I admit, I was initially put off by the notion of a film about Facebook. It felt too soon, meaning – how could anyone make a resonant film about something that is still very much happening? How can we have perspective on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 26 year-old founder, or the cultural power of Facebook, when the phenomena – both man and network – are clearly still evolving, in both our realities and our collective minds?
These questions drove me to speculate about why crack TV-writer, playwright, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (whose four seasons of The West Wing I can fairly recite backwards and forwards by now) would have agreed to write the screenplay for The Social Network (directed by David Fincher) back in August 2008, before the book on which the film is based, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, was even finished – particularly since Sorkin admittedly knew very little about social networking at the time and purportedly dislikes social media of all kinds. “I’ve heard of Facebook, in the same way I’ve heard of a carburetor,” Sorkin told New Yorker writer Jose Antonio Vargas. “But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn’t know how to find it.”
Which brings me to what struck me most about The Social Network, and what ultimately prevented me from really losing myself in it. Despite the 500-million strong reach of Facebook itself, the universe of The Social Network’s central conflicts is stiflingly small. After all, my guess is that none of these guys — Zuckerberg, who came up in the affluent Westchester suburbs (as did Sorkin); Silicon Valley wonderkid and Napster founder Sean Parker, who plays a significant role in Zuckerberg’s ascent; or blueblood scions Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twin classmates who sue Zuckerberg for stealing “their” social networking idea and ultimately get a $65 million settlement – none of them (unlike, say, Jay Gatz) likely knows how to find a carburetor.
The film is essentially about the three pillars of American megasuccess – money, class, and genius – and how varying combinations of these, in the democratized digital age, battle it out. Both Zuckerberg and Sorkin felt the tinglings of genius, or a talented otherness at least, early on – Sorkin as an actor/playwright, Zuckerberg as a programmer – and both came up in the second-generation affluence that supported them in pursuing those talents. The third leg of success – aristocracy – is what Zuckerberg (according to the film) comes up against at Harvard, both in realizing his manhood and in launching his social networking empire. Unfortunately, with this obstacle as the emotional fulcrum of the film, I found that I had a hard time really giving a crap.
This assumes, of course, that Sorkin would want us to give a crap. Much has been said about the degree to which The Social Network skewers Zuckerberg, making him out to be socially retarded at best; vindictive, petty, and monomaniacal at worst. (Days before the movie’s release, Zuckerberg pledged $100 million in stocks to Mayor Cory Booker’s Newark educational initiatives, and then went on Oprah to make the announcement, which many presumed to be preemptive strikes, mapped out by a jacked-up PR team and aimed at leveling the public-image playing field.) But most who’ve seen and reviewed the film recognize that Sorkin and Fincher have crafted something more complex than a snot-nosed jerk in the character of Mark Zuckerberg. In Sorkin’s own words:
“The movie is not meant as an attack. [Zuckerberg] spends the first one hour and fifty-five minutes as an antihero and the last five minutes as a tragic hero.”
Scott Foundas of FilmComment writes:
“Fincher and Sorkin chart a more treacherous course straight down the middle of Zuckerberg’s many contradictions, one in which there are no obvious winners or losers, good guys or bad – only a series of highly pressurized social (and genetic) forces.”
David Denby of the New Yorker attributes this complexity to a more delineated division of labor between writer and director: “Sorkin created an emotionally stunted, closed-off young man, and Fincher pulled something touching out of [actor] Jesse Eisenberg […] after many of Zuckerberg’s haughtiest riffs, a tiny impulse of regret quivers across his lips.” Fincher is a west-coaster – born in Denver, raised in Oregon and northern California – and seen by cohorts and fans as a quintessential outsider, having skipped college and gone straight into film-making apprenticeships. “There is, in all of Fincher’s work, an outsider’s restlessness that chafes at the intractable rules of ‘polite’ society,” writes Foundas, “and naturally aligns itself with characters like the journalist refusing to abandon the case in Zodiac and Edward Norton’s modern-day Dr. Jekyll in Fight Club.”
Denby writes that Fincher’s work in The Social Network is “unexpected,” a departure from the “sullen menace, convulsive violence, and aura of the magical and the uncanny” that we’ve seen in his previous films. But I would argue that all these are present in The Social Network, perhaps even more so because of the weird layering of Fincher’s sensibilities with the fixed hardware of the settings – interiors and exteriors at Harvard; sleek Silicon Valley offices; decadent California night clubs for freshly-wealthy youngsters; various board and legal conference rooms of attorneys representing aristocrats, corporations, universities; a crew race at Oxford (tony boat club and royalty galore).
Coupled with a stunningly evocative soundtrack, Fincher imbues each of these settings with its own particular, stylized creepiness – a strategy that, despite my admiration of his previous films and their disturbing mood-manipulations, I found I just couldn’t get with. While Sorkin’s dialogue is bitingly funny at times (the opening break-up scene will surely go down in film history as a classic, alongside Meg Ryan’s orgasm scene in When Harry met Sally and Jack Nicholson’s sandwich scene in Five Easy Pieces), I was struck by how seriously — too seriously for both the subject matter and script — each of these worlds and the characters they spawn take themselves; from the vengeance-seeking “Winklevi,” melodramatic in their vow to take down the little shit who dared undermine the dignity of ye true Men of Harvard; to the smarmy Sean Parker, Humbert Humbert-esque in his imperious desperation (as portrayed by the fawn-faced Justin Timberlake); to a brusque and irritable Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), staunchly upholding the Darwinism-cum-paternalism of Harvard’s best-of-the-best ethos.
I’d like to agree with Denby, who feels that Fincher brings to the film an outsider’s secret ingredient; but what I felt in the end was that Fincher’s spooky, mid-distanced eye over both aristocracy and the newly mega-rich—which both darkened and brightened the feel of both kinds of wealth and power—leaned toward the cartoony, never quite hitting the sweet spot between insidious and absurd. He needed to get both closer and further away. The supposed Sorkin-Fincher match-made-in-heaven never quite coalesced for me, and I can’t help but wonder if Sorkin himself, a master of the incisively funny-dark, is pleased with the result. On the other hand, Eisenberg’s performance is excellent; indeed he makes us want to laugh, cry, and spit all at once. In Zuckerberg’s character, much more so than in the worlds and forces he confronts, Sorkin and Fincher (and Eisenberg) hit the mark beautifully. I came away from the film wanting to send Mr. Zuckerberg a Facebook message saying, “Don’t worry, kid. Just relax and try to enjoy your life” but never wanting to meet the guy – in other words, wanting to be “friends,” but not friends.
The film has been widely screened and well-received, and yet ultimately, I couldn’t figure out who this film is for: for elite insiders, it would likely smack of “liberal bias.” For outsiders, what is there to care about in this rarefied world of money and exclusivity, where 20-year-olds claim entitlements to world-domination and instant success so outsized you want to smack them all? And for those (like Sorkin, like Zuckerberg, and, full disclosure, like me, a graduate of elite institutions whose grandparents were illiterate and whose parents survived wartime poverty), who’ve been ever and always near the ivory tower but never inside, Fincher’s spookifying and mystifying makes it all seem aestheticized in a distancing way, as opposed to a penetrating one.
What we have here in the end is a fascinating matrix of insiders and outsiders, writer and director included. In this digital age, the questions are thrown up in the air: who has money, who has power, who has genius, and how is all of this being stirred up and spit out? Which brings me back to the beginning, to my skepticism about perspective: it seems to me the brew is still simmering, the flavors nowhere near knit together, and the elements in an unpredictable state of flux. Fincher had his work cut out for him, for how do you calibrate your distance to/from a subject and a social structure that are in constant morph and motion? Foundas concludes his review of The Social Network with a compelling statement — “Here,” he writes, “is a movie made to remind us that nothing in this life can turn a Zuckerberg into a Winklevoss” — that I want to embrace for its eloquent simplicity but think is ultimately too static. None of this seems to me quite ready for our judgments, nor our full emotional investment – that of all 500 million of us, that is, as opposed to a select few.