There’s a moment in King Lear in Act I, Scene V when, amidst the raging storm of emotions, the most devastating line in the entire play is uttered quietly in a rare moment of reflection for its self-absorbed title character: “I did her wrong”. At its tragic conclusion, we’re left to wonder how radically different things could’ve been if those four profound words of self-fault recognition had manifested in Lear’s actions. There’s a similar moment in this film during the climactic confrontation between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). After the mephistophelean figure of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, has ruthlessly excommunicated Eduardo from any further participation in the business that Facebook has become, Mark turns away from Sean, drooping his head and lost dejectedly in thought, and he says, “you didn’t have to be so rough on him.” Shortly after, it’s back to the immense business of creative dedication that running a soon-to-be multibillion-dollar business like Facebook is. But it’s moments like those, amidst the whirlwind of ceaseless involvement of being swept up in an obsession that, almost imperceptibly, has become bigger than you and taken over your life as quickly and deadly as poison from a viper strike, that give the film its lingering quality that transcends the drama of moment.
Most everyone going into this film will know it’s about the creation of Facebook by its wunderkind founder, Mark Zuckerberg, as well as the controversy surrounding that creation involving other parties, including Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Eduardo Saverin, who claimed they had a part in it and deserved compensation. The obvious comparisons have been made to Rashomon and Citizen Kane, and the complex structure that mixes two preliminary courtroom hearings with the events they’re describing, combined with the truthfully ambiguous, multiple perspectives on those events, and the fact that the entire catalyst for those events can be reduced down to a single moment, ostensibly invites those comparisons. I also feel it shortchanges the originality of The Social Network. The profoundly ironic, profoundly sad isolation that results from the failure to achieve the most primal need for human connection is something alien to both its predecessors.
A lot has already been written about the character of Mark Zuckerberg, and it’s important to say “the character of” as it would be a mistake to take a fictionalization as representative of the real thing. The film makes it almost too easy to dismiss him as an asshole—hell, Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright calls him one in the breathless opening—but I think this unfairly undercuts his depth. Perhaps the “socially inept genius” is a cliché by now, but there is far more humane conscientiousness, vulnerability and palpable loneliness in Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg’s Mark then there is in, say, the characters in The Big Bang Theory. Regarding Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg, it’s difficult to know whom to praise first.
The Social Network is a virtuosic display of screenwriting talent. Sorkin has always been praised for his witty, hyper intelligent, rapid fire dialogue that keeps the audience on their toes, forcing them to catch up, but the real art of his craft here is on display in the structure and all of the subtle moments that tie it together. I’ve rarely seen a writer use repetitions so imperceptibly; in the opening scene, after Mark has offered to introduce Erika to the people he meets if he gets into a prestigious Harvard final club, Erica snidely retorts, “you’d do that for me?” Later, when the Winklevosses offer to help repair Mark’s reputation after his preliminary website, “FaceSmash”, made him a leper amongst the female student body, he equally responds with “you’d do that for me?”; an early indicator that Mark has no intention of helping the Winklevosses establish their website. The script is also remarkable for its razor-sharp economy, as even in a two-hour film there isn’t a moment of wasted space.
If Sorkin’s script already cuts like a katana, Fincher’s direction and editing is the hyper focused laser beam that sharpens it to a point that could cut diamond. Fincher may be the finest pure craftsman in modern Hollywood, although his proficiency in the paranoia-laced thrillers of Zodiac, Se7en or Fight Club would seem to be an odd fit for such a character driven film. Surprisingly, it’s precisely that sense of paranoia he brings to the film, one of always being off balance, disoriented, and never quite knowing the truth, that gives The Social Network its atmospheric potency. Much like Sorkin’s writing, the greatest art of Fincher’s direction is almost invisible, like the club scene with Mark and Sean, the turning point of the film where the “choice” is made. Fincher films it in unostentatious shot-reverse shot, mostly in mid-close-ups. But, when it comes time for Sean to deliver his “I want this for you” look, Fincher cuts to a tight close-up, almost straight on, as if we’re seeing this directly through Mark’s eyes. At the height of this intensity, when Sean broaches the subject of Eduardo, Fincher cuts back to a wide shot, symbolizing the soon-to-be exile of Eduardo by Mark and Sean.
To round out the trio, Eisenberg deserves an Oscar for his performance. It’s not that I can’t conceive of Colin Firth (for example) being as good, I just can’t conceive of anybody being definitively better, and because Eisenberg is playing such a fascinating, complex and even despicable character, I’m inclined to give him the automatic nod. Like the writing and directing, Eisenberg’s performance is a thing of subtle sublimity. Yes, he handles the difficult dialogue with aplomb, but he also brings a poignancy to the quiet moments and a convincing geekiness to Mark’s physical mannerisms. Eisenberg nails the Asbergers-like social ineptitude of Mark with great alacrity, and every gesture from him is a testament to the organic oddity that comes with natural genius.
Given the singularity of Mark’s character and Eisenberg’s performance, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the sterling supporting cast. Andrew Garfield brings a suavity and natural humor to Eduardo, creating a sympathetic counterpoint to Mark’s relative unlikeableness. The two central females in the film, Rooney Mara’s Erica and Brenda Song’s Christy (Eduardo’s girlfriend), don’t get much screen time, but they make an impact; both are strikingly adroit at staring daggers at the screen that would freeze any man’s blood cold. Armie Hammer is outstanding in a double role as the Winklevoss twins. The most remarkable thing to be said about him and them is that they, along with the filmmakers, manage to make big dorks out of these staggeringly handsome jocks/athletes. It’s only appropriate though; geeks are cool now because they own the world.
In his commentary for the film, Sorkin, somewhat downplaying the debate surrounding the morality of the characters’ actions, notes that The Social Network is essentially a film about how a lot of people got very rich. He also notes that “it’s a tragedy without a death”. The two statements almost seem to repel each other, but they also lend insight into the oxymoronic nature of the multiple perspectives. Yes, one can easily argue that there are no real “losers” here, but the magic of storytelling in general is its ability to make a tragedy out of such circumstances. There is a death in this film, despite what Sorkin says; it’s the death of friendship, of loyalty, of creative innocence. If you viewed the film in chronological order, the progression of these characters from wide-eyed kids to jaded and cynical young adults would be all the more startling.
In keeping with “tragedy without a death”, it’s apropos that the deathblow is delivered by a pen rather than a sword when Eduardo is forced to sign the papers that seal his demise. Part of what makes the confrontation scene so riveting is that, up until now, the drama has been rather quietly stirring under the surface. The rapid incisiveness of Sorkin’s screenplay has so immersed us in the excitement of the moment that it’s forced us to forget the fallout of the future. When the scene hits, it hits like an atom bomb. The added unexpectedness of how it comes down, masterfully orchestrated through Fincher’s cross editing, makes it all the more powerful. It also helps that the scene marks the third iteration of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ main musical theme; a haunting, three note piano piece that resonates, suspended over atmospheric industrial textures.
But what of that moral controversy? As it’s too easy to see Mark as an “asshole,” it’s also too easy to see him as a Judas. Facebook is more than just a website for Mark; it’s his masterpiece, his Mona Lisa. It’s equally his child, emotional surrogate, outlet and outreach, as well as being a thinly veiled attempt to impress his rejecter. If Mark was truly to be compared with any Shakespeare character, it would be Hamlet, whose intellectual acuity and artistic sensibility also put him in an entirely different stratosphere. There’s a scene in one of the hearings where Mark is sitting with his trademark faraway look as if he’s not even a part of the species around him, as if he has absolutely no stake in their concerns; after being asked a question, Mark looks at the window and says “it’s raining”. The only difference between Hamlet and Mark is that Hamlet doesn’t betray Horatio. That confrontation is devastating, and it makes Eduardo the most sympathetic character in the movie by default. It’s impossible to merely forgive Mark for it, but what it is possible to do is to recognize that there’s a humanity in this character that transcends his worst moments (as there hopefully is in all of us).
Ultimately, perhaps Mark’s willingness and ability to sever the ties to his past with Eduardo is symbolic of what it takes to survive in a whirlpool age of telescopic change. Yet, the final scene finds Mark slumped over his computer sending a friend request to Erica; it’s a potent reminder that the past doesn’t die that easily. Sean says he never thinks about the girl that inspired him to create Napster, and maybe that’s why the film leaves us with the hope of Mark’s redemption but not Sean’s; there needs to be a balance between fearlessly forging ahead while retaining something of value from the past.
But both characters are representative of modern revolutionaries of the most dangerous kind—the kind that aren’t influenced by money (and for a film that so deftly “captures our age”, it’s odd to use a character who’s an anti-capitalist) and who are willing and able to capitalize on the enormous resources of the new master medium of the digital age to affect monumental change with the insouciance and whimsy of children. After all, if Lear was a play about adults that acted like children, then The Social Network is a film about children acting like children, but children that have an unparalleled historical ability to change the world. After all, would you want to buy stock in Tower Records?