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Non-Review Review: The Social Network

Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.

– The Bible. It’s in the back somewhere.

I’m blogging about The Social Network. How post-modern is that?

Should it be the anti-social network?

The Social Network is a generational film. While its core themes are timeless, I think it appeals to a particular set of individuals, those of a particular generation. Not “Generation X” or “Generation Y”, more like “Generation Why Not Me?” The core theme running through the film is the drive that comes from rejection, be it rejection in social or romantic or business settings. Fincher cynically suggests that this burning feeling of inadequacy is what powers genius and what drives innovation. As nice as it is to imagine innovation as a selfless move towards self-improvement and the altruistic betterment of mankind, the film makes a legitimate case for framing this sort of advancement as the result of a spiteful desire to “one-up” those who have mocked us or locked us out. There’s a reason we use relative terms like “bigger”, “better” or “more successful” – it’s all about relative measurement; we measure ourselves by comparison to others. We strive to somehow surpass those who dismissed us – we make ourselves better, relative to them.

In the opening sequence, David Zuckerbuck is spurred on to create “fashmash.com”, the prototype for Facebook, by a break-up with his girlfriend. There’s a scene in the movie were Napster founder Sean Parker is discussing his inspiration for his innovative software. It wasn’t a desire to change the music industry – though he argues that was the ultimate effect – it was to attract the attention of a girl he liked in school – one dating a more popular kid. “Do you still think about her?” Zuckerberg asks his business collaborator and inspiration. Parker replies with a coy “Who?” – but the fact that he frames that attraction as his origin story points to just how important rejection is.

In fact, the bulk of the movie is driven by a fostering resentment. Asked to explain why two beefy upper-class twins from a prestigious Harvard fraternity are suing him, Zuckerberg explains, “They’re suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn’t go exactly the way they were supposed to.” The movie suggests that the bitterness of placing second – in a rowing competition and in life – is the driving force behind the Winklevosses’ lawsuit (it’s the loss in a close race which finally convinces the reluctant twin to sue). It’s all about getting back at those people who hurt us and made us feel weak. “This is our time!” Parker declares, as if heralding in the age of the nerd, while he still spends his time pranking the people who wounded him in the past (setting up an elaborate investment meeting for the purposes of slapping down a former business partner – “Tell Mitch Manningham, ‘Sean Parker says, Fuck you’!”)

Zuckerberg's a cold character...

There’s been a lot of discussion about the film’s portrayal of Zuckerberg, but Fincher and Sorkin retain a hint of understanding (if not sympathy) for the world’s youngest billionaire. It’s worth noting that Zuckerberg is offered as the only example of the countless flawed characters in the film who was able to channel his anger and frustration into something relatively constructive. His resentful project becomes a worldwide success, and not one based on financial gain (he refuses attempts to monetize the site), whereas his equally (and perhaps more justifiably) resentful comrades resort to lawsuits to stake their claims. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook!” Zuckerberg declares at one point, with the clear implication being that all the parties locked in lawsuits with him don’t have the creativity to make their own money, and must instead attempt to take his.

That said, it’s very clear from the movie that Zuckerberg isn’t necessarily a nice guy. In fact, the opening makes it perfectly clear that he really is a jerk. He’s no good at social interaction – perhaps that’s why the idea of “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it on-line” appealed to him so much. The film, cleverly structured through multiple viewpoints, accepts that Zuckerberg (and his cast) are more complex than a two-hour runtime allows, but hints that this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s all about interpretation. “All creation myths need a devil.” And this certainly is a creation myth.

Aaron Sorkin is a great writer. He knows his beats. He draws on all manner of sources (he has cited Roshomon and Citizen Kane in particular), but it seems he’s attempting to offer the tale of the creation of Facebook as some sort of modern myth. He plays with the facts a little, and fudges characters to fit them to archetypes. Of course, a lot of this comes from the source material, but he offers it in a grand manner. Parker is a mentor and a prophet, who is nearly worshipped by Zuckerberg. Eduardo and Zuckerberg find their relationship strained by success. “Is this a parable?” Zuckerberg asks of one of Parker’s anecdotes, but possibly asking about the film. Fincher and Sorkin take the story and make it a fable for the modern age.

However it’s more than a little depressing that this fable boils down to almost what seems like a geek revenge fantasy – though perhaps that’s more than apt. Despite the successes of Parker and Zuckerberg, we are constantly reminded that they are undoubtedly dweebs. No matter how many “groupies” they may have or how much coke they may snort (or despite a lack of a formal education), Parker is still a guy who carries his asthma inhaler around with him and who breaks down when things don’t go to plan. The classroom resentments from all manner of educational systems bubble to the surface. “Let’s gut this nerd!” one of the athletic Winklevoss twins declares, talking about a guy who they couldn’t let past the “bike room” when inviting him to work with them. And yet Zuckerberg winds up infinitely more powerful and influential, able to upset the social order. Referring to the posh Harvard club he once so single-mindedly sought admission to, Zuckerberg suggests, “at the moment I could buy Mt. Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.”

In a way, it’s a deconstruction of the classic success over adversity story. In a more simplistic movie, we’d be asked to cheer on “the little guy” outside the complex social structures who succeeds against the establishment – like an internet-era A Flash of Genius. It’s Fincher’s and Sorkin’s genius to pick that myth apart, to look at the kind of people who do innovate rather than those we’d like to think innovate. “The little guy” isn’t necessarily always a nice guy, after all – and he certainly doesn’t always play fair.

And for all it plays to nerdish revenge fantasies and old academic distinctions (and how they stick with us), the story is so compelling because it rings true. While some have dismissed the image of elitist Harvard that the movie portrays, the same sort of snobbishness is more than familiar to most people – we’ve all encountered those who feel inherently superior to us, or just naturally better. On my college campus, this sort of condescension was unfortunately alive and well. And we do live in the era of technology. The power lies with the technologically-minded as opposed to the traditionally wealthy. The jocks have found themselves upset by the nerds (compare the world’s wealthiest from this year to similar lists compiled in the eighties, for example).

A social network courtship...

It’s a smart and well-constructed movie, and one that isn’t afraid of ambiguity. Which of the characters (if any) is in the right is left up to the audience to determine as the credits roll. It’s great to see that the movie doesn’t seem to really take sides in the whole dispute (although it does seem that the events portrayed slightly favour Eduardo Saverin – though that’s perhaps down to the fact that he was the only character featured who cooperated with The Accidental Billionaires, the book upon which the movie is based). It’s refreshing not to have one perspective shoved down our throats, and the writing suggests the film is just as uncertain as the audience with regards to who is the hero of this story. But then that’s a clever way to construct a modern myth – the point of the movie is clear, but the morality of the characters remains ambiguous.

I suspect that this ambiguity might alienate viewers. In fact, Zuckerberg is a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. That’s part of the appeal to some viewers – those looking for complexity rather than being told who to root for – but I can see the cold portrayal potentially pushing away some audience members. Jesse Eisenberg is great in the lead role, and he plays the character perfectly – there’s no attempt to force sympathy into him (the closest that Fincher and Eisenberg come is making us pity him – until he carries out the next remorseless act). He’s not necessarily too engaging, but he shouldn’t be. Eisenberg offers us an introspective genius, and that’s a tough role to pull off.

Andrew Garfield does fantastic work as Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s college roommate and later CFO. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly effective as Sean Parker, with the film getting some mileage out of the wonderful metafictional element to the casting (Timberlake is at once the most recognisable actor playing the most “famous” (when the movie starts, at least) character, but he’s also a recording artist and part of the industry which demonised Parker). It’s solid all around.

It’s also worth taking a moment to mention the superb score. I can’t remember a movie which earned so much emotional impact based on the score alone. From the boat racing sequence (remixing In the Hall of the Mountain King) to the coding of Facebook, the soundtrack perfectly compliments Fincher’s wonderful photography. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deserve recognition for their superb work in crafting the film’s sound. I am pretty sure there’s a fantastic blog post to be written about the sound design of David Fincher’s films (which I have always found at least fascinating – despite the fact my aunt claims she couldn’t hear half the dialogue in Se7en; in fact, there’s a nice article here), but it’s great to see little touches – like the fact that Parker and Zuckerberg have to actively raise their voices to talk over the music at a nightclub (as opposed to the music lowering for them, as it does magically in many other films).

The Social Network is easily one of the better films of the year, and one deserving of attention and discussion. It might be a bit much to compare it to “a modern day Citizen Kane”, but it is certainly a highly relevent tale of modern morality – and an exploration of success (both in the factors that contribute to it and the consequences which accrue from it). It is quite possibly the highlight of Fincher’s filmography (which is quite a compliment) and a film which manages to speak beyond its source material – it’s the story of Facebook, but it’s also the story of this generation’s greater strivers and achievers, the nerds and the geeks. It isn’t always a pretty picture, but it’s compelling viewing.

8 Responses

  1. I read a review elsewhere it doesn’t really reflect the story of Facebook or Mark. They change bits of the real story to make the film interesting.

    • Yep, it’s all sensationalised, but it doesn’t mean that the core details (the lawsuits, for example) aren’t true. I think it works best as a modern parable, rather than as a “true story”.

  2. I watched The Social Network lastnight and the first thing I really have to say about this movie is that I don’t believe that there has ever been a movie that has been more over hyped than The Social Network has been. Read More: http://www.shawnmichaeladamsonline.com/2011/03/social-network-apache-servers-and-my.html

    • That’s a little bit of hyperbole, to be frank. I can think of Avatar, for example, off the top of my head, as more hyped film.

      Your article suggests that it should have focused on the idea process more, but that ignores the fact that the human side of equation is the most fascinating one. There’s no drama in a bunch of technobabble, but there is in following what happened to these people after they invented the platform.

  3. Great blog! The look into the life of Mark Zuckerburg and how Facebook was started was absolutely fantastic. To be honest, seeing this movie made me want to take my own Facebook account offline, but I decided to keep it. Anyways, I just finished watching the Social Network on DISH Online and it was great! I love DISH Online because it lets me watch all kinds of TV shows and movies whenever I want! Also, because I subscribe to Starz, I have access to more shows and movies for no extra charge! As a customer and employee of DISH Network, I have been using DISH Online for a long time and it is great! I encourage anyone and everyone to take a look at dishonline.com to see what I am talking about! It has something for everyone, whether you’re a customer or not!

  4. This is the Aaron Sorkin script that even Aaron Sorkin haters love. The Social Network’s script strikes just the right balance between…well everything. It’s an utterly brilliant film on every level.

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