Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Kids are Not All Right in "The Social Network"


directed by David Fincher
written by Aaron Sorkin
starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, others

Is “The Social Network” a movie of our age, or for all time? Hard to say at this point without knowing the fate of Facebook, the network it depicts (though not the only one, and arguably not even the most important one). But whether Facebook really represents the zeitgeist of an entire generation, or something smaller and more transient, ultimately may not matter. At bottom, the “Facebook movie” isn’t really about Facebook at all, except incidentally. It’s about the building of an empire, and most crucially about the man who built it.

That man, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, who as an undergraduate at Harvard created the prototype for the now (in)famous social networking site that presently boasts half a billion users. Originally restricted to Harvard students, it expanded first to other similarly toney schools and, eventually, to the entire world. It made Zuckerberg a billionaire in the process, but also embroiled him in lawsuits brought by his former friend and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin, who claimed Zuckerberg forced him out of the company, and by fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who accused Zuckerberg of stealing the idea for Facebook from them.

Directed by David Fincher and scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the film shifts between the depositions of Zuckerberg, Saverin, and the Winklevoss twins (played respectively by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Arnie Hammer) and their respective memories of the events at issue, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. Not so much with respect to culpability; whatever the legal merits of the claims against Zuckerberg, everything we see indicates that he used these people and hung them out to dry. The core of the film is not what he did but why, and it’s this aspect that’s both deeply compelling and just as deeply problematic.

“The Social Network” has drawn some fairly lofty comparisons to other tales of empire-builders, ranging from “Citizen Kane” to “There Will Be Blood”; one critic has even called it The Great Gatsby for our times. Inflated analogies aside, the film does share some common DNA with these works. Like them, it’s a parable of ambition, driven by alienation, towards an ever more deeply entrenched alienation—one that manages to make a man with no discernible moral compass oddly compelling and, at the same time, fundamentally unknowable. The hallmark of the filmmakers, however, is unmistakable. Fincher’s spent much of his career depicting the nature and effects of obsession (most prominently in “Zodiac,” but also in films like “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “The Game”), while Sorkin, albeit in a more comic vein, has written plenty about shakers and movers (“A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing”) and the neuroses that drive them.

With Zuckerberg, they strike the mother lode, creating a protagonist at once tragic and comic, inspired and myopic, and fearsome in his single-mindedness. From the moment he first conceives (or steals) the idea, Facebook is all he lives and breathes. Nothing else matters, and other people only matter to the extent they affect the success of Facebook. True, he does respond more spontaneously to the allure of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the wily, smooth-talking founder of Napster who swoops in on Facebook in its early days, dazzles Zuckerberg with seductive promises of unimaginable wealth, fame, and glamour, and persuades him to move his budding business to Palo Alto and go after big-ticket investors at the expense of old friends like Saverin. However, even Parker proves no more than a means to an end, and eventually falls prey to both his own fatal flaws and Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness.

But what spurred Zuckerberg’s quest for dominance? According to Sorkin, it wasn’t just an instinctual lust for power. While Zuckerberg’s precise motives remain opaque, two driving forces emerge early in the movie. The first is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, making the most of her relatively brief screen time), the girlfriend who calls him out as an asshole and unceremoniously dumps him at the film's outset. The second is the kind of privileged social status, embodied in the elite Harvard fraternities known as “finals clubs,” that men with names like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss take for granted, and to which Zuckerberg presumably would never be admitted. Zuckerberg essentially spends the entire movie creating Facebook to make Erica regret her rejection of him, thumbing his nose at the “Winklevi” for good measure—or, to quote his own words, showing them that “for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them”—and punishing poor Eduardo for being invited to join one of the much-vaunted finals clubs.

The problem with this narrative is that it has little or no basis in established fact. Sorkin’s script relies heavily on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, which was based on Mezrich’s interviews with Saverin, articles from the Harvard Crimson, and a whole lot of speculation to fill in the blanks. Neither Mezrich nor Sorkin ever talked to Zuckerberg, and to the limited extent Zuckerberg’s commented on either the book or the movie, he’s predictably denied that he was ever interested in finals clubs or what they represented. That, of course, doesn’t mean he wasn’t, but there’s also no evidence—other than Saverin's say-so—that he was. And there actually is evidence that the Erica storyline is a complete fabrication.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood has played fast and loose with a supposedly “true story.” So why does it bother me in this instance? Maybe because it troubles me that the heart of the film, the part that viewers are likely to remember most vividly and digest as fact, is mostly fiction. Maybe because it lacks the usual indicators of an unreliable narrator, which makes it easier to accept as truth. Maybe because (full disclosure) I went to Harvard myself, several years before Zuckerberg, and even by then the old-money elite were such a marginal percentage of the overall population, and the finals clubs such a tiny sliver of the social scene, that their centrality in movie-Zuckerberg’s universe just doesn’t ring true with me. To be fair, at some level this is consistent with one of TSN’s overarching themes—that by Zuckerberg’s time, the old guard no longer wielded the power it once did, and could be all too easily sidelined by someone armed with talent and vision and unhampered by ethical scruples. (The point is underscored in a delightfully comic, if hammy, scene, in which the Winklevi attempt to convince then-President Larry Summers to take action against Zuckerberg.) Still, the idea that a student as brilliant and gifted as Mark Zuckerberg would be consumed by resentment towards those to the manor born seems at best implausible, at worst downright laughable. (One of Zuckerberg’s classmates has voiced a similar, though much stronger, objection to this aspect of the movie.)

None of this is to detract from the merits of the movie qua movie. It’s a gripping drama, fluidly filmed, sharply paced, and brimming with the kind of crackling dialogue that could only be penned by Sorkin. It features an outstanding lead performance by Eisenberg, who isn’t afraid to play Zuckerberg as an supremely unlikable little sociopath, yet at critical moments reveals subtle glimpses of a well-masked vulnerability. Garfield, too, is excellent, as his foil—as appealing as Zuckerberg is unappealing, but doomed to lag permanently a step behind—while JT is a hoot as the sleazy yet far-sighted foil to the foil, clearly enjoying the role of devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulder. As for the ultra-WASPy Winklevoss twins, they’re almost too well cast; it isn’t easy to take seriously an actor who’s a dead ringer for Prince William and who's himself a scion of the closest thing we have to an American aristocracy. (Arnie Hammer, as it turns out, is the great-grandson of tycoon and art collector Armand Hammer, a name familiar to anyone who’s ever visited the very fine art museum at UCLA.) Nevertheless, he acquits himself well, and just may walk off with the best line in the entire movie.

What this all adds up to is a smart, bracing piece of entertainment that’s more of a riff on actual events than a credible account of them. I just hope that everyone who sees it realizes that’s all it is. Otherwise, this may be one instance in which history wasn’t written by the victors.



And a few belated R.I.P.'s...

Quite a lot of entertainment-related celebrities have passed recently, but three stand out in particular: Tony Curtis, Arthur Penn, and Gloria Stuart. I've only seen each of them in one film - but each of them made a stronger impression with that one film than many an actor or director has over an entire career. I'll never forget Curtis as "Josephine" in the divinely comedic "Some Like It Hot"; Jack Lemmon may have been the funnier of the pair, but he wouldn't have been half so funny without his partner in crime - who also managed to maintain his very male sexiness even when in full drag. Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" - the original American answer to the French nouvelle vague and prototype for movies ranging from "Butch Cassidy" to "Natural Born Killers" - held me riveted from start to finish, and felt as fresh as if I were one of the first moviegoers to see it. And finally, the charming Ms. Stuart was quite possibly the only good to come out of the otherwise execrable "Titanic."

The three of them made other films worth seeing, of course. (Curtis made a baby worth seeing, too, aka Jamie Lee, with then-wife Janet Leigh. Now *that* was a handsome Hollywood couple.) But even if they hadn't, that one performance would have ensured each of them a place in cinematic history. And that's a legacy worth celebrating.


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