The title is misleading—deliberately, ironically so, I suspect—because Facebook, the now ubiquitous social networking site, is not the subject of The Social Network. The network at the heart of the docudrama is much more traditional: the volatile relationships among a small group of bright, privileged young men, none of whom come across particularly well.
Given voice by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, known for his stylized, rapid-fire dialogue, the founders of Facebook and their rivals are articulate and crude, brilliant and oblivious, arrogant and insecure, occasionally charming and nearly always nastily misogynistic. In other words, they are immediately recognizable. Anyone who has ever attended college knows guys like this. I don’t know how accurate the history is, but there’s definitely some kind of truth here.
The origin of Facebook have been much mythologized and litigated—and honestly, I don’t particularly care about it—so here I’m discussing the content of the movie, not the real people. The Social Network jumps chronologically between Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook during his sophomore year at Harvard and depositions for two lawsuits filed against him a few years later. It opens with Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) being dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara)—first politely and then, when he refuses to hear and accept what she is saying, with sharp, brutal finality that clearly hurts him. He deals with the breakup by returning to his dorm room, hacking into numerous Harvard dormitory websites to obtain images of female classmates, and creating a website where visitors judge which girl is the hottest. The site is shut down in a matter of hours, but it catches the attention of older classmates Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and their business partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who want to create a networking site for Harvard. Mark informally agrees to help them, but instead, he builds his own site, financed by his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Within a matter of weeks, Facebook membership explodes. Eduardo, acting as CFO, wants to build an advertising base, but Mark, advised by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) of Napster fame/infamy, is reluctant to jump into that quickly. At Sean’s urging, Mark moves to Palo Alto and begins seeking venture capital. Eduardo fears he’s losing his friend and his stake in the company—and he’s right on both counts.
The nature of Facebook is not the point here, and it shouldn’t be. Aside from the sly insinuation that only someone who sees relationships as transactional—chits to be hoarded and tallied and traded upon—could devise Facebook’s bloodless system of “friending,” The Social Network has no particular insights into the site at the center of the drama. True, Erica has a self-righteous speech about how the Internet Is Written Not in Pencil But in Ink, but it’s a tritely expressed hackneyed sentiment, to say the least, and it’s beside the point—one of those inevitable moments when Sorkin is so eager to climb atop his soapbox that he clumsily substitutes his own voice for the character’s. (Perhaps I should acknowledge here that I have never been a fan of Aaron Sorkin.) I don’t believe for a moment that the medium Mark used would be the most disturbing thing to Erica about the nasty comments her ex-boyfriend posted to his blog the night she broke up with him—that’s more the attitude of, oh, a technology-averse man in his late forties than a bright, social college student—and the scene clanks accordingly.
Sorkin has more success when he plays to his strengths, avoiding the depiction of technology as such, avoiding female characters (perhaps problematic but I’ll come back to that), and sticking to Mark’s toxic homosocial world. Mark’s opening monologue (poor Erica thinks it’s a conversation) about Harvard’s final clubs is superb in that in potently establishes his ambition and class resentment—major themes of the movie—as well as how he determines what he wants in life: He values exclusivity for its own sake. Something has worth to him only if it has worth to others. This is hardly a unique form of judgment—certainly not among the characters in the movie—but The Social Network dramatizes it with sharp edges, most disturbingly in how the men in the movie relate to women. For Mark and Eduardo, for example, the best thing about an unexpected blow job is not the act itself but the chance to let other guys know that they got one. The women—any women—are all but irrelevant. Posturing for other men is all that matters.
The Social Network has gotten some flak for sexism, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the movie depicts sexism in scenes like that. The female “characters” (if two-dimensional props can be described as characters) are limited largely to party favors and giggling cheerleaders and psycho bitches because that’s how Mark and company see them. It’s upsetting and off-putting to watch, but I can’t say it doesn’t ring true. I’ve known guys like that. Hasn’t everyone?
Depicting sexism, like just about anything, does glamorize it to some extent—I’m sure there are some viewers just as entranced with Sean’s coke-and-strippers antics as Mark initially is—but for the most part, The Social Network does a good job at cutting its dickish heroes down to size. Timberlake is surprisingly adept in the scenes late in the movie when Sean’s bluster begins to crumble, finally collapsing in a pathetic heap. The deterioration of Mark and Eduardo’s relationship—destroyed partly by the emptiness of boys-will-be-boys “coolness”—is poignant and nuanced and weirdly affecting. And Sorkin gives Erica a departing slam* against Mark so perfectly apt and poetic that I almost forgive him some of his earlier crap.
I can’t say I love The Social Network, but it’s well-made and effective, thanks mainly to Fincher and Eisenberg. Fincher’s bold, sleek style provides remarkable—but not distracting—visual interest and momentum to a film in which people spend most of their time sitting in front of computer screens, and while he never allows to movie to drag, he doesn’t rush either, giving moments that need it space to breathe.
Eisenberg has the challenge of portraying a young man who doesn’t readily express (or even process) emotion, and he handles it beautifully. His Mark isn’t charismatic (that would be cheating), but he’s compellingly intense, and his flat but driving, rat-a-tat speech is mesmerizing. Despite myself, I kind of liked the guy, in a detached sort of way. He’s an asshole but a gifted, inventive, hardworking asshole who does more to earn his success than anyone else in the movie.
Sorkin provides him with great lines (the blistering “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook” is a favorite of mine) but then undercuts the actor’s uncompromising performance, especially toward the end. Even the talented Eisenberg can’t sell the screenplay’s dopey insistence on making the Girl Who Got Away the underlying motive behind the creation of Facebook. Worse is the sudden softness toward Mark in the last scene with one of his lawyers. I’ll go along with her “Every creation myth needs a devil” reassurances—fair enough—but “You’re not an asshole, Mark; you’re just trying so hard to be”? When is that ever the case? What does that even mean? Sure, he’s ruder to the Winklevoss twins than he needs to be, but he’s not “trying” to be an asshole toward Eduardo or Erica, the people he allegedly cares about. He just is an asshole.
Sorkin seems to think he’s telling the story of how Mark sells his soul for money and status, and he clearly loves the idea of the CEO of Facebook as a friendless wretch, but that’s not actually what The Social Network is about. Mark is a static character. He doesn’t sell his soul or his ideals over the course of the film, and he’s just as isolated at the beginning as the end. The old-fashioned Sorkin might try to turn the rise of Facebook into Greek drama, but Mark is not a tragic hero, and The Social Network is most successful when it accepts that and lets him be, well, an asshole—a gifted, inventive, hardworking asshole. There are worse things.
– – – – –
*Erica’s line: “You’re going to be successful and rich. But 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.” Seriously, that’s a great goddamn line. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say something like that a few times in my life. In that scene, at least, Erica Albright is my hero.