Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Social Network

With the astounding pedigree The Social Network has—directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin—the pre-release buzz has been pretty big. Frankly, all Mrs. Speculator and I had to see was that Sorkin had written the screenplay, and we were in. That the movie reputedly is related to one of the cultural phenomena of this last decade makes it that much more compelling a story to view. Facebook's owner and inventor, Mark Zuckerberg, a figure generally shrouded in mystery and yet the world's youngest billionaire, could be a fascinating protagonist. Three really positive attributes of the movie make it well worth the time and expense of seeing.

First, there is the writing of Sorkin. Long characterized by his dialogs—especially as typified in his TV shows The West Wing and Sports Night: rapid and witty, sort of Howard Hawks on steroids—Sorkin's script for The Social Network fits seamlessly in that pattern. The opening scene of the movie has Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and a date (Rooney Albright) tripping through an irretrievably broken conversation to the point that the girl breaks up with Zuckerberg. The scene shows just how socially inept Zuckerberg is, appearing to say what comes first to his mind without considering the consequence of each word. In some ways, that kind of conversation could be welcome, saying what one really is thinking instead of obfuscating with political correctness or other motives, but on an early date, it is a recipe for disaster. But beyond the Sorkinesque dialog, the first scene also betrays what appears to be a standard feature of Sorkin's scripts, broken but smart people, trying to communicate and function in a world that they somehow stand apart from. Not only is Zuckerberg a romantic disaster, he is disgustingly smart, which we are led to believe may be part of the source of his social issue: unlike Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, who puzzles over the illogic of social tradition and nicety, Zuckerberg just doesn't have the time or interest to care. He says either what pops into his mind first or that which gets him to his goal most directly. Nearly all the characters in this movie are broken, and Sorkin excels at showing his audience what happens when the jagged edges rub against one another. There is quite likely an Oscar nomination for this screenplay to come in the next year.

Second, the acting is quite fine. Eisenberg appears to be completely immersed in Zuckerberg's character, and what a character it is. Generally having no affect at all, Zuckerberg only shows some excitement at successes he expects to take place or when new ideas strike him. In the opening scene of the movie, when he offends his date Erica, he actually does say "I'm sorry" but with no emotional import whatsoever, making it somehow worse than a lie. Given the plot of the movie involves simultaneous lawsuits against Zuckerberg and long flashbacks to the events that led to the "9invention" and release of Facebook and ultimately the lawsuits, often Zuckerberg is just watching the depositions from witnesses against him, much as he just watches the events unfold about him that he sets in motion with his ideas. This lack of affect and interaction often causes those around him to take him for granted, or even try to take advantage of him, but he generally is engaged enough that when asked directly, he can tell you exactly what is happening, even so far as the emotions that drive the people around him. It's a fascinating portrayal and sometimes chilling in its movement from inhumanity to something near-human.

Justin Timberlake is astonishing as Sean Parker, the inventor of Napster and eventual investor in Facebook. He is almost the complete opposite of Zuckerberg—confident, engaging, brashly successful. But their ideas for what Facebook can do and how it should be managed coincide and so they spend more and more time together. It's never quite clear if Parker really has designs on obtaining some share of ownership of Facebook, but he is capable of transformations as mercurial as Zuckerberg's but generally in the other direction. Parker also describes his activities and those of other Internet entrepreneurs in near-mythological terms, revolutionizing the way people think about themselves and their culture, a narration that appeals to Zuckerberg.But their similar slow-building plans for Facebook make them ideal partners, leaving Zuckerberg's best friend and CFO, Eduardo Savarin ultimately on the outside looking in. Savarin (Andrew Garfield) is smart, but not nearly so much as Zuckerberg, and he has business savvy, but nearly so much as Parker. And while Zuckerberg has tenuous emotional ties and Parker's emotional ties may all be fake, Savarin genuinely, even inexplicably, cares about Zuckerberg, and allows his personal feelings to get in the way of business. Garfield's acting is strong but pales in comparison to the bravura work of Eisenberg and Timberlake.

A word about Fincher's direction: he appears to employ a very light touch, not getting the way of the movie at all, which is really a tremendous act of direction by itself. Corralling the actors and script into such powerful performances takes a deft touch.

The weakest part of the movie, and that just a modicum of complaint, is that the story could have been about any generic group of brilliant but broken people interacting. Often in Sorkin's scripts, the setting acts just as a framework to give the characters a place to interact. What drives Sorkin's plots is character—and they are undoubtedly brilliant—but one is left with the question of why this place. For his TV shows, the setting provides continual input on which he can elaborate his characters and introduce new ones. There is plenty of plot potential in the leadership of any group of people, whether it be a nation or a television show. But in the case of The Social Network, the fact that this is about Facebook offers very little to the movie, other than the sensation of verisimilitude and the attachment of the names of real people to the script. It makes the attachment of the idea of Facebook to the movie more a selling point than a feature of the story itself. In fact, I could easily imagine Sorkin distilling the essence of this movie into a generic plot about scientific and technological achievement, and then make a fascinating long-running TV show out of it.

So the result really isn't a movie about Facebook, but a movie about the fragility of the interdependency we each feel with each other. As Zuckerberg implies repeatedly, Facebook is something of a metaphor for how people not only see themselves but also how they interact. The moral of this story is that inattention and inability easily break down the social contract in ways that may not be reparable. People aren't the machines that Zuckerberg deals with so easily, and though it is cliché, people carry baggage that must be dealt with at each interaction. And this is territory that has been covered so many times by popular culture that it becomes nearly trite to repeat it. Fortunately, the cast and crew of The Social Network tell their story and imply their moral in masterful, deft ways, making the film entertaining and fascinating, even if the core story is as old as Adam and Eve.

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