Director: David Fincher
By Roderick Heath
One night in 2003, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) goes back to his dorm room and, between swilling liquor and firing off angry blog rants about Erica, slaps together a rudimentary website called “Facemash” so that his fellow students can compare and vote on photos of female undergrads. This stunt proves so popular that he crashes Harvard’s network at 4:00 AM. Mark is momentarily in trouble with the college establishment, and in deep, permanent hot water with Erica, but he’s made a name for himself, and now discerns an uncharted corner of the online world’s possibilities. He soon receives an offer by twin rich kids Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) to build a website they have in mind, to be called “Harvard Connection,” in which the selling point is the exclusivity of the harvard.edu address. Mark signs on, but busies himself instead with developing his own version of the idea using cash and some code provided by his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and fellow computer wizards Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel). Within a few months. it’s clear Mark has put together the basics of a project that has the potential to turn his crew into billionaires—The Facebook, named after the institutional catalogues of Harvard alumni.
We remember Balzac’s maxim: all great fortunes come from a great crime. The great driving fantasy of the dotcom generations is the possibility of expunging that maxim by accumulating wealth based in digits and know-how rather than polluting the planet and exploiting labour, and yet such innocent wealth is as elusive now as ever. The Social Network tells a story electrifying to anyone who’s young and dreams big. There are certainly moments in it that made me wish I’d dedicated the early years of the millennium to learning how to write computer code rather than coherent sentences. And yet the story confirms enough impressions of licentious misogyny, business bastardry, indulgence in controlled substances, and nerdish social dysfunction to satisfy the antimillennial prejudices of the most jaded fogey.
The Winklevoss twins, or the “Winklevii” as Mark contemptuously refers to them, believe Mark has stolen their idea, and, after delaying because of Cameron’s gentlemanly scruples, hit Mark with a lawsuit. But the root of all evil and creative ambition in The Social Network is not plagiarism but sex. It’s the fief of the sanctified “Final Clubs” of Harvard where golden boys party all night with good-time girls brought in by the busload, and the promised land for the successful businessman who otherwise lacks natural advantages. After being dumped by Erica, who describes Mark’s conversational mix of brilliance, jealousy, suspicion, and ambition as like “dating a Stairmaster,” Mark sees the market value in creating a site that avoids the tedious work of developing relationships and instead offers you the equivalent of a sign that reads, “I am single, please fuck me.” Later, Mark and Eduardo, their new website having made them instant celebrities on campus and in other colleges that have adopted it, begin accumulating groupies, including Christy (Brenda Song) and Alice (Malese Jow), hot-to-trot Asian students in hooker heels who fulfil all their boyish fantasies in blowing them in the union bar bathroom.
The serpent arrives in this Eden in the form of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a randy, drug-and-chick-lovin’ entrepreneur whose website Napster (before being killed by lawsuits) set in motion the degradation of the music business. Intrigued by a glimpse at The Facebook from the bed of a college mademoiselle (Dakota Johnson) he’s just laid, Parker meets with Mark and Eduardo, suggests dropping “The” from the title, and inspires Mark to hire more code writers and move out to California, about which Sean is able to bewitch Mark with visions of endless sexual escapades with underwear models on giant piles of money, or something close. When Eduardo finally follows them out west, he’s dismayed to see Parker attaching himself to their baby and tries to make Mark pay attention to him by freezing the operation’s finances just before Mark and Parker arrange a colossal hedge fund loan. Eduardo soon finds himself manoeuvered into signing a contract that sees his share in the company plummet, inspiring a final blow-up, which, along with Parker’s being disgraced in a romp involving cocaine and underage college girls, leaves Mark alone and beset by vendetta lawsuits.
The Social Network tells a story worth telling, a key modern “creation myth” (as it’s described in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay) for a modern movie audience that is often badly served by Hollywood, in particular. The likes of Sorkin and Peter Morgan have cornered a market in offering imaginative takes on events we’re too used to seeing through the surface-only lenses of popular media and the bare-boned language of reportage. Sorkin’s writing and Fincher’s direction lay out the complexities of that story with coherence and cinematic fluidity. It’s as slickly made a drama as any Hollywood’s put out in years, equipped with some witty dialogue. It’s well-paced and the time taken to watch the film passes swiftly.
So why did it all finally ring so hollow for me?
The trailer for The Social Network, which utilised the Scala Choir’s a capella rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” actually delivered images, dialogue, and visual chic of the film with far more spirit, darkness, emotion, and implied thoughtfulness than the complete film comes close to offering. “Creep” was an uncanny choice not only because using Gen X songs seems to instantly thrill a lot of Gen X critics, but also because its lyrics quite clearly lay out the repressed self-loathing and hunger for community that’s a darker aspect of the contemporary youth zeitgeist, and that particular recording imbues it with a spiritual reach and faintly menacing kind of beauty that makes Parker’s pronouncements about “This is our time!” sound vaguely übermensch-like. Instead, in the context of the full film, it’s a rather vaingloriously tacky statement by a piddling debauch.
I’ve made no secret in the past of my lack of love for Fincher as a director, and The Social Network is a neat portrait of both his strengths and perennial lackings. He’s a formidable technician, and The Social Network represents, at least, a welcome return to the kind of procedural immediacy he brought to 2007’s Zodiac after the spectacular, yet oddly ineffectual fantasy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But it’s also peppered with a lot of the shallow social commentary of the vein that littered his earlier work, like Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), is poorly shaped, falling away from a racing start, and filmed, as ever, with his familiar interiors shot through greeny-amber filters, like somebody’s urinated on the lens.
Even when Fincher toys with open-ended narratives, like that of Zodiac, he holds to such a streamlined, conventional structuring of scenes that the very real strengths of his work—particularly a firm sense of mise-en-scène—are diffused by his determination to be a Hollywood player of the most mainstream kind. Fincher has no idea how to end a movie without an explosion: like Zodiac and Benjamin Button, The Social Network stumbles to a halt, rather than ends, in a way that evokes less the chill of unanswerable questions than running out of time. He domesticates even anarchic and disturbing narratives to an infuriating degree. His approach to wringing drama and sex appeal out of a possibly dry, geeky tale is to play the old DeMille game of employing sexploitation and then moralism, as Fincher offers hot chicks making out with each other and stripping on tabletops, whilst pretending to shake his head over this decadence, or to have people leap out of their chairs and rush across campus when something dramatic happens, like they’ve just discovered the killer’s identity and that the phone calls are coming from inside the house.
Sorkin, too, shares similar traits: his snap-crackle-pop dialogue and self-assertively smartypants sensibility are all rigorously glib, and the overt, high-pressure cleverness of it all, rather than seeming literate and challenging, smothers the story’s resonances in the cradle. His fine TV series The West Wing and its cinematic ancestor The American President (1995) earned a pass partly because they wore their stagy, fairytale stylisation on their sleeve and partly because Sorkin’s writing wasn’t as consciously arch then as it has become. Every character in The Social Network, except for the odd stoned young wenches who flit by in the background, talks in rapid-fire TV-ese. The emotional and social theses are constantly stated, never felt or deeply communicated by the filmmaking; in fact, they’re typed up like memos. It was a nice reminder of how much I disliked Sorkin’s previous outing as a screenwriter in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a despicable film that bespoke the complete exhaustion of the Hollywood liberal film tradition in reducing the Afghan-Russian War to a video game whilst celebrating Tom Hanks’ right to screw Julia Roberts and Emily Blunt. The only flare of real feeling in The Social Network, and the easiest to convey, is Eduardo’s squall of rage when he realises what’s been done to him and stomps out to tear Mark from his IT bubble. And that’s The Social Network in a nutshell: it constantly takes the easier path.
The depictions of bright teenagers and early twenty-somethings are so stylised as to defy credulity. I’m not saying The Social Network should have been a mumblecore movie, but just a few keen dashes of the sort of well-observed Bright Young Thing angst that make star Eisenberg’s previous film, Adventureland (2009), so engaging would have made The Social Network feel more personal and personable, and given depth to its admirable grasp on the business chicanery at its heart. Certainly getting in touch with its inner teen flick would have been preferable to Sorkin’s patented Walking Insta-Quote Machines. The Social Network is a drama centering around social insecurity and genius IQs, and repeatedly posits Mark’s break-up with Erica as a kind of lost Eden, an original sin, culminating in the final image of Mark patiently refreshing his Facebook page waiting for Erica to accept his friend request. It’s a touch that hammers home the notion that Mark’s life irony in constructing a forum based in friendship has left him denuded of friends, and one that completely fails to achieve any resonance beyond the obvious, because Mark’s relationship with Erica is so quickly hurled out of the way of the plot. Erica is so obviously conceived as an emblem of things Mark doesn’t get. Why was Erica going out with Mark? Why was he going out with her? Did she mean a lot to him? Or does he merely miss the idea of her, the untrammelled spirit of feminine good sense he heedlessly turned his back on? I had less of an idea about any of this after the film was over than when it began. Mara is eye-catching in her brief contribution to the film, but there’s nothing about her character that begs fixation or even great interest: I even found myself siding with Mark in his feeling of aggravation, if not in his obnoxious, but pretty run of the mill dissing of Erica on his blog, for her dumping of him is as clumsy and insensitive as anything he does.
Eisenberg plays a brainier and smarter-of-mouth variation on the kind of part he’s become known for, but denuded of charm and insight. He’s very competent, but his portrayal of Zuckerberg, or at least his embodiment of the Zuckerberg handed to him by Fincher and Sorkin, is so closed-off and one-note as to render him a practical nonentity. His sharpest moment in the film comes when he impatiently informs the Winklevii’s patronising lawyer that he doesn’t deserve all of Mark’s attention because he’s also busy thinking of grander schemes at the Facebook offices “where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s an interesting moment that both lays on the line Mark’s arrogance and also his honourable dedication to a vision he thinks everyone else would like an undeserving piece of, and judging by the lawyer’s bemused reaction as a defeated foil, Sorkin and Fincher at least in part agree with Mark, both obviously regarding themselves as belonging to that assailed niche of the Smartest Guys in the Room. The film proposes Zuckerberg then as hero and antihero, an identification figure in his outsider anxiety, his assaults on settled bastions, and his carelessness about money, whilst also expediting what is basically an old-fashioned morality play about the perils of success, where Mark’s drive is less financial than one of desiring preeminence as a ticket to inclusion.
The film presents the Winklevii with a certain wry empathy, especially for Cameron’s gentlemanly pretences, but still offers them up as foils whose sense of entitlement Mark feels no compunction in puncturing. Being jocks as well as rich-kid entrepreneurs, thus combining two of Mark’s pet hates, they compete as Olympic-level rowers, and their loss in a regatta to a Dutch team is portrayed in a pointless scene scored to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” a sequence Fincher might have mined for symbolic value in mirroring the beauties of genuine competition rather than oligarchy, but instead gains only the cheap schadenfreude of watching the rich boys lose.
And there’s a large aspect of The Social Network that never came alive for me, and this sucked most of the strength right out it: the social conflicts. The class resentment and socio-sexual unease that’s supposed to drive the drama only ever feels rhetorical and convenient, especially considering that we learn so little about Mark’s life and worldview—we can only presume he’s middle-class as well as Jewish. The supposed gap between the WASPs and the Jews at Harvard seems to have been transcribed virtually undiluted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, even if the golden boys are now wearing baseball caps backwards.
The Social Network is bookended by two lines of dialogue spoken by bright ladies. At the opening, in which Erica breaks up with Mark, she delivers this would-be devastating put-down: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” In the closing scene, Marylin Delpy, a lawyer assisting Mark’s chief counsel, modifies this comment: ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark, you’re just trying to be one.” Very neat, very circular. It’s also clearly a message from a screenwriter commenting on the character of Mark Zuckerberg using these facile female characters as mouthpieces.
Such do-you-get-the-point-isms like Mark’s line, “Eduardo, it’s like a Final Club except we’re the president,” are unnecessary, especially considering that incidents like how Mark turns a search for interns to do their code writing into exactly the same kind of competition, involving racing against time whilst downing shots, illustrate better the way Mark tries to turn his version of IT capitalism into a mere rival to, rather than dissension from, the kinds of hierarchy, competitiveness, and tribalism he’s supposed to be at war with. As the film progresses, and Parker enters the film, his sexed-up, eternally adolescent ideal of what an IT magnate should look and act like becomes Mark’s model. Parker’s California is supposed to be a land of decadence and conniving, though the decadence on display is dismayingly low-rent: Parker can’t even get down to sniffing cocaine out of a college girl’s navel in peace without getting busted. His pernicious influence on Facebook’s genesis makes itself clear in the underage floozies hanging about the house Mark and the rest of the team share, getting high and playing video games whilst the boy’s club gets on with it. One of the more subtle yet telling moments comes when Mark’s handing out jobs in his I-just-invented-it company to his buddies, and when Christy and Alice ask what they can do, Mark offhandedly says, “Nothing.” Which is fair enough, considering he doesn’t know what they can do, but he doesn’t even think to ask. But I would have appreciated Fincher’s and Sorkin’s efforts to elucidate the misogyny that infects these characters and their world more if their own work didn’t reek of it, particularly in the startlingly cheap comedy they wring from the scene in which Christy gets destructively, pathologically possessive of Eduardo and sets fire to his bed like every caricature of a crazy Asian chick you’ve ever seen in a movie.
As the film grinds into its last quarter, the dramatic strands, scenes, and time frame all become increasingly fragmented. The flash-forward structure, constantly drawing us from the immediate travails of building Facebook to the grisly lawsuit roundtables, proves finally to be a rather half-hearted expositional device: the results of the lawsuits are tossed off in a final explanatory scrawl, and the probable desired effect, one of bewildering, tragic distance between “then” and “now” is lost because there’s no variation in the dialogue or editing styles, or in Mark’s pithily dismissive attitude. I could go on dissecting what displeased me in The Social Network, but not perhaps without boring both you and myself, so I’ll settle for saying that The Social Network finally left me with a curious impression of great loquaciousness concealing a lack of anything to say.
I can at least praise the cast easily. That Hammer does a great job playing the Winklevii is not worth denying, even though I wondered if pulling such a stunt really contributed anything to the film other than allowing Fincher to advertise that he’s still a technical master. I kept spotting the matte lines and focus gradations that bear out the special effects, and then, in turn, kept unnecessarily alerting me to the unnecessary trickery—was it really that hard to dig up a couple of good-looking twins? Timberlake manages to do an amazing amount with very little: Timberlake’s musical persona of a privileged puppy with a glint of the genuine satyr that gives him some grit helps enliven his characterisation, swinging from swinger-smooth highs to humiliated, almost boyish desperation when he’s trying to assuage Mark’s alarm when he finally crashes and burns. But otherwise, if good is the enemy of great, The Social Network is Exhibit A.