The key to enjoying The Social Network, the big-screen version of the founding of the Web site Facebook, is to acknowledge that at its core the film is not about the founding of Facebook.
Drawing inspiration from the book proposal for The Accidental Billionaires (written by Ben Mezrich, who admitted that many events described in his book have been embellished, compressed and otherwise altered), the film is an exaggerated version of the founding of the stunningly successful social network, more storytelling than reporting. But the main characters in the film, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, are based on actual people who were instrumental in the origins of Facebook, not to mention others who wish they were. This much is certain: in a dorm room at Harvard University in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg created a Web site that is now worth billions of dollars and in the process made more than a few enemies.
Sorkin’s hyperarticulate script includes a character named Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg. The Zuckerberg of the film is a Harvard student desperate to enter one of the elite, private, all-male “final clubs” off campus; a guy longing for attention from a girl, for acceptance, for fame; a computer programmer who straddles and sometimes crosses the line between being motivated and being obsessed. (He is also, more often than not, a jerk.) The real-life Zuckerberg has denied any such motivations.
Near the start of the film, in a series of wide shots of the campus at night, Zuckerberg walks quickly, head down, passing by more leisurely paced students on his way to his dorm room after being brutally dumped by his girlfriend. Throughout, the camera’s shallow depth of field reinforces this separation between Zuckerberg and what surrounds him, reflecting the character’s ability to tune out others and turn inward as quickly as the camera can change focus. Eisenberg’s performance is outstanding, particularly in his ability to portray his character’s awkwardness and arrogance while maintaining a sense of vulnerability.
At Fincher’s Harvard, the muted colors and dimly lit dorms provide a stark contrast to the bright, industrial offices of Facebook in Silicon Valley shown later in the film. (Fans of Fincher’s “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” will instantly recognize his characteristically dark palette in the scenes in Cambridge, Mass.) Much of the action—the parties of the upper-crust and middle-crust, the hazing for the tony Harvard clubs, the planning for Facebook—takes place at night. At times Zuckerberg’s room seems more like a lair than a dorm.
In thriller-like fashion, the film alternates the narrative of Facebook’s early days with scenes from two depositions that were part of two real-life lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg. One suit was filed by Eduardo Saverin, a co-founder of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s former best friend, who provided the startup funds and served as chief financial officer until he was pushed out of the company. Saverin’s character, played by Andrew Garfield, garners the greatest sympathy in the film, as his betrayal at the hands of Zuckerberg seems both vicious and deliberate.
The second lawsuit was filed by Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss, identical twins and fellow Harvard students, who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea for an exclusive social networking site. In the film, both brothers—dubbed the “Winklevi” by Zuckerberg in one of his few humorous asides—are played by Armie Hammer with different hairstyles and some C.G.I magic.
The scenes from one deposition in which Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a young, sympathetic (and fictional) lawyer, discusses the case with Zuckerberg seem forced, serving as an awkward vehicle both for plot exposition and for what is perhaps the film’s most famous line, which Sorkin is said to have heard from a Facebook executive who read a draft of the script: “Every creation myth needs a devil.” Despite uttering these words, Delpy is the least compelling of the few female characters in the film, all of whom are one-dimensional and seem to exist solely as muses, admirers or groupies of the lead male characters.
Overall, the film moves at an unusually rapid pace considering that the characters spend much of their time sitting in front of computers or talking around a table. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Sorkin’s fast-paced writing; he is probably best known for his work on “The West Wing” and the film “A Few Good Men.” Even as characters become bored, angry, drunk or indignant, Sorkin’s writing renders them capable of the kind of sharp one-liners and rapid-fire banter that could make Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict jealous.
The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also helps to propel or suspend the action throughout, and its electronic sounds capture the world in which Zuckerberg lives. This world, at least in the film, slowly isolates Zuckerberg from the individuals whose opinions he valued most at the start of the film.
Sex, jealousy and revenge fuel much of the action taken by both Zuckerberg and the Winkelvoss brothers. The most important question for college students, the film’s Zuckerberg says, is: “Are you having sex or aren’t you?” He is then inspired to add the “Relationship status” function on the site’s profiles, so that those who are interested can answer that question. The addition of this final touch convinces him the site is ready to go live.
But the more important questions posed by the film concern identity and friendship. The character of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who founded the Web site Napster and provided advice to Zuckerberg during Facebook’s early days, contributes to Zuckerberg’s inflated ego and immediately grasps Facebook’s potential power. He describes the site as “the true digitization of your life.”
Is such a thing even possible? If so, is it desirable? Web sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are increasingly popular; they allow people to present to others tailored versions of themselves and to connect with others in new ways. But there is something to be said for learning the name of a new friend’s favorite band, book or movie through a good, old-fashioned conversation rather than by skimming an online profile.
Facebook is an innovative, game-changing, entertaining and addictive Web site. Yet amid the barrage of status updates and messages while deciding what to “like” and whom to “friend,” it is easy to forget that the ways we define ourselves extend beyond the choices provided by the site’s profile options or fan pages or the number of comments on a wall.
In contrast to the infinitely nuanced real world, Facebook’s blue-and-white homepage offers an easily categorized alternative; in that world, the word “friend” carries a very loose definition: that girl I haven’t spoken to since third grade, my mom, an ex-boyfriend—all friends on equal footing as far as Facebook is concerned. And this list of “friends” can be pared down with the click of a mouse.
In real life, as “The Social Network” demonstrates, relationships are much more complicated. These relationships provide Fincher and Sorkin with the material for a compelling story. While no one can claim that “The Social Network” is entirely accurate, it neatly captures a sense of a greater truth through its commentary on friendship and betrayal, ambition and identity. It raises an important question: How much of your real-life social network are you willing to risk for money, fame or success?
Facebook advocates a more open society and urges users toward this by asking them to share their lives online, to define themselves through a limited set of characteristics, by a list of likes and dislikes or selected photos. But what the movie does, more than anything else, is demonstrate that building real social networks is not that simple. The complexities of the human experience, of relationships, of an individual or even a company, cannot be fully captured by a few lines of code or images on a screen.