Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network

This is not a movie about Facebook. Let's just get that out of the way.

On the surface, The Social Network is a story about Mark Zuckerberg, the founding of his Facebook empire, and the lawsuits involved. But ... well, no it's not. This is a movie, not an episode of Biography or a History Channel special. And that's the main thing to remember going into this. Mark Zuckerberg and the other characters in The Social Network are just that - characters in a story. It's *based* on real events, but there's a good bit of fiction and connecting dots as well.

I need to do something substantial to get into the clubs. ... Because they're exclusive, and fun, and they lead to a better life.

The movie starts with a dizzying conversation between Zuckerberg (played absolutely brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (played by Rooney Mara). Great acting aside, you should know at this point (if you didn't already) that this film was written by Aaron Sorkin, a fact which may or may not mean anything to you. If you remember the rapid fire, mega-smart dialogue in The West Wing, this is, if you can imagine it, even more intense than that. Imagine a much less charming Sam Seaborn on a date with a girl he likes but who he feels is beneath him. There are so many levels to the conversation in this scene, that it's difficult to keep up; I almost wish there had been subtitles, but they'd have gotten in the way. Mark, a sophomore at Harvard, is having about ten conversations to Erica's one. His voice is very clipped and controlled, but the conversation itself is spiraling out of control so fast that he doesn't even register when Erica suddenly announces that they're not dating anymore. I say suddenly, because I honestly think the decision was that quick - like, she went on this date with a guy who sometimes annoyed her but who she truly liked, and then in the space of a few minutes like turned to contempt. She shreds him with an epic burn that all the reviews I've read quote word-for-word but I won't here, because you need to just experience it. And Mark runs home to his dorm to take it out on her. On the internet.

First, he posts to his LiveJournal about what a bitch Erica is, and this is one moment in the film that rang a bit false to me, because I have an LJ - I'd had it for over a month, in fact, when this scene was supposedly taking place, in late 2003 - and I couldn't concentrate on the next few minutes of the film because my brain was busy going "LJ DOESN'T WORK LIKE THAT, GAAAH!" But that's another post for another time. Anyway, his bitterness and frustration lead to an all-night coding session, where he, his roommates, and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (played by the new Spidey, Andrew Garfield) post pictures of most of the girls on campus two-by-two, so that people (read: douchebag guys) can vote on which girl is hotter in each pair. The site was known as "Facemash," and according to the film, it got 22,000 hits in 2 hours before crashing the Harvard servers. I don't know about the numbers, but the site was real enough, and the articles about it in the Harvard paper are still online.

This event draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron (both played by Artie Hammer in one of the more amazing portrayals of twins that I've ever seen). The "Winklevi" ask Mark to help them with a campus social network called HarvardConnection (later, ConnectU) that was meant to start at Harvard and then expand to other schools, and the main appeal they saw in this was exclusivity. Mark makes an oral agreement with them to program the site, but while HarvardConnection is a good idea, Mark has a better one.

And thus "thefacebook" is born.

A million dollars is not cool. You know what's cool? A BILLION dollars.

It is, as I'm sure any of you who log on to it's current form at least once a day can imagine, instantly popular and highly addictive, and Zuckerberg is suddenly a campus celebrity before his sophomore year is even over. He and Eduardo Saverin, who is his CFO and provides the initial financial backing, make plans to expand to other colleges, including Boston University, where his ex-girlfriend attends. Most notably, however, they want to get the site to Stanford University, which just happens to be in Palo Alto, CA. Which just happens to be a significant corner of Silicon Valley. The Winkelvoss twins are livid that Mark stole their idea, though probably even more livid that it is successful, and they go to the university president to try and get Mark thrown out for breaking the school honor code. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, the president essentially laughs them out of his office, with a hearty "why are you wasting my time?". They soon come to the conclusion that it's time to lawyer up.

Meanwhile, "thefacebook" has caught the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who at this point has already become an internet rock star for founding Napster. He meets with Mark and Eduardo, filling Mark's head with stars and filling Eduardo with apprehension and distrust. Sean is against Eduardo's quest for advertising revenue (so is Mark), and while the site is already bigger than either Mark or Eduardo could have imagined, Sean's vision is even bigger. Facebook's current market value today, just so you know, is just over 25 billion dollars.

"Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars."

The story of The Social Network unfolds in a deceptively scattershot way. It is, in essence, a courtroom drama, consisting of two big lawsuits - that of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss against Zuckerberg and, most significantly and rather sadly, that of Eduardo Saverin against Zuckerberg. The rest of the scenes - the Harvard and California scenes - appear as flashbacks. The characters are telling the stories in a hearing and the movie is showing those stories to us. A good bit of attention has been paid to Justin Timberlake, who was kind of the perfect person to play Sean Parker, being something of a rock star himself. But make no mistake, the real stars of the show are Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield.

Mark in this movie, as I said above, is not meant to be the real Mark Zuckerberg, who could very well be a lovely person, but a fictionalized version - the version of Zuckerberg that works the best as far as telling this story. Here's a guy who founded a site that has 500 million members and counting, a site that's defined by the act of "friending," and yet he doesn't seem to have any actual friends at all. I won't spoil it for you, but the last scene in the film is a perfect encapsulation of who this guy is personally and the irony of that in the context of who he is in terms of Facebook. "It's lonely at the top" is not an original theme, but it certainly has an interesting twist when what you're the top of is the social business. In a world where millions of connections are made every day, the person who makes all this connecting possible can't make one himself.

The tension between Garfield's Eduardo and Eisenberg's Mark is palpable, but it's not a matter of hatred, at least not entirely (and not really at all on Mark's side). There's all kinds of flavors in it - betrayal, resentment, regret, sadness. Despite the fact that Mark does some shady things, you can't help sympathizing with him a little, and Eisenberg is a huge part of why that works. He really does seem to be sad that things with Eduardo fell apart. The thing with the Winklevosses has some nice layers too, because while what Mark did to them was pretty shady, their vision was just so small due to their focus on exclusivity.

What's interesting, though, is that Facebook has its own kind of exclusivity. Anyone can be a member, but you have to be "accepted" to have access to content. I can't help thinking that Zuckerberg was inspired by LiveJournal in this, though that may be the movie's artistic license playing with me (who knows if he ever even had an LJ account). And then there's the whole issue of the term "friend," which Facebook has basically made meaningless. I remember, in the dim and distant past when I started my LJ, "friend" was not such a virtual term. But that's yet another post for another time. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film, though, is that a moment of rejection leads to the creation of something that brings so many people together. In superficial ways, yes, and I think that's a point in the movie as well, but in spite of the illusion of exclusivity, Facebook is a pretty accepting, inclusive place.

This film has been compared to several greats of the past, and it's not hyperbole because we're not talking quality. It's like Citizen Kane in that it's about a human enigma at the center of a media empire. It's like All the President's Men in that it shows us a glimpse of the inner workings of a particular form of media. And it's like Network because it speaks to how people can be influenced by that media. And, like all three of those films were for their time, this is a Zeitgeist Film. It's a movie about who we are and how we relate to each other.

I think it's too soon to start talking Oscars, and by the way neither Citizen Kane nor All the President's Men nor Network won Best Picture (though all three were nominated). However, I feel confident in saying this will end up on a lot of Top 10 lists (including the Best Picture nominees) and almost certainly will end up on mine, possibly in the top 5. Aaron Sorkin's Oscar chances are inevitable. This is one of his more brilliant pieces of writing - maybe not above the best of his West Wing work, but it's definitely the best film writing he's done, period. And I can't imagine another film coming along in the next few months whose writing can even compare. There are none of the platitudes that often bring Sorkin's stuff down a notch (meaning down a notch from galactically awesome, which is still awesome), and I was struck as I've never been struck before - even on The West Wing - with how tight the script is and how efficiently and smoothly the story is told. The film is two hours, but it passes very quickly, and I was actually surprised when it ended, thinking it couldn't possibly have been two hours since the film began.

Director David Fincher deserves a whole lot of credit as well for how good this is. He does what great directors do, which is not get in the way by showing off. That said, there are some pretty stunningly shot scenes, most especially the boat race scene, which is exciting to watch without making it all about the "who's going to win" tension.

As I said before, this isn't a movie about Facebook, any more than Citizen Kane was about a newspaper or All the President's Men was about Watergate. It is also, again, not a movie about the real Mark Zuckerberg. The movie's Mark is drawn in a way that highlight's the movie's themes; real people aren't like that. Mark as a character has an almost Shakespearean ironic flaw for the story he is in. This is a *version* of Zuckerberg, a *version* of the events that led to Facebook, and it's the version that makes an awesome movie.

I hope this movie is huge and that everyone loves it, gets it, and wants to talk about it.

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