Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Social Network (Columbia/Relativity Media, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I wanted to see was The Social Network, which was released last Thursday and is the more-or-less true story of the founding of Facebook. Charles was surprised that I wanted to see this because neither of us has a Facebook account — though he is logged in on Facebook’s older but now far less “cool” competitor, MySpace (it seems like the only people still using MySpace are aspiring musicians wanting a place to promote their bands) — but I explained that I had read the book on which it was based, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, and had enjoyed the book so much I was looking forward to seeing the movie. The book basically treated Facebook as the project of a bunch of nerdy students at Harvard who found themselves unable to compete for girlfriends (or fuck buddies) with their fellow students who were either better looking, richer or both, and two nerdy students in particular, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, who’s taking over the role of Spider-Man from Tobey Maguire in the next series entry).

The film opens with Zuckerberg at a restaurant with his latest girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who’s so disgusted with his self-absorption and anti-social ways she’s about to become his latest ex-girlfriend. Out of revenge, Zuckerberg goes home to his room at Kirtland Hall in Harvard and starts punching away at his computer, writing a series of ever more insulting blog entries about her. When Saverin and their other two roommates get hold of the idea, it snowballs into a bizarre stunt that reveals their testosterone-fueled simultaneous hatred and lust for women. They decide to hack into Harvard’s computers and get hold of all the female students in the so-called “facebooks” — the film doesn’t explain how the term originated but Mezrich’s book does. It seems that for years each Harvard dormitory put out a “facebook,” a directory of every student living there every term, complete with photos for those who wanted to contribute them — and at the time the film begins, the fall of 2003 (it’s startling indeed to get that time cue and realize that Facebook has grown from nothing to a major part of the online world in just seven years!), the dorms have just decided to computerize this information and make the facebooks available online.

Spitting out a lot of computer jargon — Aaron Sorkin’s script is full of barely comprehensible computerese spoken by characters who sometimes seem more adept at communicating in it than they do in normal English — that supposedly explains what he’s doing, Zuckerberg successfully grabs all the female faces from the facebook profiles and, after briefly considering putting up a Web site comparing them to farm animals, decides instead to load them two by two and give visitors to his site, called Facemash, the option of clicking on the photo they consider the hotter of the two. Within hours the site has gone viral among virtually every male member of the Harvard student body (and it seems among every male member’s member as well) and generated so much traffic it’s crashed Harvard’s entire computer system. The stunt earns Zuckerberg six months of academic probation but also makes him a notorious figure across campus and gives him the “cool” cachet he’s been seeking all along — and the entry into women’s pants he was seeking too (though the film features surprisingly little actual sex or indications thereof, given Mezrich’s theme — a bit soft-pedaled in Sorkin’s script but still very much there in the film — that Zuckerberg and his colleagues may have willed Facebook into existence from their brains but their brains were being governed by their dicks).

Among the people attracted to Zuckerberg’s combination of computer expertise and insolence are the Winkelvoss brothers, Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler (Josh Pence), who are upper-class aristocrats, row on the Harvard crew (and are training for the Olympics) and have had the idea for a Web site called Harvard Connection, which would allow students on campus to post their own profiles and network with each other online. After having gone through two programmers previously, they make a deal with Zuckerberg to write the code for their site — only Zuckerberg stalls them for a month and a half while instead creating his own version called When the Winkelvoss brothers find out that Zuckerberg has stolen their idea, they’re understandably pissed about it but they refuse to do something so ungentlemanly as to take them to court; instead they pursue administrative remedies on the Harvard campus and even win a meeting with then-Harvard president Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), the racist, sexist creep whose appointment as President Obama’s economic czar was the first indication we had, even before Obama formally took office, that he was going to betray all his progressive promises and suck up to Wall Street. Summers regards the Winkelvosses’ food fight with Zuckerberg as exactly the sort of petty intra-student dispute the president of Harvard shouldn’t have to bother with no matter how influential the Winkelvosses’ relatives are or how much money they contributed to the university, and he ushers them out of his office in an angry mood about how they’ve wasted his time.

Zuckerberg and Saverin make a deal to start a corporation and market to students and staff at other colleges — part of the appeal in its early days is its exclusivity (originally Facebook was open only to people with an e-mail address ending in “.edu”) — and Saverin, whose family has money, puts in first $1,000 and then $18,000 as seed capital in exchange for 30 percent of the company and the title of chief financial officer. The relationship is a troubled one from the beginning and a good illustration of the old moral that one of the surest ways to ruin a friendship is to go into business together; Saverin wants to accept advertising and monetize the site right away while Zuckerberg wants to keep it going until it achieves the critical mass to attract major advertisers while still being considered “cool.”

Along the way Zuckerberg picks up another partner, Sean Parker (a marvelous performance by Justin Timberlake with just the right combination of arrested development and moral seediness), who was fired from Napster and another (unnamed) major Internet startup, who’s checking his e-mail at his latest trick’s house (so he, too, is driven largely by his dick!) when he sees her computer open to Facebook and decides that it’s the next big thing he’s been looking for to redeem himself. Accordingly he gets in touch with Zuckerberg and induces him to move out to Silicon Valley, California to be where all the major computer people and potential backers are so he can expand the company and dump the spoilsport Saverin — who’s insisting on staying in New York and trying to get nickel-and-dime advertisers (one of them played, in a credited cameo, by screenwriter Sorkin) to put money into the company. All along Saverin has been drawn as a man with one foot in the door of respectable success — he makes the Phoenix Club, one of Harvard’s prestigious “Final Clubs” that are supposed to put their members in touch with the world’s ruling class and prepare them to become part of it (though he doesn’t get into the most prestigious of the clubs, the Porcellian), and he’s got a business internship in the Big Apple, though he quits it on the first day because he still thinks his future is with Facebook — and the mutual resentment between him and Zuckerberg grows as the two are separated by a continent and Parker turns Zuckerberg’s life in California into one big, endless frat party with bottomless supplies of girls, booze and (at least for Parker and his girlfriends and buddies) drugs.

Unable to get Zuckerberg even to return his calls, Saverin freezes the Facebook accounts — and Zuckerberg and Parker retaliate by rewriting the partnership agreements so they can later freeze Saverin out of all but a token share of the company. Then one of Parker’s parties gets raided by the cops and he’s arrested on drug charges — and Zuckerberg coldly freezes him out of the company (though this is much less apparent in the movie than the book). The film tells this story in a series of flashbacks while the characters are supposedly testifying in depositions being taken for the two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg, one by the Winkelvosses and one by Saverin, and though the time sequence sometimes gets a bit confusing (a number of critics have compared the film to Citizen Kane, but Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz kept a clear distinction between present and past while Sorkin and director David Fincher frequently leave theirs muddled — also, since the story takes place over less than seven years, the characters don’t change appearance during the movie and that makes it harder to tell just when we are) it does contribute to the moral sense of the story, and at the end we get a few titles that explain that the Winkelvosses settled for $65 million and signed a nondisclosure agreement, Saverin settled for an undisclosed amount and did not sign a nondisclosure agreement (if he had there’d have been no movie, since he was Mezrich’s principal source for his book) and Zuckerberg became the world’s youngest billionaire (according to the Wikipedia page on him he’s currently worth $9 billion). At the end we see Zuckerberg alone and the Beatles’ song “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” comes up on the soundtrack (which until then has been pretty routine; quite a few songs appear but they seem to be chosen for little more reason than they would be the sort of things the characters would be listening to; there’s no real attempt until the very end to match the songs to the emotional mood of the scenes as was done quite successfully in the Twilight-series film New Moon); the song fits but it’s an obvious choice and it occurred to me that, since the whole theme of the film is friendships destroyed by success, Cyndi Lauper’s “Money Changes Everything” might have been a better choice.

When I read Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires it occurred to me that the character from history — or at least historical fiction — Zuckerberg most resembled was Shakespeare’s Richard III. (Indeed, when I read The Accidental Billionaires I had been considering starting a Facebook page, and the book persuaded me not to; I decided I wasn’t going to contribute to making this horrible person even one iota richer than he already was.) Zuckerberg didn’t have his rivals and no-longer-necessary partners physically murdered the way Richard did, but he did eliminate them with the same single-minded ruthlessness: just as Richard aimed himself for the throne of England and didn’t care how many people he had to kill to get there, Zuckerberg aimed himself with a single-minded drive towards protecting Facebook, making it the biggest site on the Internet and making himself a billionaire no matter how many people he had to screw over and destroy on the way. The Social Network was directed by David Fincher — the man who made the third Alien movie and a serial-killer film called Se7en (the numeral was part of the official title) I found so disgusting I swore never to watch a Fincher film again — a rule I broke this time only because I’d read the source material and could be assured that at least it didn’t feature any grisly murders — and it’s quite well made, complete with appropriate atmospherics and real skill at making the frat-party air around Zuckerberg and Facebook come alive — though I think the real quality of the film comes from Sorkin’s script, which is witty and well characterized even though it pretty much ducks the overall critique of capitalism itself the material almost seems to demand.

The acting is well done throughout -— it helps that none of these people are so familiar we’re likely to recognize them from other roles and therefore have a hard time suspending disbelief in who we’re told they are — and Eisenberg as Zuckerberg comes off in particular as a kind of über-nerd whose sudden success lifts him into a sybaritic high life he enjoys for a while until it gets in the way of the one thing besides himself that’s really important to him: his Web site. The film, like the book, has been criticized for inaccuracy, and it’s also been suggested by some critics that The Social Network might do to Zuckerberg what Citizen Kane did to Marion Davies: indelibly etch a portrait of him in the public consciousness as an unscrupulous asshole, just as millions of people who’ve never seen a Marion Davies film think of her as the whiny, untalented bitch Dorothy Comingore played as “Susan Alexander” in Citizen Kane. It’s possible Zuckerberg himself worries about this, since as the film was in the final stages of post-production he mounted what, for him, was a major charm offensive: he agreed to be interviewed by The New Yorker for a feature profile (he had refused Mezrich’s interview requests for the book, which probably had a lot to do with why he came off so badly in it) and he went on Oprah Winfrey’s program to announce that, after never having given a publicly recorded dime to any charity, he was giving $100 million to improve the public schools of Newark, New Jersey. (Why Newark? It’s not like he’s from there; he was born in the upscale community of White Plains, New York. His own explanation was that he trusts the two people who would be principally in charge of spending the grant: Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey; and Cory Booker, young African-American Democratic mayor of Newark.)

Zuckerberg comes off as a little less vicious and exploitative in the movie than he does in the book — less because of any fundamental change in the material than the very real charm Eisenberg musters in the role — and, as Charles noted, it’s hard to get too excited about this movie because the other characters are just about as unpleasant as Zuckerberg. The film has an interesting class structure in that it’s a tug of war between three different sorts of people with different relationships to America’s ruling class: the Winkelvosses, who have automatic entrée into it from their ancestry and breeding; Saverin, who’s something of an outsider (he’s part-Brazilian, hence his exotic name and looks) but is working and pulling the right connections to get into it by adoption; and Zuckerberg, the outsider — a nerd and a Jew — who realizes his only way into the ruling class is going to be using his brains to build a company so huge it can’t be ignored and he can bull his way into the elite.

The Social Network has been criticized as inaccurate (but then Shakespeare’s Richard III has also been called a piece of propaganda maligning a decent and capable ruler who never had anybody killed — Josephine Tey’s marvelously imaginative novel The Daughter of Time is a good précis of the case for Richard’s defense) and unfair to Zuckerberg, and in a sense that’s true: judging from both the movie and Mezrich’s book, one would never guess that Zuckerberg is currently in a serious relationship with Priscilla Chen, a girl he knew in high school. (That information comes from the New Yorker profile, which also revealed that Zuckerberg is red-green colorblind: the reason the Facebook logo is blue is that’s one of the few colors Zuckerberg can see.) The Social Network isn’t the movie it might have been if a more socially conscious (and class-conscious) director like Orson Welles or Douglas Sirk had been around to make it, but it’s about as good as one could reasonably expect a story like this to be told today, in an era in which the whole idea of people acting other than in a highly competitive, dog-eat-dog fashion has been effectively trashed and ruled beyond the pale of human nature; the story this film tells is a bunch of rather slimy people grabbing for a gold ring and the slimiest and most unscrupulous of them all getting it — not much of a moral lesson but an all too accurate portrayal of the way the world works today.