‘You don’t get to 500 million friends without making
a few enemies’: The Social Network (2010)

It’s assumed that Facebook is so often at the heart of popular culture these days that a film about its creation should be as meaningful to an audience as the web itself as a site of literature, politics, art, etc. Those who recall the work and play excitements of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) — the free labour of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the uncertainty in his colleagues’ responses, the sheer information-sharing spirit of the film — may feel a slight regression here. What compelled me about Zodiac was its scope and Fincher’s sheer enthusiasm for illuminating the historical record with a Pakulaian eye: his interest seemed to be primarily in documentation, in the collation and synopsising of materials, people, testimony, imagery and theory, in the clashing of analytical methods and the furnishing of documentary evidence to assist a judgement (and not necessarily to arrive at one). The Director’s Cut DVD edition, which is now a household favourite, established a sense of authorial and stylistic purpose that, three years on, is more than familiar to us now as we watch The Social Network . . . and I confess to not liking Fincher's latest anywhere near as much.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s sense that the inception story of Facebook should be worked through narratively as a series of male-dominated crises isn't the worst crime perpetrated by a writer this year, but among those most deeply felt by some in its audience (and I totally count myself in this) who are already primed for something a little less absolute. The film makes these concessions intentionally, so of this we should at least beware. But, writing issues aside, The Social Network is one of the most engaging films to be produced under the Hollywood system — via Michael De Luca, via Scott Rudin, via Columbia and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street — in many years.

The film stirs a fuss over two politically irrelevant but not culturally uninteresting civil lawsuits: in the first instance, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook Chief Executive, defends an ownership dispute which is filed on behalf of the Winklevoss twins (Tyler and Cameron) and Divya Narendra; in the second, breach of contract, partnership and fiduciary duty claims are brought against Zuckerberg by Eduardo Saverin: best friend, company co-founder and principal investor. The film turns to both pretty sharply after a gripping introductory segment which expands from Zuckerberg’s dorm, Kirkland House, to cover a party at the Phoenix Club and the entire nine House system of Harvard College. In this sequence Zuckerberg, dejected when his girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him at a Boston bar in the Fall of 2003, naturally attempts to validate his existence by bouncing back: first by venting his anger online, secondly by not-so-naturally scratching up a viral website which takes proverbial pot-shots at Harvard’s women and crashes the college web servers with 450 uniques. For crossing this and several other boundaries of privacy, copyright and community security in one go, Zuckerberg is reprimanded by the Ad Board, just enough to bolster a public profile that earns the respect of three Harvard students (the Harvard Connection team of Narendra and the Winklevosses) who are in the market for either a prodigy, or a programmer, or both. Accepting their pitch for an online community site, Zuckerberg agrees to help (which may or may not entail creating their code), ditches that idea, rents a server, expands the original programming and algorithms which he devised to run his Facemash viral, ditches the Harvard Connection, single-handedly codes a centralised community site for Harvarders, registers the name with his web provider, and launches the site in its original incarnation as in the first week of February 2004 — his investor Eduardo in tow. The arrival further down the line of Sean Parker, the here thoroughly carnivorous co-founder of Napster to whom the film eventually gravitates in the cheery milieu of Palo Alto, gives Zuckerberg a taste of what it is that he should aim for — the chance to build in the Valley a company with the power to enhance connectivity and revolutionise the popularity of the internet on a global scale.

Piranha Club: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)
in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010)

As the subject of Jesse Eisenberg’s astonishing portraiture, Zuckerberg emerges here in both great and ghastly shape: a brilliant ambition, a marvel at computer-science, an astonishing directness and clarity in his thinking and vision, yet he is simultaneously an impressionable blackguard, a vindictive sociopath, a fierce opportunist. Of Sorkin’s fictionalisation I think we’re all by now well on guard, but in the care of Eisenberg his Zuckerberg is a complex creation. The introductory scene, for instance, with Zuckerberg’s then current girlfriend, the fictional Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), is perfection; Sorkin’s dialogue — magnificent here and thoroughly, endlessly consumable — presumes a character so agitated, inexperienced and conflicted about women, about one woman maybe, that he is constantly swooping and diving to unpick Erica’s sentences and determine precisely their meaning; for his part, Eisenberg matches the theme with such delicacy and slow-burn irritation that I find it is impossible to keep him at a distance — the crisis of confidence that he projects and the sense at hand that self-loathing is all the while gradually bleeding into his open wounds and insecurities combine to perfectly exemplify what is altogether inventive and inspiring and uneasy about The Social Network. As a scene, it has nothing perhaps of the gentle elegance of an exchange from Se7en (1995), or the meticulous balance and exactitude of a Panic Room (2002) natter; in this more studious period of Fincher, it is angled aslant: like Zodiac, it’s jittery, it’s stabbing in several directions, and it is inarguably worthwhile. On the other side of the casting spectrum, Justin Timberlake seems to thrive as the playboy with a certain vulnerability, and Andrew Garfield makes a likeable though helpless Eduardo, the obvious objection being that the latter doesn’t quite pull off the budding businessman hell-bent on putting his specialist knowledge (hence, the meteorology/oil distribution thing) and acumen to use, although his charm, resolve and eventual disquiet all feel precisely on-point. Mara, as already noted, is tip-top, likewise Armie Hammer, whose marvellous interplay with his imaginary self and body-double (Josh Pence) provide the Winklevosses with a memorable Addams Family flair. The film’s other women — Brenda Song as the group’s trophy plaything and Rashida Jones’ junior lawyer Marylin Delpy — are treated pretty unemphatically, which, this being a guys-falling-out movie, is no fair criticism, but their wild and cyclical (respectively) trajectories are magnified in this particular edit.

The film is enriched by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ synthetic score, but more than this the inclusion over the final credits of The Beatles’ original Baby You’re a Rich Man, which suspended the film on a floating high in my memory as I dashed off abruptly to catch the L.F.F. screening of Miike Takashi’s 13 Assassins (2010), inspired further for me a sense of kinship with the director or with the writer or whosoever shortlisted this, one of the band’s most enjoyable in my opinion, for approval.

Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in the film’s showcase opening scene

Thus, to the issue of the writer-dramatist’s prerogative. In the hands of Fincher, Sorkin’s hateful neurotic and innocent charmer, the opportunistic slut and humiliated ex, the vainglorious ass and gaggle of villainous witches seem altogether less aggressive and excitable than when they appeared in previous incarnations (A Few Good Men, Malice, The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War, visceral works looking for visceral responses in their audience), yet the archetypal character trajectories both writer and director arrive at weakens their collective accomplishment. Could Sorkin find no way in which to foster a more critical examination of the company’s progress; of the skills, aptitude and cunning of even the story’s key sympathetic characters? The traditional argument is that general audiences neither desire nor expect to see a film with a high (near-documentary) level of factual accuracy or character complexity. My argument is familiar but sincere: we still have the eye and the heart for mainstream works that overcome cinematic and story rhetoric, for works that do so in favour of less traditional representational forms, for character psychology, for social critique that has never before been so accurately depicted on the screen … for projects that do not need to so overtly revere the obviously compassionate and indict the mischievous token enemy. That Sorkin’s tale, Fincher’s film, is a conventional drama doesn’t bug me; that characterisation and factual accuracy suffer emphatically in Sorkin’s hands bloody well does. On occasion I fell to wondering, as clearly as Lawrence Lessig evidently, if Aaron Sorkin knew how to write about the internet, or the route which Facebook took to an equitable future, or even the people all around us who are fully integrated into a broadband online environment. The film pays no more attention to Facebook usage than it does to preparing us all for the sudden manic turn of Brenda Song’s Christy Lee (and seriously: where the fuck did that come from??). Given the calibre of interview Sorkin's providing on the promotional run — for the internet he shows not the slightest respect — it seems he does not care. The suggestion, therefore, that the inventor of a social networking site with 500 million users plus is the loneliest soul on earth fulfils a screenwriter’s demand to make things classically theatrical.

Brenda Song as bunnyboiler Christy Lee

So there is something of an artistic mismatch, which maddens anyone who admires Fincher’s approach to filmmaking as highly as I. The dominant register is Fincher’s own, his table-level eye documenting things coolly and without surreal invention, but the story, the arcs, and the meaning are vintage Sorkin: gratuitous and sleazy, like artefacts on Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull.

Yet I like it, and I’m encouraged that I want to and will see it again shortly. What Sorkin’s Zuckerberg makes of Facebook in the final outcome is most clear in the film’s grim parting image. In the scene that frames it, Zuckerberg cuts a solitary figure, the key accidental billionaire of Ben Mezrich’s title left to tend to his affairs alone in a high-ceilinged, low lit and virtually soundless office space. There, he intermittently taps refresh on his laptop having sent a friend request out into the ether. It lasts only a minute (give or take), but it is like experiencing, again, perfection. In all this, there is the sense that he has found a way of communicating without harming those around him — the internet has given a home to Mark Zuckerberg.

24 October, 2010


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