I’m somewhat ashamed that I haven’t kept up this blog over the last several months–during a pandemic when I had plenty of time to write to my heart’s content about movies, no less. What makes this worse is that I, like so many people stuck at home, have found plenty of time to piss away on social media. All the thousands of words and characters about what a terrible year 2020 has been. Escape from our social and political climate–and, in the case of the western United States, our actual climate–is impossible, as is any refuge from friends and neighbors who one cannot help but watch from afar as they broadcast ignorant opinions into the same void we’re all staring into right now.
The idea that anyone could’ve predicted just how poisonous our world would become by Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, 4Chan, Reddit, and yes, our beloved Facebook, feels farfetched. There are no shortage of critiques on social media–some of which predate the internet. And while stronger access to information and people is not an unambiguous failure, we seem to be just as stunted as we are empowered by the world at our fingertips, or even in our pockets.
Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher did not anticipate the rise of Facebook and the effects that the site have had on us–at least, not in full–but they knew that even Mark Zuckerberg, or their version of him as adapted from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, would be no happier for creating and profiting from a platform that made him Harvard’s most beloved dropout since Bill Gates, that made him the president of his own final club, and that made him one of the youngest billionaires in history. Social media is populated by millions and millions of real people, but they’re only as real as the surface or screen we see them.
That’s the crux of The Social Network. At least, that’s the idea that bookends the movie. Is Mark Zuckerberg, a difficult, unrepentant, albeit brilliant nerd an asshole, or is he just trying so hard to be one? I love The Social Network from top to bottom, but in the ten years since I walked out of that opening day screening, even as I’ve come to appreciate and peel back the film more with age, I’ve wrestled with that question. This is why the Rashomon-indebted procedural framework is so vital to this story. By being exposed to the world, and the world exposed to us, how much artifice is truth, and how much of the truth is artifice?
Let’s start with a simpler question: What does Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) want when we meet him in 2003? Well, he wants to stand out. By his own admission, Mark, brainy as he is, can’t simply be smart; there are hundreds of millions of people in China alone who are of similar intelligence. So, instead, Mark is going to get the attention of Harvard’s elite, but he doesn’t know how. He explains as much, in exhausting and erratic detail, to his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in the film’s opening scene–which is, for my money, as fine an opening scene has ever been in any picture. The Social Network isn’t too interested in playing with dramatic irony, but every time I watch this movie, the idea that even this Mark Zuckerberg will key into everything that he will use to create Facebook is both counterintuitive and the most logical conclusion of such a personality type.
This ruthless quest for approval and status, to be liked and respected, will work out for Mark, even at the cost of driving everyone away from him. After all, this is a person who sees people in only the ways in which they benefit him. To paraphrase Erica Albright, Mark Zuckerberg, sure to be a very successful computer person, won’t be disliked for being a nerd, but will be for being an asshole. And what does Mark do? He doubles down, blogs about Erica, and in a foreboding bit of inspiration from his roommate/co-founder Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), by hacking the personal information of his classmates to create FaceMash: A binary comparison game rating the attractiveness of their women classmates.
The creation and reception of FaceMash is the film in miniature. Mark takes a germ of idea from a friend, takes a major tool from another who is concerned about his well-being, and makes a popular and misguided novelty toy to impress his schoolmates. All of this takes place over real-time narration from Mark, the dialogue of which is taken from his old LiveJournal entries. The experiment is crass, not to mention humiliating for anyone featured on the site, and Mark is disciplined, only to face no real consequences. And like the film that follows, the breakneck pace of Kirk Baxter’s and Angus Wall’s editing turns the dull prospect of abusing technology for a childish game into a techno-heist, with Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’s futuristic score propelling fast typing and internet surfing into something balletic.
Naturally, FaceMash is a rousing success, as the intense traffic crashes Harvard’s network. Cut to several years into the future, where Mark Zuckerberg is fending off two major lawsuits. One from Tyler & Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer as both) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) on the basis of theft of intellectual property. After the FaceMash incident, the Winklevi and Narendra recruit Mark to work on their project HarvardU, extending an olive branch for his talents to help, in part, rehabilitate Mark’s deserved image as a misogynist and a creep–responding to the notion with, “You would do that for me?” a line Erica throws at Mark before dumping him. The other, more complicated suit is from Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), from whom Mark took a sizable chunk of the company for several reasons.
The birth of Facebook is all but glossed over by the film. In fact, much of the platform’s development is sidelined for testimony that Mark is avoiding the Winklevi and Narendra, having agreed to assist them with HarvardU, only to blow them off at every turn. The one major milestone in Facebook’s creation that we spend time with beyond Mark pitching the site to Eduardo is the inclusion of the “relationship status” feature–the one sentimental moment in a film with knives out for just about every character. As if the film means to say that the only major thing Mark Zuckerberg created in this time is a trio of POWERFUL ENEMIES, who are stymied at every turn.
What Fincher and Sorkin are more interested in is the rise of Facebook. In almost no time at all, Mark has become the most beloved figure in the Ivy League. When they expand to the west coast, Facebook catches the eye of disgraced wunderkind Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake): The living, breathing cautionary tale of who Mark could become. As many people admire Mark, and as many people will support him, Sean is who Mark sees himself in, right down to the same motivations on which they’ve built their legacies. As a result, Mark’s and Eduardo’s friendship becomes strained, as Mark cuts Eduardo bit by bit out of a company he helped build from the ground up–with Eduardo’s initiation into the Phoenix Club serving as a potential point of envy and hurt for Mark. By the end of the film, Mark has, for better and worse, cut ties with both Sean and Eduardo.
The Mark Zuckerberg we meet in a dim and crowded Cambridge bar at the top of the film doesn’t change all that much. As in every scene, we seldom see Mark listening to anyone. If he’s having a conversation, he’s trying to win or he changes the subject; if someone is speaking to him and they get to finish a sentence, he’s off in his own world. Mark mistakes attention for meaningful connection. After all, that’s about as deep as most social media runs: We ask for, give, and receive notice to and from others. Which once again begs the question: Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole, or is he just trying so hard to be one? At a certain point, they are one in thee same. But then comes the ending of the film, and we get why Mark is willing to go to such lengths. After all, Mark only ever offers one apology throughout the entire film. That’s to Erica, as he begs her not to break things off with him. While Mark Zuckerberg is not the first person to move our cultural landscape for love and sex, I can’t think of another character who is so willing destroy everything and everyone around him just for someone he can’t have. And he gets everything he could ever want except for the one thing he wants more than anything. Mark is tactless and fixated on the wrong goals. Being mixed up isn’t a crime, but pretending not to be and having no regard for others is.
By this point, The Social Network has been scrutinized to death–even though the film is more relevant with each passing year. The only other major American film that compares to a reasonable degree is Citizen Kane. This is not a novel observation, but there’s a particular rarity to one great film mirroring what many could well argue is the finest piece of cinema ever committed to celluloid, all while speaking to the time and place in which the later film is made with a singular voice. Is The Social Network as good as Citizen Kane. I will say that Fincher’s movie, with that director’s meticulous fingerprints smattered on every stunning frame, is the critique of the American dream that I’m most partial to. The Social Network should not have worked. A movie about Facebook was so tacky at the time, and still repels people. That Fincher and Sorkin pull the film off as well as they do is a miracle. Moreover, I would go so far as to say that The Social Network lives in the pantheon of the greatest films to be made in my lifetime–which includes Spirited Away, Parasite, Mulholland Drive, Fargo, Mad Max: Fury Road, and a handful of others. I’ve no doubt in my mind that The Social Network is as good or better than most, if not all of those titles.
Truth is, I’ve loved The Social Network since I was 16. I remember seeing the notices flood onto the awards forums I frequented back then. The television spots featured rave after rave from critics with Jónsi’s “Go” playing over the ads. I was a Fincher devotee by that point, having only missed Alien³ and The Game. I must’ve seen Zodiac a hundred times by then. Right away, I loved the movie, in no small part due to how much I related to Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg. Ten years later, I know that Mark is the villain, and I condemn him as much as I marvel at the subtlety and mastery of storytelling and film craft on screen, but I get making a mess over a pretty girl. In the end, no amount of power, money, or digital make-up can make anyone a better person, nor do they fill the void where a true bond with a person can be. Rashida Jones says as much. Mark Zuckerberg can stand on someone else’s shoulders and call himself tall, but when he gets down, he’ll still be refreshing that profile over and over to see if all of his work is worth this one moment.