The Social Network: How a great film still doesn't get it right

In late 2008, I winced at the news that Aaron Sorkin would be writing a film about Facebook. A masterful writer, with such a unique voice, reduced to making a movie about a website that wasn’t even five years old? It seemed premature, like penning a script while the story was still being told. The edition of a true auteur (David Fincher) behind the camera and a favorite musician (Trent Reznor) behind the score did little to allay my fears that this was just a cash-in.

In late 2010, I avoided The Social Network, even as it gained critical and commercial plaudits. I finally caved, screening the film a few months ago. I was impressed, mostly at how Sorkin, Fincher and Reznor, along with an extremely talented cast of young actors, gave life to a story that shouldn’t work as a film.

The Social Network uses two depositions to frame the origin story of Facebook. Sorkin is the perfect writer for this script. He has experience writing legal drama, including both the most famous courtroom dialogue and most famous deposition ever captured on film. Like all Sorkin characters, these characters are preternaturally silver-tongued, relying on wit, word play and repetition to battle each other.

The opening scene, between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), sets the score. Mark is playing verbal chess, seemingly plagued by ADD, OCD, and Asperger’s syndrome. This behavior continues throughout the film, in flashbacks and in depositions: he’s immature but brilliant, and supremely confrontational. As Rashida Jones‘ character will later surmise: “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

The film is a portrait of friendship under siege, and the best scenes revolve around Mark and his “only friend,” Eduardo Saverin. Andrew Garfield plays the role with the right combination of suaveness and insecurity. Garfield captures the emotional pain of Mark’s betrayal, made worse by his unclear motivations and intentions.

The humor of the film comes from the farcical portrayals of Mark’s adversaries and allies, the Winklevoss twins and Sean Parker, respectively. The twins (and their case) are not sympathetic; they are stereotypical Harvard WASPs from a world where they are used to getting everything they want.

Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker with the confidence of someone whose self-awareness is greatly maligned by everyone telling him how brilliant he is. In actuality, he’s a punk: paranoid with delusions of grandeur, and armed with a petty, vindictive streak. At first, he’s almost charming. Later, he’s played for laughs, a manchild puffing his inhaler in a station house.

The story presents the early days of Facebook as a battle for Mark’s soul between Saverin and Parker. Saverin is a sensible realist who puts stock in loyalty and doing “the right thing.” Parker is the Dreammaker who shows Zuckerberg how things could be, how a Big Idea can change the way we look at the world. For Mark, a glimpse of Parker’s lifestyle is all it takes to settle the debate.

By the end of the film, the man with a million friends has none. He still pines for the girl who scorned him, her rejection the impetus for this incredible journey. The man who revolutionized social networking yearns for human connection.

Many people have gotten caught up in the authenticity of the film. But this is a work of reality-based fiction, not a documentary. From all accounts, Mark Zuckerberg is not much like his screen counterpart. He may have iconoclastic ideas about privacy and society, but he seems relatively well-adjusted for the world’s youngest billionaire. And “Erica?” He’s been dating the same person since 2003.

In film, this reduction of reality works. Sorkin has said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” As a storyteller, Sorkin is unparalleled. The characters are richly drawn, and the non-linear story builds to a crescendo over two hours. Similarly, David Fincher makes coding cool, without the parlor tricks of something like Hackers.

I don’t think a film needs to get history right to be a great film. If it actually loses to The King’s Speech, I think it will be another unfortunate choice by the Academy, not a historic flub.

But saying that this film defines the generation, as Peter Travers has, makes me feel the same way I did when I first heard about it back in 2008. Can we really make these grand proclamations while history is still unfolding, and furthermore, what business does Peter Travers have judging my/your/our generation based on this film?

Zadie Smith’s thoughts on The Social Network, and social networks in general, are a must read. One of her best points is that “this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people.” Lawrence Lessig made a similar argument in The New Republic, that the filmmakers miss the point of the Facebook story. Sorkin and Fincher see the Facebook generation as Zuckerberg as he is in the final scene: obsessed with connection, but lacking any authentic human ones. Saying The Social Network defines the generation is patronizing. The story of this generation is still being written, and Facebook might end up being another footnote in that story.

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