Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network


The Social Network details the development of social networking hub Facebook, as the site developed from the drunken game of Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) into a worldwide phenomenon. Facebook has arguably had a tremendous impact on Internet communication, but this film, directed by David Fincher from a script by Aaron Sorkin, doesn't have much to say about the ways in which the site has or has not changed the Internet. Instead, it's more of a psychological and legal drama about the desire for acceptance, the bizarre anti-logic of business in the dot-com era, and of course the American passion for betrayals and lawsuits. The film is, among other things, a scathing portrait of Facebook founder Zuckerberg, who is here portrayed as a disconnected, selfish jerk who betrayed his friends and built his ideas upon the foundation laid by others. The film is a profile of Zuckerberg, but more than that it's a profile of a time (the early-to-mid 2000s) and a place (mostly the inner workings of Harvard University) from a director whose best work has often made geography and time central concerns.

Like Fincher's Zodiac before it, The Social Network is a historical film, but a historical film that is set a mere seven years in the past. It is, nevertheless, history, and Fincher is as deliberate and detail-oriented in recreating the feel of an early 2000s college campus as he was in capturing the feel of 70s San Francisco. The campus at night, bathed in eerie yellow lights and accompanied by the moody music of Trent Reznor (whose effective score, in collaboration with Atticus Ross, alternates between low-key background buzz and bursts of dancey pop-industrial), becomes as powerful a presence in the film as the dangerous nighttime vistas of Zodiac. And the film's detours into college parties — from the glitzy, privately catered affairs of the elite frats to cheesy theme nights and rowdy, drug-fueled house parties — resonate with telling details. The era that Fincher is evoking so concretely here is precisely the era before Facebook changed youth culture by, as Zuckerberg says, putting college social life online. To some extent, in this era where a few years can bring and have brought massive changes in technology, nostalgia cycles have shortened to the point where this film can be nostalgic for the pre-Facebook technology and web culture of a few years ago, when blogs still seemed somewhat novel and websites like MySpace and LiveJournal were at the cutting edge.

Fincher loves dealing with process, methodically following the steps, treating every story like a case to be solved; one suspects that he identified very strongly with Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. Sorkin's script for The Social Network allows Fincher to indulge that fascination with process, as the narrative carefully traces the development of Facebook from the coding right up to the business dealings to the inevitable lawsuits that followed. It's a multi-leveled examination of this story that recalls Zodiac in many ways: of all Fincher's films, there is clearly the strongest connection between his serial killer process piece and his dissection of a website's birth. Both films are backward-looking, and The Social Network makes its retrospective nature explicit by continually cutting back and forth from the dual lawsuits against Zuckerberg to the events that led up to that point. Where the earlier film delved into the gathering of evidence and the obsessive analysis of clues, The Social Network revels in the minutiae of coding and algorithms and innovations.


Although The Social Network is never quite as affecting or as evocative as Zodiac, which is still Fincher's best film, this is a sharp, witty film, packed with great characters and scenes that reveal the mix of careful research and keen observation that Sorkin and Fincher bring to this film. Sorkin famously got tips from Harvard alum Natalie Portman on the secrets of the school's exclusive "final clubs," and this knowledge shows through in the periodic inserts of fraternity hazing and private parties where these privileged elites unwind. The idea of privilege is a key subtext here, as the original germ of an idea for Facebook was to create a social networking site that sets itself apart through exclusivity — specifically, the exclusivity of Harvard prestige. Twin rowing champions Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), who eventually wind up suing Zuckerberg for stealing their ideas, embody that privilege, the inherited elitism of being born into money and feeling entitled to the benefits of that lineage. At one point, outraged by what they see as Zuckerberg's thievery, they use their connections to wrangle a meeting with the president of Harvard, but they're non-plussed when he responds to their complaints with contemptuous jokes and berates them for expecting special treatment because of who their father is. It's a great scene, and a scene that one suspects Zuckerberg himself would appreciate, as it deflates those who just naturally have all the money, charisma, success and athleticism that Zuckerberg seems so desperately to want.

Zuckerberg's complicated attitudes about privilege and elitism — resentment and contempt mingled with his own air of entitlement — also wind through the film. Eisenberg perfectly captures the snobby, snotty, clipped tone of an insecure young geek who's convinced that he should get whatever he believes he deserves — who's convinced, simultaneously, both that he's better than everyone around him, and that everyone else thinks he's insignificant. It's that mix of profound insecurity and outrageous self-confidence, projected in every twitch and mutter of Eisenberg's pitch-perfect performance, that really sells this character, and to some extent the film as a whole. It's a totally satisfying performance of an absolutely aggravating and unlikeable character. Fincher earns equally great performances from everyone in this film, and Justin Timberlake, as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is especially potent, projecting the hyperactive enthusiasm and radical pose of a new generation of Internet entrepeneurs who ride waves of grassroots guerilla programming to international prominence. But despite Timberlake's flashy and fun performance — witness the obvious pleasure he gets from telling a recent conquest that he's a kind of Internet celebrity — it's the quieter, more restrained Eisenberg who remains at the film's core.

As good as Eisenberg is in this role, the script occasionally does him a disservice, most notably with the conceit of hinging so much of Zuckerberg's motivation and psychology on his rejection by girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), who he insults on his blog after their nasty breakup at the start of the film. It's a simplistic thread of pop psychology that even provides the predictable emotional punchline before the end text describes the outcomes of the lawsuits, another all-too-typical legal drama touch. These kinds of pat movie devices don't serve the film well: the all-too-easy intimation that Zuckerberg started Facebook to get revenge on a girl, that his obsession with her continued to drive him for years afterward, conflicts against the subtlety and complexity evinced by the film elsewhere. The film is at its best when it's patiently setting the scene, building up the atmosphere of a college campus and establishing the character of Zuckerberg as an impatient genius whose lack of social niceties make him an unlikely choice for the founder of the world's most successful social website. Sorkin's eloquent, frequently funny script makes the film a lot of fun, whether its gently mocking the pretensions of the Harvard elite (although the Winklevii, as Zuckerberg memorably dubs them, do ironically emerge not as stock villains but as more sympathetic characters than their rival in some respects) or nailing the strange twists of college life (like a great subplot involving a chicken and "forced cannibalism"). This is a smart, entertaining, and often incisive film that merges the in some ways quite distinct aesthetics of Fincher and Sorkin to create a very compelling hybrid.

22 comments:

Jake said...

Great review, Ed, though I disagree on a few things. You're absolutely right that the film doesn't have anything to say about how Facebook changed the Internet, but it certainly has a mind to analyze how it changed the people who use it. Privacy fears no one used to deal with, people arguing in real life for not updating their simulacrum of a life online.

I also don't think that it's saying getting rejected motivated Mark anymore than Welles and Mank thought Rosebud was the key to understanding Kane. The sled and the girl are just the nexus points of all the protagonists' regrets. For all of Mark's insecurity, he never really comes up against someone who isn't impressed by him. Eduardo is breathless at the possibilities of FB, Parker's ego cannot fully mask his hunger to be a part of a site that has a chance of surviving, even the investors Mark insults love his arrogance because they know that the talented tech geeks act like they own the place.

Erica is the one person to openly, emphatically call out Mark on his shit, and he cannot let it go. I think he -- the movie version of Zuck, of course -- makes Facebook less to get back at her than to silence his "most vocal critic.

Of course, the line that intersects with this thread is the casual misogyny of so much behind Facebook. While the real MZ seems more naive than evil, his Facemash was deeply sexist, and I think Sorkin tries to make Mark into not just the brains of Facebook but the soul, and part of Facebook is the stalking, creepy side. He isn't sexist and sexually insecure so much as a projection of Facebook's repository of insecurity and heightened monitoring. I mean, I'll be honest, whenever I think a woman I meet is attractive, I get to know her enough to friend her and then check her relationship status.

I agree that Zodiac is still Fincher's best, though I'm amazed at how much I'm willing to rank this up there with it and Fight Club. The only thing in the entire film I don't like is the final line spoken by Rashida Jones, which, when taken literally, exists almost certainly just to give a circular feel to the script. But even then, I think it works as a more sympathetic take on the same blunt truth that Erica threw at him, that in all these cases, it's Mark who's the problem.

Anonymous said...

nice

Ed Howard said...

Jake, you make some good points, and you're right that the film does bring up some of the changes that Facebook has wrought, and it's so fully immersed in its era that it can't help but engage with the ways in which technology has evolved since then. I wonder, though, now that I think about it, if what the film actually argues is that people haven't changed very much in the Facebook era. Facebook gives, for example, Eduardo and his girlfriend a new venue for their arguments over her possessiveness and jealousy, but it doesn't fundamentally change the nature of their relationship. In the same way, even your description of checking Facebook for "relationship status" isn't such a huge shift from the old paradigm of trying to figure out these kinds of things offline. Facebook makes such things easier, but it's not creating new desires or new emotions: it's only providing an outlet for existing ones. In the same way, Facebook is a vehicle for Zuckerberg's sublimated desire for social acceptance, a way for him to be a part of the massive social network he wishes he was a part of in real life.

My main problem with the Erica subplot is what you bring up about the forced circularity of it all - I see what the script is going for with those scenes, but it feels like a scripter's device rather than an organic expression of character. I was too aware of the gears clicking into place to be moved or anything else by Erica calling out Mark and subsequently becoming an object of obsession for him.

But at the same time Erica is an icon for the film's critique of geek misogyny. Your analysis of the film's subcurrent about stalking and online male/female dynamics is dead-on, and this constitutes another of the film's most fascinating thrusts.

Jake said...

"I wonder, though, now that I think about it, if what the film actually argues is that people haven't changed very much in the Facebook era."

Jim Emerson argued something similar, and I think he's onto something. I suppose what I'd argue is that Facebook changed us by removing the filter. It didn't alter our brains so much as knock down all the walls that kept our more extreme attitudes at bay.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I keep thinking of Ida Lupino in the climax of They Drive By Night yelling "The dors made me do it! That's it -- the doors made me do it!"

Technology didn't make people shits. They did it all by themselves. For instance. . .

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, people just like to blame technology. But all the Internet does is provide a cover for people to act like assholes. It makes me laugh when people I've met offline have these tough guy online personae.

In some ways, the movie version of Zuckerberg might be seen as creating a forum where his usual brusque manner and superior attitude could flourish. The Internet is full of people who act online the way Zuckerberg does in real life.

LEAVES said...

I hear all of this hubbub about how facebook has completely altered human interaction and... I just don't see it. I like how you phrase it: Facebook has an enormous impact on internet communication, but how dramatic is that, really? It's just a venue, everything that people use it for is an expression of their character, not the revolutionary nature of the technology altering human nature. Some of the writing on this film is hyperbole and self parody of the highest (and lowest) caliber, it's amazing. Of course, I actually listened to two different podcasts talking about the film and, astonishingly, I found something worse than excessive hyperbole! They both harped on the same exact points, about what the film 'should have done', about how Garfield's character, which was 'obviously a stand-in for the audience, the everyman' (what? Why not just... a character in the film?) was 'flawed' due to his, I don't know, human failings? Basically I listened to about an hour of two separate groups assailing the film for not properly entertaining them as they wanted to be entertained. I think maybe I should just avoid new movies; it brings out either the worst in people or just the worst people. You're doing fine, though, Ed, as usual. I think people's reactions to this film says much more about our generation than the film itself, and it's not good.

DavidEhrenstein said...

On "Infomania" the Beyond fabulous Bryan Safi recently referred to "BRavo" as "The other 'Logo.'"

In much the same way Jesse Eisenberg has been the other Michael Cera. But The Social Network may well prove breakout opportunity for his cinematic persona -- such as it is.

LEAVES said...

Also, as to your latest comment, I find that 'internet tough guy' manifests itself in public in the same ways that it does online. The internet provides a security of anonymity, which is the same way people use their circle of friends to act like a tough guy before shying away from a real confrontation. And, really, these internet tough guys just act like the real life tough guys who themselves hide behind their physical strength. That both internet tough guys and real life tough guys fall back on 'force' when their reason fails them, whether insults or physical, implies that both are simply an expression either of intellectual weakness or avoidance. Human nature manifesting its ugliness in different ways, but the same nature.

Ed Howard said...

Leaves, obviously I agree that the impact of Facebook and similar sites has been overstated. But The Social Network doesn't really delve into any of this stuff too deeply. It's more interested in how the people involved in this online revolution behave when they're not online. The Internet only gives Zuckerberg (and others like him) an opportunity to express the creepy stalker tendencies and sexist ideas that are already a part of his personality but just don't get expressed quite as overtly when he's face-to-face with people. That illusion of anonymity and isolation is the most pertinent feature of Internet communication, and one of the things that's so interesting about The Social Network is that it allows us to see what Internet assholism looks and sounds like when it's practiced in the offline world.

David, I've always thought of Eisenberg as the "other" Michael Cera myself, but it's to his credit that Cera didn't occur to me once during this film. It's a much less boyish, more hard-edged performance than I can imagine Cera delivering, and it goes a long way towards making Eisenberg seem like more than just an imitator of Cera's awkward, shy persona.

LEAVES said...

I agree that it's not what it's about, and I was sort of going off on a tangent about how people are talking about the film. It's either distressing or depressing, I can't tell, they sort of get muddled in a situation like this. I'm glad that you live in a world where assholism is something you have to go to the movies to encounter. If only we could all be so lucky.

Free Best Movies said...


The Social Network
is not about Facebook. It's about Mark Zuckerberg and the people associated with him, its hilarious, laugh out loud funny, and one hell of an exciting ride - everyone in the theater was laughing. The witty one liners and sarcastic jabs were thrown perfectly and the dialog is just as fast and desperate as Zuckerbergs thoughts and feelings. Jessie Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg so well you can't believe it's the same guy who has been in Michael Sera's shadow for so long. He was impressive and brought the character to life in a way few others could.

MovieMan0283 said...

Just saw this movie and enjoyed it a lot - it was so generally well-done that the weak spots (that ridiculously photographed crew race, the fun but out-of-place goofy dialogue of Parker and his girl) stuck out like sore thumbs. In the Cera-Eisenberg wars, Eisenberg outflanks Cera here and I think he'll retain the advantage. He's kind of the Facebook to Cera's Friendster here if you will; more nuanced and compelling than the earlier, popular model. Sorry, Cera. (Actually it's apples to oranges, I don't think Cera's ever done a real dramatic performance, but his schtick has grown a bit one-note.)

I like that you pointed out the nostalgia aspect; that struck me as someone who was in college at the exact same time as the characters in the film - though I was struck more by the nostalgia for the earliest days of the current social internet rather than the last days of offline sociability.

Ed Howard said...

Movieman, interesting you pick out those "weak" spots. I thought the crew race and its aftermath were great. I think it was Jim Emerson who pointed out how the brightly lit, almost unreal-seeming crew race provides a visual contrast against the dark nighttime scenes and cramped interiors that dominate the rest of the film. And indeed, the Winklevii seem to be populating a very different world from Mark Zuckerberg, which is appropriate I think. For similar reasons, I really dug the banter between Parker and that girl; it reminded me of the snappy patter you expect in old-school Hollywood comedies, and again emphasized how Parker is coming at similar ideas from a very different place from the more blunt Zuckerberg, whose own snappy zingers have a very different, somewhat nasty, edge to them. I think the balancing of different moods and tones is quite purposeful, and extends well beyond these particular scenes to nearly every moment with either Parker or the twins.

Like you, I have some nostalgia for this period, although I was graduating college just as Facebook was being formed. But I went to college right as Napster was rising to prominence, and the culture, both online and offline, of that era is still very much a part of this film's pre-Facebook milieu. Technology nostalgia is, I think, very interesting. This film made me think quite often of Kevin Huizenga's comic Ganges, which includes a very touching story that revolves around the nostalgia for the early dot-com revolution and for early multiplayer online video games. I think Fincher and Huizenga are similarly interested in the emotions associated with changes in technology, the ways in which, for modern people, shifts in technology provide a kind of timeline tied to a person's life: we remember our childhoods in terms of video games we played and the TVs we played them on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Graduating college when Facebook was born? Good grief, Ed -- how old are you?

MovieMan0283 said...

Interesting points, Ed. For me, the noticeable shifts in style (and I think we both agree they were both noticeable and shifts) could have worked if there were more of them, but the film at its heart seemed to be a straight-ahead, very focused procedural piece and Fincher's/Sorkin's flourishes (I think the crew race belongs to the former, and the cutesy Parker dialogue to the latter) were distracting. Actually, though, I have to say I didn't like the crew race on a visceral level, while I enjoyed the banter even as it took me out of the film a bit.

As someone immensely frustrated by the 00s cinema's general irrelevancy to the culture at large, I'm always fascinated by films which do manage to tap into the zeitgeist, although I wish it wasn't nearly always in terms of content rather than form (that said, I think Fincher was wise to make a more or less conventional film here, look-Ma aggressively new-media stylings probably would not have served this particular story well however superficially "relevant"). The Winklevii definitely seemed to inhabit a different universe than Zuckerberg but I don't think it was really stylistically demonstrated as such until the crew scene. I'll be interested to read Emerson's take, though.

One last thing: I was amused, watching the movie, to see how I kind of resented Parker for dragging an earlier era of the internet into a later one, a late 90s/early 00s Gen-X aesthetic into a Millennial project. As if he was sullying Facebook's clean, sleek brand with his now retro-seeming Napster logo and backward-baseball-cap late 90s style (even though neither factors in the film at all, and indeed Timberlake seems to be playing an entirely different Parker than I remember seeing in the media at the time). Weird - like I was the techno-fashion polic or something, haha...

Ed Howard said...

Heh, I'm 29 David. So the nostalgia for Facebook and Napster in this movie definitely resonates a lot with me as a reminder of that era, as it apparently does for Movieman as well. Style and technology and nostalgia and old technologies meeting new ones: that about sums it up.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Aha -- just as I suspected. I could be your father If I were straight.(1947 for those of you just joining us.)

From 1961-1964 I attended Communist Martyrs High -- aka. The High Schhol of Music and Art -- in New York City. Not only did we not have the internet, we didn't have homse video. Oh you damned kids have it so easy!

Joel said...

@Movieman: I think Fincher was wise to make a more or less conventional film here, look-Ma aggressively new-media stylings probably would not have served this particular story well however superficially "relevant").

I completely agree with this comment. Although Fincher's work is evident in every frame of this film, the most "Fincheresque" sequences (sorry, I had no choice but to use that term) are the opening credits sequence and boat race, both of which are the only two sequences I can recall that are bereft of dialogue. Fincher wisely lets Sorkins' script (and by extension, the performances) dominate the film and keeps his visual pyrotechnics to a minimum otherwise (unless you count the best special effect this year, the Twins, which I don't because it's so amazingly subtle).

I think this is technically the best Hollywood film I've seen in 2010 so far, but I wish it had a bit more of Zodaic's patience and a little less of the Sportsnight zing (even though I'd happily agree this is Sorkin's best work in a decade).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Next: Gawker: The Movie with Vincent Kartheizer as Nick Denton and Taye Diggs as the boyfriend who dumps him.

Gus will of course direct.

marketing said...

I honestly thought the Social Network was an awesome movie. Some parts were a little hard to follow but overall it was extremely well done. Well written and well directed.

poker affiliate said...

Zuckerberg is portrayed as a kniving genius that betrayed his only friend. He seems a little more normal and well-adjusted in real life, but still seems very awkward. The movie was really intriguing, and is one of the best movies of the year so far.