Facebook is here to stay. Like the telephone, the horseless carriage, and the television before it, the “social network” that has certain pundits raging, is not going anywhere. Is it a fad? It is… just like those aforementioned technologies.
Facebook now claims a half a billion members, a number that causes some people to shudder. It is the playground of the narcissistic, they argue, a place where people expose themselves shamelessly. There’s a lot of truth to these claims, but at the same time I can’t help but think we’ve been through this before, and will probably go through it again.
Look, they had Facebook in the 1950s. Only then it was called the telephone, and teenagers and college students sat in their rooms, the cord twisted around their arm, prone on their beds, talking about everything and nothing for hours. “But it wasn’t out there for everyone to see!” you might cry. There’s some truth to that, but at the time, information shooting across a telephone line–gossip and bullying–seemed drastically fast in the day. So it is today.
David Fincher’s The Social Network (now showing at Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland at Boulevard Square) is both the story of a culture that embraces Facebook, and an examination of the inner workings of a giant corporation and the geniuses that make it run. It is brilliant, thoroughly entertaining, but it suffers from a simple problem: while none of the characters are evil, none of them are very kind, either, and it’s difficult to relate to any of them. Nonetheless, it’s the most important (and compelling) picture I’ve seen this year.
The Social Network opens in a bar, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, excellent) is talking to (as opposed to with) his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). Zuckerberg is manic, but so is the girl, and the scene is reminiscent of the dueling Tommy gun dialogue from His Girl Friday. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who wrote and conceived “The West Wing”) keeps us involved, and despite the speed of the talk, we follow right along. (I’ll add that the sound man in this film is brilliant–here, and later, we hear the dialogue perfectly even as loud music is blaring. It is truly an amazing sound effect.)
Zuckerberg is all over the place in his conversation, changing subjects as rapidly as, well, as rapidly as I post random shit on Facebook on highly caffeinated days. He wants in to one of the exclusive clubs, he notes that there’s more geniuses in China than our total population, he’s scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT, and, oh, his girlfriend doesn’t need to study because she goes to Boston U., not a very good school (in his opinion.)
Zuckerberg’s a genius, but he doesn’t think. Words just fly out of his mouth, but he’s hardly animated, sitting most of the time with his hands at his sides, or scribbling doodles, or in this case with his hand eternally gripping a beer glass. He’s almost literally a talking head. With the ideas pouring out of his mouth, he doesn’t realize that he’s deeply hurt his girlfriend. When Erica protests, he asks, “Are you serious? Because if you are I’ll apologize.” With that, Erica’s done. She doesn’t need this jerk in her life.
Zuckerberg, drunk, races back to his dorm and blogs about the bitch that was his girl. Then, with his equally drunk pals, he creates a website that downloads photos of Harvard girls that allows the boys of Harvard to rate them based on their looks–the perfect revenge on the fair sex. The site gets over 20,000 hits in a few hours, crashes the University’s server, and Zuckerberg is both a hero to the assholes on campus, and a pariah to the young women.
But Zuckerberg’s shenanigans attract the attention of a pair of entitled twins: Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by a young Armie Hammer, the grandson of Armand Hammer, but no relation to the baking soda) who want him to write code for an exclusive online club. A Harvard facebook–a place where anyone with a “harvard.edu” email account can join and, well, do what we do on Facebook every day, but exclusive, thus appealing to snobs like… well, like a lot of people who want to join clubs. They appeal to Zuckerberg’s need for inclusion: the brothers are on the Harvard crew (which Zuckerberg admires), and building this site will help restore Zuckerberg’s damaged reputation.
He agrees, but he’s itchy. Their ideas have tremendous limitations, and he wants more. The seed is planted, and here we see the precision casting of Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role. Eisenberg’s performance isn’t the stuff of Oscars–there’s no raging, no mimicry, and he communicates multitudes with the subtlest grace: a blank stare, a sideways glance, even just by doodling on a page. When the Winklevoss’ tell him they’re helping him, he asks “You’d do that for me?” and we sense, just from Eisenberg’s look, that he’s being sarcastic… and seeing into the future simultaneously.
With his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (a great Andrew Garfield), putting up the cash, Z. and dorm-mates create TheFacebook.com, the progenitor of the world’s biggest website. Soon, Harvard is eating it up. Soon, it grows into a college phenominon, racing to Ivy League schools on the east coast, until Saverin urges they take it to Stanford.
The tagline for The Social Network sums up Zuckerberg’s troubles: “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” The Winklevosses (Winklevi, as Zuckerberg calls them) want to sue, but are limited by Tyler’s urge not to take legal action, since it is unbecoming of Harvard men, especially twins on the rowing team.
(A digression: the rowing sequence at the center of the film is literally one of the greatest filmed athletic events I have ever witnessed. Though it’s a great movie, The Social Network is worth watching for this scene alone.)
Zuckerberg wants the site to grow, to get better, better, better, and meets Napster’s Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, perfectly cast) who fills him with great ideas. Parker’s in California, and when they go to California, Facebook (Parker urges dropping the “the”) grows. Though Parker is rake, the guy who dates Victoria’s Secret models and snorts coke, this isn’t a case of an innocent meeting a devil, for Zuckerberg never really pursues this high life. Rather, it’s a meeting of the minds–both Zuckerberg and Parker are intuitive, and understand the potential better than anyone. At this point, it’s just colleges, but we know that’s soon to change, and Saverin, who can’t see Facebook for what can be, is left behind. The Winklevoss’ sue. Saverin sues. And now everyone is “unfriended.”
What makes The Social Network such an event (and it is an event) is the display of genius not only in the story but in the actual movie itself. The collected talents of David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (who make this thing move at a clip), and the score, by musicians Trant Reznor (yes, I know he’s Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross is the best I’ve heard since Jonny Greenwood’s thumping violin masterpiece for There Will Be Blood. It is specifically the story of Facebook, but if you don’t give a crap about that site, you’ll be stunned by the sheer human drama, the dialogue, by every damn scene. Like the aforementioned Blood, we don’t necessarily give a hoot about the oil industry, but we find Daniel Plainview intriguing. Here, we watch in rapture as Zuckerberg schemes and plans and turns Facebook into the phenomenon it has become.
I was quite struck with the parallels to Fincher’s Zodiac, a movie I love and cannot help but revisit again and again. Like Zodiac, The Social Network is a story of obsession and technology. Zuckerberg, Saverin, and Parker form a similar triumvirate similar to the Graysmith, Toschi, and Avery one. Fincher and Sorkin don’t make these guys villains, but merely smart young men, not in over their heads but lost in their own little worlds, just as the cops and journalists got lost searching for a killer.
As in Zodiac, the truth is never quite clear: yes, it appears that Zuckerberg stole the Winklevoss’ idea–but as Zuckerberg claims (rightly, I think), every time you build a chair you don’t pay the guy who invented the chair. Zuckerberg’s a genius, and a man who truly doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the money he makes. He wants power, he wants respect, he certainly wants love, but most of all he wants his baby, Facebook, to be pure… and probably that’s what makes it so appealing to the rest of us today. Zuckerberg can be a jerk, true, but he’s right about what he wants, and Facebook is better for it today.
Technology is examined here, too. In Zodiac, evil, in the form of the killer, could thrive by leaping jurisdictions, the police barely able to communicate because technology was lacking. Here, evil, in the form of Zuckerberg’s humiliating his girlfriend (and I hesitate to call this evil, as what he did thoroughly pales in comparison to the Zodiac killer), is spread because of technology.
I will cease my comparisons there, except to note the one problem that I have with The Social Network: for all it’s brilliance, there really isn’t a character to relate to, to empathize with. Zuckerberg is a brilliant literary creation, certainly not entirely true, but who can possibly feel for this genius? Saverin is clearly meant to be our moral compass, the one truly hurt, but it is painfully clear that his character is softened, and he’s the one weak spot in this great script: As the money man in the beginning, Saverin doesn’t see the great, great potential of this site, but I bet that in real life he wasn’t such a sweetie, either.
And in the end, in a devastating final shot, Fincher exposes his hand: Facebook fans, and Zuckerman in particular, are lonely souls, groping for love on a laptop in a room without people. The Social Network, then, is a thrilling expose of the birth of a giant corporation, a fascinating character study… and a rather staid critique of the site itself. I wish it weren’t, in part because I enjoy Facebook, and in part because I think that scene will (slightly, perhaps) date the film, just as The Magnificent Ambersons is dated (again, slightly) by its critique of the automobile.
And so, while I admire and was excited by this movie, I’m not sure I can watch it again. None of the characters are people I want to spend a lot of time with, and that’s a bit of a problem for me. The Social Network may be the best movie of the year. Too bad it’s about the worst people.