business genius (he made $300,000 over the summer break) is continually ignored or chastised by Zuckerberg, his frustration is palatable.  His crumbling relationship with Mark makes him an almost tragic figure that makes Garfield the most sympathetic character in the entire film.  Much of that frustration comes from one source:  Sean Parker as played by Justin Timberlake.  Parker is big talking, womanizing, charismatic, and played here as absolutely paranoid.  If that name rings a bell, real life Sean Parker founded and then subsequently lost Napster.  I hate Timberlake for being so much better than the rest of us normal humans, but that guy is a good actor.  His Parker sees a kindred spirit in Zuckerberg, not with the constant yammering or rotating door of girlfriends (Zuckerberg does neither) but in a business sense.  He’s also the one person in the film that Zuckerberg seems to legitimately regard as an equal.

Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake.

Shout out to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the incredible soundtrack to this film.  When I think “Facebook movie”  I think timely songs.  What was topping the charts in the early 2000’s?  Luckily, my thinking was not involved in this film.  The easy way out of timely songs or forgettable orchestral background noise gives way to something that actually does sound a bit like Nine Inch Nails.  The soundtrack is all ominous electronica.  It matches the subject matter in a way that Outkast and The White Stripes (hello 2003!) never could.  I have no idea who pushed for Reznor and Ross to do the music for this film and I imagine it would be a tough tell to the studio.  I’d like to think it was Fincher, given the incredible remix of NIN’s “Closer” that opens Se7en.  However it came about, as the soundtrack won the Oscar for best original score this year, whomever made that decision was vindicated ten times over.

I hope I’ve done enough to dispel the whole “Facebook movie” label this film initially got.  It’s a story of a new way of doing business that could only have been seen by somebody as young and disenfranchised as Zuckerberg.  Did he find success?  On the external side, a thousand times yes.  But it’s the internal success that I think the film so brilliantly shows.  I can’t decide if the Zuckerberg of The Social Network is at peace with himself or not.  He’s a wholly unsympathetic character who miraculously earns some sympathy.  It’s not because of a breakdown he has showing regret for his more questionable actions.  It’s the simple fact that he didn’t do those things out of malice.  As I said before, all Zuckerberg wanted to do was work.  If other people got in the way of that, he pushed them out or ignored them.  I’ve heard this said many times before about the film, but it works so perfectly I’m going to repeat it here.  Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook a success because of his lack of social skills.  David Fincher makes this movie a success for being able to portray that in ways I didn’t think were possible.  With apologies to The Kings Speech and Inception, this is the best film of 2010.

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3 Responses

  1. I watched The Social Network last weekend. I thought it was good, but not Best Movie of the Year worthy. I agree with most of your points, but the dialogue was weak and gimmicky. I felt like the writers were trying to mimic the Facebook Wall with the quick-hitting, fragmented banter. It was unique, but it wore on me over the course of the movie. I did enjoy watching Zuckerberg unknowingly trample over all his friends (except Sean Parker). They pulled off a likeable bastard protagonist. Great story,but no Inception. What the hell is The King’s Speech anyway?

  2. Disagree 100 percent on the dialogue being weak, but that’s why we have internet blogs right! 😛
    I have not seen The Kings Speech, everybody I know who has says it’s excellent. I’m sure the acting is great and the film is made well, but it just seems so forgettable. A good period piece can make a fine film, but it’s been done. Watch though, I’ll see it soon and think it’s better than Social Network then feel like a tool.

    • That’s the problem with so many Oscar winners. They’re so forgettable. I mean haven’t we as a society moved beyond making fun of people with speech impediments? So why should we point out that some British royalty (is that right?) had a problem. But that’s why I don’t care about the Oscars or any other awards. The People’s Choice Awards carry a little more weight with me but I’d much rather recognized quality in the industry by word of mouth.

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