The Social Network

There’s a moment in King Lear in Act I Scene V when, amidst all the raging storm of emotions, the most devastating line in the entire play is uttered quietly in a rare moment of reflection for its self-absorbed title character: “I did her wrong”. At its tragic conclusion, we’re left to wonder how radically different things could’ve been if those four profound words of self-fault recognition had manifested in Lear’s actions. There’s a similar moment in this film during the climactic confrontation between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his best friend, or now ex-best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). After the Mephistophelean character of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, has ruthlessly excommunicated Eduardo from any further participation in the business that Facebook has become, Mark turns away from Sean, drooping his head and lost dejectedly in thought, and says “you didn’t have to be so rough on him.” Shortly after, it’s back to the immense business of creative dedication that running a soon-to-be multibillion-dollar business like Facebook is. But it’s moments like those, amidst the whirlwind of ceaseless involvement of being swept up in an up in an obsession that, almost imperceptibly, has become bigger than you and taken over your life as quickly and deadly as poison running through your veins from a viper strike, that give the film its lingering quality that transcends the drama of moment.

Most everyone going into this film will know it’s about the creation of Facebook by its wunderkind founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as well as the controversy surrounding that creation involving other parties, including Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Eduardo Saverin, who claimed they had a part in it and deserve compensation. The obvious comparisons have been made to Rashomon and Citizen Kane, and the complex structure that mixes two preliminary courtroom hearings with the events they’re describing, combined with the truthfully ambiguous, multiple perspectives on those events, and the fact that the entire catalyst for those events can be reduced down to a single moment, ostensibly invites those comparisons. I also feel it shortchanges the originality of The Social Network. The profoundly ironic, profoundly sad isolation that results from the failure to achieve the most primal need for human connection is something alien to both its predecessors.

A lot has already been written about the character of Mark Zuckerberg, and it’s important to say “the character of” as it would be a mistake to take a fictionalization as representative of the real thing. The film makes it almost too easy to dismiss him as an asshole—hell, Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright calls him one in the breathless opening—but I think this unfairly undercuts his depth. Perhaps the “socially inept genius” is a cliché by now, but there is far more humane conscientiousness, vulnerability, and palpable loneliness in Sorkin, Fincher, and Eisenberg’s Mark then there is in, say, the characters in The Big Bang Theory. Regarding Sorkin, Fincher, and Eisenberg, it’s difficult to know where to spread the praise first.

Starting at the beginning, The Social Network is a virtuosic display of screenwriting talent. Sorkin has always been praised for his witty, hyper intelligent, rapid fire dialogue that keeps the audience on their toes, forcing them to catch up, but the real art of his craft here is on display in the structure and all of the subtle moments that tie it together. I’ve rarely seen a writer use repetitions so imperceptibly; in the opening scene, after Mark has offered to introduce Erika to the people he meets if he gets into a prestigious Harvard final club, Erica snidely retorts, “you’d do that for me?” Later, when the Winklevossvosses offer to help repair marks reputation after his preliminary website, “FaceSmash”, made him a leper amongst the female student body, he equally responds with “you’d do that for me?” an early indicator that Mark has no intention of helping the Winklevossvosses establish their website. The script is also remarkable for its razor-sharp economy, as even in a two-hour film there isn’t a moment of wasted space.

If Sorkin’s script already cuts like a katana, Fincher’s direction and editing is the hyper focused laser beam that sharpens it to a point that could cut diamond. Fincher may be the finest pure craftsman in modern Hollywood, although his proficiency in the paranoia-laced thrillers of Zodiac, Seven, or Fight Club would seem to be an odd fit for such a character driven film. Surprisingly, it’s precisely that sense of paranoia he brings to the film, one of always being off balance, disoriented, and never quite knowing the truth, that gives The Social Network its atmospheric potency. Much like Sorkin’s writing, the greatest art of Fincher’s direction is almost invisible, like the club scene with Mark and Sean, the turning point of the film where the “choice” is made. Fincher films it in unostentatious shot-reverse shot, mostly in mid-close-ups. But, when it comes time for Sean to deliver his “I want this for you” look, Fincher cuts to a tight close-up, almost straight on, as if we’re seeing this directly through Mark’s eyes. At the height of this intensity, when Sean broaches the subject of Eduardo, Fincher cuts back to a wide shot, symbolizing the soon-to-be exile of Eduardo by Mark and Sean.

To round out the trio, Eisenberg deserves an Oscar for his performance. It’s not that I can’t conceive of Colin Firth (for example) being as good, I just can’t conceive of anybody being definitively better, and because Eisenberg is playing such a fascinating, complex, and even despicable character, I’m inclined to give him the automatic nod. Like the writing and directing, Eisenberg’s performance is a thing of subtle sublimity. Yes, he handles the difficult dialogue with aplomb, but he also brings a poignancy to the quiet moments and a convincing geekiness to Mark’s physical mannerisms. Eisenberg nails the Asbergers-like social ineptitude of Mark with great alacrity, and every gesture from him is a testament to the organic oddity that comes with natural genius.

Given the singularity of Mark’s character and Eisenberg’s performance, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the sterling supporting cast. Andrew Garfield brings a suavity and natural humor to Eduardo, creating a sympathetic counterpoint to Mark’s relative unlikeableness.  The two central females in the film, Rooney Mara’s Erica and Brenda Song’s Christy (Eduardo’s girlfriend), don’t get much screen time, but they make an impact with the time they’re given. Both are strikingly adroit at staring daggers at the screen that would freeze any man’s blood cold. Armie Hammer is outstanding in a double role as the Winklevoss twins. The most remarkable thing to be said about him and them is that they, along with the filmmakers, manag to make big dorks out of these staggeringly handsome jocks/athletes. It’s only appropriate though; geeks are cool now because they own the world. Later, Mark practically holds his own computer sporting event to select the next employee of Facebook, a symbol to how outmoded the Winklevosses’ brand of sportsmanship is.

In his commentary for the film, Sorkin, somewhat downplaying the debate surrounding the morality of the characters’ actions, notes that The Social Network is essentially a film about how a lot of people got very rich. He also notes that “it’s a tragedy without a death”. The two statements almost seem to repel each other, but they also lend insight into the oxymoronic nature of the multiple perspectives. Yes, one can easily argue that there are no real “losers” here, but the magic of storytelling in general is its ability to make a tragedy out of such circumstances. There is a death in this film, despite what Sorkin says; it’s the death of friendship, of loyalty, of creative innocence. If you viewed the film in chronological order, the progression of these characters from wide-eyed kids to jaded and cynical young adults would be all the more startling.

In keeping with “tragedy without a death”, it’s apropos that the deathblow is delivered by a pen rather than a sword when Eduardo is forced to sign the papers that seal his demise. Part of what makes the confrontation scene so riveting is that, up until now, the drama has been rather quietly stirring under the surface. The rapid incisiveness of Sorkin’s screenplay has so immersed us in the excitement of the moment that it’s forced us to forget the fallout of the future. When the scene hits, it hits like an atom bomb. The added unexpectedness of how it comes down, masterfully orchestrated through Fincher’s cross editing, makes it all the more powerful. It also helps that the scene marks the third iteration of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ main musical theme; a haunting, three note piano piece that reverberates, suspended over atmospheric industrial textures.

But what of that moral controversy? As it’s too easy to see Mark as an “asshole,” it’s also too easy to see him as a Judas. Facebook is more than just a website for Mark. It’s his masterpiece. It’s his Mona Lisa. It’s equally his child and emotional surrogate, outlet, outreach, as well as being a thinly veiled attempt to impress his rejecter. If Mark was truly to be compared with any Shakespeare character, it would be Hamlet, whose intellectual acuity and artistic sensibility also put him on an entirely different stratosphere compared to everyone else around him. There’s a scene in one of the hearings were Mark is sitting with his trademark faraway look, as if he’s not even a part of the species around him, as if he has absolutely no stake in their concerns. After being asked a question, Mark looks at the window and says “it’s raining”.

It’s that distant observation of an artist, that ability to see with a wide-angle when everyone else is seeing in telephoto, and then to take the things that nobody else sees, or that they only see in blurry, out of focus generalities, and telephoto focus them into a project past everyone’s wildest imagination. The only difference between Hamlet and Mark is that Hamlet doesn’t betray Horatio. That confrontation is devastating, and it makes Eduardo the most sympathetic character in the movie by default. It’s impossible to merely forgive Mark for it, but what it is possible to do is to recognize that there’s more humanity in this character that transcends his worst moments (as there hopefully is in all of us).

Ultimately, perhaps Mark’s willingness and ability to sever the ties to his past with Eduardo is symbolic of what it takes to survive in a whirlpool age of telescopic change. Yet, the final scene finds Mark slumped over his computer sending a friend request to Erica is a potent reminder that the past doesn’t die that easily. Sean says he never thinks about the girl that inspired him to create Napster, and maybe that’s why the film leaves us with the hope of Mark’s redemption but not Sean’s; there needs to be a balance between fearlessly forging ahead while retaining something of value from the past.

But both characters are representative of modern revolutionaries of the most dangerous kind—the kind that aren’t influenced by money (and for a film that so deftly “captures our age”, it’s odd to use a character who’s an anti-capitalist) and who are willing and able to capitalize on the enormous resources of the new master medium of the digital age to effect monumental change with the insouciance and whimsy of children. After all, if Lear was a play about adults that acted like children, then The Social Network is a film about children acting like children, but children that have an unparalleled historical ability to change the world. Afterall, would you want to buy stock in Tower Records?

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

7 Responses to The Social Network

  1. C.A.P. says:

    Nice analysis. Film definitely deserves it for probably being the most shocking movie from Hollywood in a good long while.

    Here’s hoping the movie will win something (and I bet it will) and will never be in one of those “overrated” categorizes.

  2. Daniel Joseph Caron says:

    Cool review. Are you paid by the number of Shakespeare comparisons you make? I still want to be the meat in Winklevoss sandwich. Just throwing that out there.

  3. Jonathan Henderson says:

    @CAP: Thanks. It’s also one of the most intelligent movies to come from Hollywood in a long time that didn’t have the name “Coen Brothers” attached to it. As for “overrated”, well, there’s always an inevitable popularity backlash, but I’m not the type that’s easily caught up hype or anti-hype, so I’m guessing TSN is a keeper.

    @Muggy: LOL, I actually wondered if I overdid it on the Shakespeare thing. You know, when you’ve read/seen his plays as much as I have, it’s difficult not to see the similarities everywhere.

  4. maz89 says:

    Excellent review. Glad you liked it. The references to Shakespearean plays were overwhelming for someone like me who is not very well-acquainted with his work, but it still made sense, so I guess you made it work.

  5. The Fabulous HAL E. Burton 9000 says:

    Alright, let’s get nuts, Redbeard.

    I will admit at the start that this movie is not totally awful. The Trent Reznor soundtrack is good enough that I am not compelled to throw things at the screen or curse at it, but not enough to stop me from ripping it a new one and making snarky comments and nonconstructive criticism.

    It does not help that I HATE FaceBook with a white hot heat that is only eclipsed by IRL problems like the ticking nuclear bomb that is the Middle East, the corporate world (i.e. Goldman Sachs, Soros, etc.), and their puppets in deceptively authoritative places of political power around the world.

    I will try and keep this brief because I really could go on and on about this. I begrudgingly joined FaceBook around 2009 as it became apparent that I was the last person amongst my family and friends that was not on there. I did not join it for a very long time because I really did not see any reason to join it. I had a cell phone and e-mail, so why do I need FaceBook when I can keep it touch with people through other means? So I joined FaceBook out of peer pressure (it has not been since grade school that such a thing has happened to me, very sad), and at first I kind of liked it. It was kind of a cross between a web log and IM, with a few browser-based games. But then it started to SUCK. Other people I knew were quitting it. I heard all sorts of reasons, from the spam, to privacy concerns, to getting into pointless fights with people, etc. At first, I did not feel like any of that was a problem for me. But then I started to get spam. And then I began getting into and either waging or defending myself in flame wars. Those were kind of fun but its novelty wore off soon as I began to get “defriended” and got so mad at others that I did the same. And then it became clear what data miners the whole damn FaceBook machine really is, what with the screwing around the privacy settings and all. But then I saw how extremist groups like CAIR and IHH were using FaceBook as a form of cyber-propaganda: http://www.investigativeproject.org/2398/the-jihadist-social-network-underworld , it was then that I said F*CK YOU BOOKFACE, I AM GOING HOME!

    Going into this film with said hate, and coupled with the stories and reviews stating that this film made Mark Zuckerberg look like an evil bastard, I thought that this may be a pleasurable exercise for me in Schadenfreude. I was thinking he could be this cross between Gordon Gekko and Michael Corleone, wildly greedy and absolutely ruthless in his ways. And instead, though he is not seen a 100% positive light, he is made out to be an anti-hero that should be respected and complimented on, not shunned, loathed, and condemned for finding a new means for people to exercise narcissism and unnecessary self-importance rather than doing anything remotely constructive or inventive. Zuckerberg should have been characterized in such a tawdry and despicable light in the same way someone like Marquis de Sade, Genghis Khan or Charles Manson would be if their life story was explored. It should make Welles’ defamation of Hearst in Citizen Kane look like a puff piece. Zuckerberg should be so shocked and outraged by his likeness’ behavior that he should want to try and stop the movie from being produced or screened ANYWHERE at any cost. People should react to his character the same way they reacted to Pazuzu’s possession of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. Alas, he is the cliched “boy savant genius”. Boooooooooo!!!

    I actually might not have been so disappointed by the glorifying of Zuckerberg had other issues with The Social Network not be so glaring. I should note there is another problem I had going into this film is Aaron Sorkin. I won’t go into this very long. IMO, the only good-to-great thing he has ever done was A Few Good Men. And it not simply because of the famous exchange at the end about “the truth” between Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) and Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise). Performances by J.T. Walsh and others rounded out the film so well and it is truly only of the best courtroom dramas ever. Now with that being said, most everything else is either just OK or totally wretched. Take for instance a film like The American President, an OK romantic dramedy that somehow wondered onto the set of The Left Wing, or pardon my Freudian slip The West Wing, one of the worst dramas and overrated shows in the history of television. Even though the statist politics induces vomiting for me, I could have enjoyed or at least respected some of what he produced in this and others shows and films had any of the characters been likable or relatable on the most basic level of human understanding. No, this More’s Utopia retold by someone who should know better and is more cynical than he lets on, and unfortunately Sorkin’s fantasizing about the relationships of human beings in a 1950’s version of the future lacks any charm or fancy that may have made the whole silly exercise remotely entertaining to hard-to-please arse holes like myself.

    So, yeah, The Social Network. I read somewhere that Sorkin has had something of a crack cocaine habit to nurse over the years, and to be very frank I think it shows in the writing of this film. Seriously, did Sorkin have a three-and-a-half-hour-long film originally written, and David Fincher was forced to use it so Fincher decided to tell all the actors to talk like they were on a major caffeine high? How does this kind of hackery get Best Adapted Screenplay?! HOW?! Christopher Nolan could write better stuff with his snot while sleeping than this high school soap opera of a movie!

    I have always been a tad annoyed by David Fincher. He has never gotten to me as bad as Sorkin or Michael Bay, but he does deserve in my mind to be considered a good, but never great, director. Though I have a few issues with Fight Club despite its good moments, Se7en was a pretty solid thriller, but Panic Room was surprisingly boring and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a poor impression of Forrest Gump and a poor film choice for Fincher to be involved in. The Social Network felt like I was watching Fight Club if Edward Norton’s character had Tyler Durden act within his mind only and we never actually saw Durden nor ever even heard him mentioned. On paper this could work, but instead of fostering underground fight clubs and ending consumer debt, Edward Norton simply finds some computer code that plays on people’s narcissism and unnecessary self-importance and steals all their info and gets rich by selling said info to the highest bidder. The problem with that? Well, that would be like if in Fight Club, Tyler Durden’s ideal for Project Mayhem was not to end consumerism, but to instead to exploit human weaknesses by taking advantage of said consumerism with all his antics for monetary gain. That’s what The Social Network is for me, and as a result it kind of sucks. It would not be as sad as watching Schindler’s List, but it would be uncomfortably close.

    IMO, the only reason the film-criticverse loves this film like a homosexual male loves Barbra Streisand is that this film makes them feel “with it” and “hip”. These people are scared to death that the internet and other newer forms of media and social networking are going to make older forms of media dead within a generation, and a film that comes along and makes them feel like this will not happen so fast, it makes their dingus swell with confidence like those erectile dysfunction ads promise. This film is a lame joke, but OK when compared to whatever Disney/Marvel, Seth Rogen or Michael Bay have in store for the viewing public around the corner.

    Mark my words, The Social Network will be as memorable even among film snobs in about ten years as a like The English Patient or The Hurt Locker are now.

  6. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Geez, HAL, I don’t know what to say about all of that other than there’s one, honking, glaring, blinking problem, and that’s that YOU SAID ALMOST NOTHING ABOUT THE FILM ITSELF! Everything you said was related to FaceBook IRL, Zuckerberg IRL, your general hate for Sorkin, your general apathy for Fincher. What’s more, you didn’t even comment, rebut, our counter-argue anything I said in MY review! All this is is a rant, and not a very convincing one. It just makes you look like someone with a huge bias and grudge against the people involved in this film and the people that the film is about.

    To kinda address some of your issues, none of us knows the real Zuckerberg, and most of the people I’ve read or seen talk about him seem to think he’s pretty similar to the character portrayed in this film, somewhat of an introverted wunderkind. You didn’t even make a legitimate case as to WHY he should be demonized. So he created a networking website that you don’t like and think is being used for insidiously evil person? Well, now you sound like a kook conspiracy theorist. This stuff has circulated about a ton of popular websites over the years. But this doesn’t change the fact that it says very little about him as a person, and even if it did, this is a f’in fictionalization! I couldn’t care less whether it was completely falsified from beginning to end, it’s still compelling fiction for all the reasons I gave and you seemed to ignore.

    Same thing with Sorkin, you rant about how you don’t like his previous work but say very little about what he does here except for your dislike of fast dialogue. Guess what? This is an OLD technique. Howard Hawks famously pioneered it in the 30s and 40s because he felt the faster actors talked, the better it played in a cinema. The Social Network has absolutely NOTHING on Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday in terms of rapid-fire dialogue. Hell, those two make TSN look like a little old lady using a walker trying to cross five lanes of freeway traffic. I like the style, personally, especially when technically accomplished directors like Fincher and Hawks orchestrate it. As for Fincher, I wouldn’t call any of his previous films masterpieces, but I think they’ve been pretty consistently great, with Panic Room and Benjamin Button being the only sub-par slip-ups. His style is actually very reminiscent of classic Hollywood economy, but there’s a great deal of sophisticated subtlety to it as well (I listed one example. The phone call from jail is another. This was more thoroughly explored in a Cinelogue article titled “Thematic Explorations in TSN’s Mise-en-Scene”.

    I think your shot at why critics like this is sadly misguided. It doesn’t even make sense; why would any critics feel “with it” for liking a film ABOUT a modern technological phenomenon? Do you think Ebert, the guy who said video games aren’t art, cares about being with it? Rosenbaum? Most of the critics who take great pride in being contrarians? I can certainly say that has nothing to do with why I loved it. I loved it for the writing, acting, and directing; pretty basic reasons, but I argued why more thoroughly in my actual review. As for your prognostication, all I can say is “we’ll see”. Theyshootpictures has been pretty darn reliable for selecting what films are remembered, and considering they have this in their Top 20, I think that bodes pretty darn well for it.

    FWIW, I don’t even know why you mentioned Hurt Locker since it IS still very well thought-of by critics and it’s not really old enough for us to know what its legacy will be.

  7. THE Fabulous HAL E. Burton 9000 says:

    I said several things about the film itself. I thought on the whole it was just OK, not great or even as good as you and the critic-verse says but not a total waste, such as my mentioning of Trent Reznor’s score, the unwarranted respect IMO the film gives in characterizing Zuckerberg as the clichéd “socially awkward genius,” and for the performances in The Social Network lacking the kind of strength that was shown in A Few Good Men. I may have only implied what I said on the last one about A Few Good Men, but that was what I meant when I mentioned that.

    I grant that I went on a major league rant about things not directly connected to the film, though I stand by all I said about the film however small as it was, along with FaceBook/Zuckerberg, Sorkin, Fincher, and the film critic/snob world.

    I sincerely believe the script as it was written would have been too long for the running time as far as the studio and/or producers were concerned, and Sorkin either refused to cut it down or said studio and/or producers then either decided to compromise or simply stayed quiet about it, and regardless Fincher took what Sorkin wrote and had to work around it with the fast-forward dialogue. Unless there is(/are) some credible statement(s) out there that contradicts the preceding sentence, I stand by that.

    Another problem I had with The Social Network and most of Sorkin’s work that I kind of implied was he has a problem of the need to “talking everything out.” I don’t mean to repeat about that the dialogue being too fast-paced (though IMO it makes it far worse), but I refer the needless, expository dialogue that could have been said with fewer words and had a far better effect as intended. For comparison, TDK actually got awfully close to this problem, but unlike The Social Network, TDK had a crescendo/decrescendo feel that kept it from going into the territory that The Social Network did in sounding forced and unnatural. There’s almost no time for what’s being said to soak in and have the characters react with any natural or serious emotions, and that is REALLY bad IMO, because for me I am not so able to relate to or understand the characters and how I want to feel about them one way or the other. Sorkin has this problem all the damn time in practically every TV show he has ever written for and a few of his films too. How he gets away with it and is still lionized for it really amazes and disappoints me as you have already read.

    And back to Zuckerberg. Since you seemed like I did not explain so well enough, the specific reasons I wished him to be so demonized is that he effectively found a new way for people to do the following:
    1) Collect private information from the useful idiots that populate FaceBook to be exploited for some kind of gain, whether commercial, stalking, etc.
    2) “Preen,” originally meaning what birds and cats do in cleaning their respective feathers and fur, or more literally, gloat and brag and carry on about whatever somebody think is “cool” only for the purpose of being perceived by whomever as “cool.”
    3) Creating a type of cottage industry for nos. 1 and no. 2 (what a great way to refer to both of those as nos. 1 and 2, LOL).

    I do not care too much to know what Zuckerberg is actually like IRL or what he may or may not have done in the process of creating FaceBook. I have seen him in various interviews over the years, and he seems kind of normal (though I will admit that The Social Network did capture some of his awkwardness), and I do think those people that are suing him would never have filed suit had FaceBook not become a multi-billion dollar powerhouse. Regardless, I think he deserves to be dragged through the mud for creating such a destructively useless concept and the resulting fallout, especially when there are far more pressing needs in the world of technology and “teh intrawebz.” I only hope that social networking as it stands now with FaceBook, Twitter, etc. are seen in the same way Netscape, pagers, 8-track tapes and CB radio are now as curious fads that had their day.

    And I only mentioned The Hurt Locker because I consider it another film that critics gave far too much credit and for also doing so for “questionable” reasons not directly related to the film itself.

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