The Social Network is a biopic, well actually, it is two biopics. The first is the story of Mark Zuckerberg and his transition to adulthood, the second is the early years of Facebook. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin paint a vivid character portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, and meanwhile delve into the strange and foreboding world of internet startups. The film also depicts the journey of how an idea becomes a business in a way I have never experienced.
To help achieve that, the film employs a unique narrative structure, jumping between points in time, using legal testimony as a framing device, although sometimes there are frames within frames. Each scene is completely captivating while also feeling true. If this film isn’t 100% factually accurate, it is surely remembered this way by at least one or two of the people involved. And that is key to understanding this movie. It does not exist as a Ken Burns documentary; it’s not necessarily trying to illustrate the truth of what happened. Those are secondary concerns, as it exists primarily to tell the story the way it is seen by the storytellers. Thus when commenting, if I refer to Mark Zuckerberg, it is to the character of Mark Zuckerberg in the film, and not the real one.
What helps in achieving these lofty goals is the brilliant script. Classic Aaron Sorkin, truly shining in his element: wonky dialogue and reserved character moments. He gives hacking/writing computer code the same lyrical qualities he gave backroom political talk in The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War. Since it seems Mark Zuckerberg is an introvert, Sorkin’s signature reserved character moments fit perfectly with the story. No one looks up at the sky and screams, but the emotions here feel genuine and real.
Selling Sorkin’s script is a fantastic cast. Each actor delivers their dialogue with a tenacity that befits the character. In particular, Jesse Eisenberg gives a masterful performance as Mark Zuckerberg, proving once and for all he is not the “poor man’s Michael Cera.” He is an early favorite of mine for Best Actor come the Oscars. Eisenberg himself claims that his performance may actually go beyond method acting because he sees shared qualities between himself and Zuckerberg. “He appears as I often appear in interviews,” Eisenberg says of Zuckerberg. “Uncomfortable.”
Achieving greatness like this in a film is not merely the result of masterful execution by craftsmen like Fincher, Sorkin, and the cast, but the film also has a pointed message about contemporary society. First, the theme of ‘status’ is woven deep into the fabric of the film. Ben Mezrich, the author of The Accidental Billionaires (the book that the film is based on) says that his depiction of Zuckerberg stems from his view that, “The impetus of everything in college…is to get laid…I think that in general that’s why everybody does everything.” However, while sex often surrounds the founding of Facebook, at the core is an obsession with status.
Fincher states that in his view, Zuckerberg is an “antihero.” He is definitely a conceited jerk, but what makes him an antihero is his willingness to take on his social superiors and attempt to upend the system. His motivations are not primarily for money, but for social status (which you could simplify as power). This is most evident in his attitude toward the Winklevoss twins and his friend Eduardo Saverin.
When he first meets the Winklevosses, shortly after the Facemash.com incident, Zuckerberg is in awe, both physically and financially. Amazed that these people, who Zuckerberg sees as his doorway into the ‘Harvard Old Boys Network,’ because they run one of the Final Clubs, are coming to him for help. He realizes almost immediately that he does not really need them, because something that he creates can reach parts of the campus social scene he does have access to and thus elevate him above his peers, and hopefully into a Final Club.
Complicating this is his relationship with Eduardo Saverin, the only friend of Zuckerberg’s we see in the film. Andrew Garfield (soon to be Spider-Man) does a great job with his performance, and makes Saverin one of the few genuinely likable characters in the film. Zuckerberg goes to Saverin because he needs startup money. Zuckerberg’s obsession with social status begins to drive a wedge in the friendship when Saverin gets selected as a candidate for Phoenix, one of the Final Clubs that Zuckerberg wants to join so badly. Saverin’s selection as a Final Club candidate seems to have little to do with the success of Facebook, which Zuckerberg resents even more.
This resentment jeopardizes Facebook, especially as Zuckerberg finds a kindred spirit in Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster. I would be remiss not to mention how excellent Justin Timberlake is in this role. Maybe I had not yet experienced Timberlake’s charisma in full force, but he captures the attention of the audience in every scene he is in, and provides an electric element that is just not part of Zuckerberg’s personality.
In his business dealings as well as his personal life, Sean Parker is rebellious (also paranoid and unstable). His anti-power rhetoric about how the recording industry had to adapt despite the “failure” of Napster truly captivates Zuckerberg. Should he merely try to monopolize the social experience online, or try and reshape it in his own image? Sure, this sounds like the thoughts of a raving egomaniac, and perhaps it is, but this is how these boy geniuses think. Under Parker’s tutelage, we see Zuckerberg purposefully showing up late for a meeting with a venture capitalist (VC) in his pajamas and “fuck you flip-flops.” For Zuckerberg, it provides an anti-establishment thrill for him and revenge fantasy fulfillment for Parker.
While it is obviously not as short a tenure as Zuckerberg had with the Winklevoss twins, both Saverin and Parker soon seem to outlive their usefulness. Saverin’s shares in the company are pulled out from under him as his distance from Facebook increases, and as more VCs come in, his usefulness as a CFO dwindles. The fissures in Saverin and Zuckerberg’s relationship become cracks, and eventually, as you know, they end up in court over it. Similarly, as Zuckerberg’s prowess with business and handling investors increases, Parker’s role in Facebook becomes diminished as well, and after a run-in with the law, he too is cast aside.
Thus, at the end of the film, Mark Zuckerberg finds himself exactly where he wanted to be: at the top of the social pyramid, and #35 on this year’s Forbes 400 list. He has increased his status a million times over, and is one of the most successful businessmen in recent history. He also finds himself even more alone than he was at the beginning of everything. He is the most connected person in the world, yet these relationships have no meaning.
This film may be our generation’s Pirates of Silicon Valley, but it is also our Wall Street. Needless to say this film is tied for my #2 of the year so far.