Let’s get the misconceptions out of the way as quickly as possible; The Social Network is a movie about Facebook in the same way All The President’s Men is a movie about The Washington Post, which is to say it is about far more than the superficial story of a business and its machinations. It also should be said that, despite some of the more grandiose claims to the contrary, this is not a movie that defines the universal experience of our times, a tale of the 500,000,000 people who live their lives online and in public on Facebook. It is, however, a movie that does define a specific cohort of this generation because it is a film about labor, about the relationship between people, their ideas, their hard work and one another; as much as the film’s advertising campaign seeks to portray the movie as a statement on “our lives in the online age”, The Social Network is actually a human drama that unfolds in the old "bricks-and-mortar" space of real life, where verbal agreements and handshakes are signposts pointing toward disaster, and where the resentments of those with the ability to create and innovate clashes violently with the expectations of those who can afford to pay to have the work done.
As such, The Social Network is indeed a generational touchstone; it is a movie about being young and alive right now, when youth is not respected despite ability and where meaningful work is a commodity to be exploited by those with the means to do so. It is not a movie about the meaning of the online generation, but a film about the Freelance Generation, where nothing is promised from the top down anymore-- no security, no future, nothing-- and where your work is seen as the entitlement of those who paid you to show up. The Social Network is not about class resentment as much as it is about a specific resentment over the presumed hierarchy of value in the labor chain, where the money people reap reward without investing much of anything into the vision and creation of the project. Why do we privilege the investment of capital over the physical realization of ideas? By creating a complicated, unsympathetic version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played with brilliant detachment by Jesse Eisenberg), David Fincher (working from an outstanding, rat-a-tat script by Aaron Sorkin) has created a new anti-hero, a man who, despite constantly being described as an "asshole," lives out the fantasy of millions of young Americans who, forced into draconian non-compete agreements and underpaid for their ideas, see the internet as a place where inspiration and ability can triumph over the old values of the trickle down labor economy.
Of course, on a surface level, the movie is not so much a lesson in economic vengeance (although, yes it is) as it is a wildly entertaining story of friendships and deception, of college life and economic privilege and the almost classically dramatic personal contortions that reportedly lead to the creation of Facebook, the most influential and important social networking site on the internet. It is also another example of the brilliant ability of Fincher to find a perfect balance between pace and tone; whereas a film like Zodiac trolls along its historic timeline, allowing us to marinate in the uncertainty and dread that is central to its mystery, The Social Network tears ahead at the breakneck pace of the information age, with Sorkin’s dialogue (fractured and as fast as an instant message) providing the fireworks and Fincher’s notoriously mobile camera rooted on the faces of his characters, allowing the actors just enough time to make their feelings known before careening forward toward the next revelation. Fincher, working again with the digital RED Camera and again in CinemaScope (which lends the power of dramatic scale to an otherwise intimate narrative,) is at the top of his game as a visual storyteller, isolating Mark in the frame and constantly pulling us into his worldview. The best example is Fincher’s framing of the wealthy and powerful Winklevoss twins (who, thanks to Fincher’s trademark visual trickery, are both played by Armie Hammer, great-grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer), scions of Protestant privilege who, along with their friend Divya Narendra (played by Max Minghella, son of director Anothony Minghella*), hire Mark to build a website called Harvard Connection, an exclusive dating site for “anyone with a harvard.edu email address,” the most desirable e-mail address in the world. The Winklevoss twins tower over Zuckerberg, using the threat of physical domination to underscore their economic superiority over Mark. Everything you need to know about the social divide between the twins and Mark is expressed in Fincher’s framing, their impossibly handsome faces and imposing stature ultimately undone by Mark’s anti-social mask, which hides his brilliance and his ability to deceive his patrons; it is on their time that he builds the original incarnation of Facebook, taking their root idea and building the site that ultimately transcends the exclusivity of their narrow vision.
Defensive: Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network
Ultimately, it is Mark’s understanding as an outsider, his ability to see what makes people tick without being included in the specifics of their experiences, that allows Facebook to become a success; it is also what separates him from his friend and original Facebook investor Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, great here). Saverin, whose initial $1,000 investment gets Facebook up and running, wants a return on his money and sees the future in advertising on the site. Zukerberg understands the limitations of Saverin’s idea, instead wanting to build something “cool” and allowing for time see where it ends up before committing to a strategy. So Mark, under the guidance of Napster founder Sean Parker (played with delicious whimsy by Justin Timberlake), cuts Eduardo out of the company, ultimately using a contract to essentially divest him from Facebook. Mark’s “betrayals” (more on the quotes in a minute) provide the narrative structure of the story; ultimately sued by Narendra and the Winkelvoss twins over stealing their idea and simultaneously sued by Saverin for cutting the investor out of the company, the film uses the deposition process of the lawsuits to frame the flashbacks and multiple perspectives that define the story. In the end, though, it is Mark who isolated by his ultimate success, unable to connect with anyone at all despite providing the entire world the ultimate tool for social connection.
Alone: Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network
Mark’s inability to connect with other people is played both for motivation (the opening scene, in which Mark gets dumped in a bar, provides the crux of his inspiration to work hard and ultimately succeed) and as a flaw of sorts; the portrayal of Zuckerberg is underscored by the film’s constant use of the word “asshole” to describe him. For me, however, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark is a character I could relate to deeply, a cipher for my generation; a person who believes that his ideas are meaningful, that his work is valuable, despite the fact that everyone around him can’t seem to acknowledge the depth of his vision. This isn’t a story of nerds vs winners, or of rich kids vs really really rich kids, but instead, The Social Network is about the new rules of the game, where the people who have the big ideas are forced to navigate the treacherous waters of a world of privilege that doesn’t know what it means to get the work done. Fincher, Sorkin and the team have made an improbable movie for the 21st century, a story of the new, creative class whose marginalization is suddenly, thrillingly, tenuous; they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. If Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole for protecting his vision and doing whatever it takes to make sure his work is properly realized, well, I guess I'm in favor of assholes. I think the character is fascinating for being both difficult and right at the same time; his is a complexity I think defines the true gravity and moral center of the film. If Mark was a nice guy who made sure everyone got a say, regardless of their relationship to the vision of what makes Facebook work, who knows where the site would be. The fact is, in the context of the film's narrative, Zuckerberg was right to do what he did because he was seemingly the only one who understood what was required to make the work great. That The Social Network is a breakneck entertainment and among the finest films Hollywood has made in years is simply frosting on the cake; if this movie can break through the limited perception that it is simply “The Facebook Movie”, it could go a long way to re-establishing the type of engaging social commentary that made Hollywood relevant all those years ago. Here's hoping.
* A note about the "stunt" casting in the film, which I am sure is not a real stunt but which lends a perverse and knowing authenticity to the film; Armie Hammer, Max Minghella and Rooney Mara (the granddaughter of Wellington Mara, who himself was heir to the New York Giants) all come from very wealthy families, and they are clearly having a good time with the class conflicts at play in the film. Still, the best stunt of all was casting a recording artist in the role of Napster founder Sean Parker; Justin Timberlake is great in the part, but you can't help but wonder how much money the character lost the actor over the years...