Film Review: The Social Network

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Lonely Planet

(The Social Network, David Fincher, US, 2010, 121 mins)

[Warning: This review discusses the film’s final scene]

Facebook is an extraordinary invention and one that has changed the lives of its users. In a scene that explains the film’s ontology, Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker – founder of Napster and late gatecrasher to the Facebook party, tells Zuckerberg that he’s had a “once in a generation” idea. It’s hard to dismiss that as hyperbole. Facebook hasn’t changed the way people live but it’s served to engineer connections that would have been impossible otherwise. Refracted through the prism of communications, Zuckerberg’s site might be as important as the telephone. One approaches the film with genuine anticipation, knowing it represents a little piece of your own social history. It’s a revolution that’s not yet fully played out but we’re neck deep in it and we don’t yet know all the consequences.

There are children alive in the world today who wouldn’t be, had their cheating parents not met on the site. Whereas once, social forces inevitably separated people, ensuring the dead wood drifted into the darkest corner of your memory, it’s now possible to live your entire life and never lose touch with a single person. I think of my own experience and realise that I have friends because of Zuckerberg that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve re-established connections that were long broken. I’ve even had a friendship that crowned and died on the network, and all this from a website that didn’t exist 7 years ago.

However, those expecting a celebration of Facebook’s culture shock need not buy a ticket to this picture. David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin may gain plenty of attention, piggybacking awareness on the back of the Internet behemoth, but they’ve little interest in it as a utility. There is a parallel with Facebook however, in as much as both it and the film consciously repackage reality for their own purposes.

Movies based on real events change reality of course, replacing the ethereal aspects of memory, hearsay and the plurality of perspectives with something that is authoritative, fixed and historically aware. Facebook adds a similar kind of regimentation and categorisation to interpersonal relationships between real individuals. It makes everything neat and allows people to create their own personal narratives. Here then, is a movie about a false consciousness that is itself, a false account but it’s no less absorbing for that.

While accepting that Sorkin’s take on Zuckerberg cannot be taken as an historical document – you suspect the reality had less patter and more typing, it’s a compelling story; smart mouthed, imbued with wit and fast in service to Fincher’s contractual commitment to bring Sorkin’s 166 page screenplay in at two hours.

Their take on Zuckerberg’s legacy borders on the satirical; the profound irony that the teenager who’s responsible for all those aforementioned friendships, personal connections and relationships, is himself socially illiterate and lonely to boot. In Fincher and Sorkin’s formulation, Zuckerberg is borderline autistic, exhibiting a selfishness and lack of empathy that in any context other than the world of computer science might have been a crippling deficiency.

In the scene that opens the movie, a wonderfully verbose bit of sparing between him and soon to be ex-girlfriend Erica, Zuckerberg, played with relish by Jesse Eisenberg, performs the holy trinity of insensitivity, self-absorption and arrogance and is dumped for his trouble. Fuelled by spite he hacks into “the facebooks” of each Harvard college in one night – their online repositories of undergraduate photos, collecting pictures that allows people on campus to compare the women therein. Interest in that site and its instant popularity, leads to an offer from the Winklevoss brothers, a pair of champion rowers, to code their website, The Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg “borrows” the idea and develops it into the network we know and love. So Facebook was built on a wounded ego and misogynist streak rather than a social conscience and entrepreneurial zeal. That’s a pretty funny idea, true or not, and the movies runs with it, eschewing tech chat for a modern morality tale that asks why the man who’s responsible for creating more friendships than any other seems to have none of his own.

The answers are simple enough, at least to Fincher and Sorkin. Zuckerberg runs over his friends, exploiting and manipulating them in service to an insatiable desire to colonise areas of social space previously off limits to him. He craves acceptance from elite organisations on campus and the kind of sex usually reserved for people who know how to talk to others. Facebook is therefore a conscious attempt to usurp the clubs and create the ultimate college group with the most prestigious membership.

The movie’s interested in two social networks – the real one that exists on campus; parties from which Zuckerberg is a notable absentee, and the online community that the loner builds in parallel. The only time Zuckerberg is portrayed as a social animal is during a “coding competition” in which a group of programmers compete to join Facebook’s staff. As the site’s potential becomes apparent, Zuckerberg’s relation with business partner Eduardo Saverin, sympathetically portrayed by Andrew Garfield, sours. He’s progressively marginalised and ultimately ripped off to the tune of several billion dollars, not because Zuckerberg is a bastard but, says Sorkin, because he increasingly sees his friend as a worthless business asset; someone who doesn’t understand the site’s potential and consequently is undeserving of his stake. The relationship underscores the movie’s thesis, that both Zuckerberg’s genius and his tragedy is that he sees the world in strictly utilitarian terms, devising a way to express that philosophy online at the expense of real world relationships.

Fincher and Sorkin have collaborated to craft a sharp drama, awash in autumnal colours that befit its seasonal New England backdrop. It’s punctuated with menace, thanks to an electrifying score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose that adds ambient discomfort and yet more distance between the audience and these keystrokers. Fincher tempers his trademark stylisation, content to let the performances and Sorkin’s smart dialogue drive the story. That may disappoint Fincher purists but the converse scenario gives you the likes of Benjamin Button.

Ultimately, The Social Network challenges its audience to reflect on an online culture built on the values of someone who doesn’t understand people and yet, perversely, has created something that one in twelve of the world’s population enjoy. Believe it – you’re part of it.

Look, says Fincher and Sorkin, here’s a world of, by and large, superficial relationships, habitually reinforced through anti-social activity (staying on your computer, rather than going the fuck out) and ultimately disposable, created by a kid whose life is characterised in similar terms. Perhaps we’ve become a world of Mark Zuckerbergs and it’s clear that these filmmakers don’t like it one bit. The final scene, in which an offensively rich but lonely Zuckerberg tries to befriend Erica on Facebook and desperately refreshes the page, hoping for her quick acceptance, is undeniably sad. As an audience we know that request is going to go unanswered. Erica has enough real friends and you wouldn’t bet against her being out socialising with them at that very moment. Makes you think.

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