America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
The Social Network: Review: The Satirist
Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
The Social Network is a fast-moving, entertaining movie about the rise of Facebook. From its humble beginnings as a Harvard University social website, Facebook has grown into a worldwide phenomenon with 500 million users and a likely market cap of at least $25 billion, once it goes public. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is the youngest billionaire in the world, and so is now considered a worthy subject for a full-length cinematic treatment.
Writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, TV's The West Wing) based his Academy Award winning screenplay on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires. The story is told in flashbacks from various legal depositions, as four former Harvard classmates sue Zuckerberg for stealing the idea for Facebook and for cheating them out of their shares. Zuckerberg, the main character, is depicted as an intellectually conceited computer hacker. Apparently, he is oblivious to money, and only wanted his site to be "cool," so he indeed becomes a billionaire almost by accident.
The movie opens with Zuckerberg's casual girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) breaking up with him. He later tries to speak with her in a restaurant, and even, amusingly, to "Friend" her on Facebook. The movie suggests that she is somehow very important to him, yet we are never convinced that Zuckerberg (the character) cares much about her or other people. Instead, we see him cheat his "only friend" and original business partner, Eduardo Saverin (who had put up $1000 to get the site started) by inflating his shares away, as well as cheat three Harvard bluebloods, who had paid him to build a similar Harvard social networking site. (Way too much screen time is lavished on the Winklevoss twins agonizing over whether to sue Zuckerberg; we already know that they are going to.)
While Zuckerberg is fast-talking, brilliant, and eventually rich, and thus for many people a role model, he serves as a weak protagonist because there is nothing important at stake for him in the movie, whether financially, personally, or emotionally. So what if he settles out of court for millions of dollars; he's a billionaire! ("It's a parking ticket," one young lawyer explains to him.) Yet without any meaningful conflict there is no dramatic tension in the movie. We don't really care about the lawsuits at all; they don't even pose an existential threat to the Facebook site. Luckily, the dialogue is witty (Zuckerberg delivers funny, condescending zingers during his legal depositions), and the editing is very sharp, so the movie moves so quickly that we might not notice its essential superficiality. (The 162 page screenplay would normally make for a 2 hour and 42 minute movie, so it is a miracle of compression that The Social Network clocks in at only 2 hours.)
The Social Network assumes that we use Facebook (else we're unlikely to watch the movie), and so it knows we will appreciate those "Eureka!" moments during Facebook's evolution. The year 2003 is made to seem like the dawn of time, the pre-Facebook age. So we smile with recognition the first time someone uses "facebook" as a verb ("I'll facebook you!"). We appreciate seeing the origins of the (apparently brilliant) idea of adding the user's dating status (Single, Married, In a Relationship) to user profiles; or hearing Bill Gates give a speech at Harvard saying that "the next Bill Gates might be in this room" (wink, wink); or seeing how the site's original name "TheFacebook" was trimmed to "Facebook" at the suggestion of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the wunderkind behind Napster, the revolutionary file-sharing site from the late 1990's.
The Sean Parker character injects some needed life into the movie. Parker is depicted as just the type of slick, wheeler-dealer that Facebook needed to achieve rapid expansion. Parker has connections to Silicon Valley venture capitalists and he convinces Zuckerberg to move out to Palo Alto. Here we are treated to semi-obligatory California party scenes, replete with swimming pools, beautiful young women, recreational drug-use, wanton property destruction, hard-drinking computer hackers, and the inevitable police bust. The move to California causes the rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin (his CFO and partner), and ultimately to Saverin's lawsuit against Zuckerberg for undisclosed millions. Parker ends up with a piece of Facebook worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Social Network feels more like a quality TV show (such as The West Wing) than an important feature-length film. Some critics have even compared it to Citizen Kane (1941), the quasi-official "greatest movie of all time," which also depicted (via flashbacks) a media baron who alienated anyone who was ever close to him. Yet there are not many human emotions on display in The Social Network, other than greed and ambition, and so viewers with more than just a reptilian value-system might find it challenging to empathize with such characters. The entertainment value comes mainly from Sorkin's hip, contemporary dialogue. The film is topical and seems important to some people, because—despite all the warnings from privacy advocates about the dangers of people compiling extensive online dossiers about themselves—Facebook has already had an enormous impact on society.
The Social Network is an entertaining look at an important contemporary phenomenon, but is hardly great cinema.