NYFF 2010: The Social Network

Every great story has an origin—Batman, Spider-man, Jesus Christ, and yes, even Facebook. The Social Networking giant’s beginnings are the subject of David Fincher’s latest cinematic foray, aptly titled The Social Network. While the invention of an online platform sounds like pretty dry pickings in the world of cinema, we are talking about the mind behind Seven (or Se7en—or “Seh Seven En”) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; this man could make drying paint entertaining. The film is told through an interweaving of court cases and the events they focus on, creating a Rashoman-effect, leaving it to the viewers to decide who’s to blame. It pits big thinkers against small, idea against action, and asks viewers to dig deep for conclusions. There is no denouement, no great moment of climax—the movie is a slow meditation on the repercussions of actions taken by a young entrepreneur. That it feels like everything but—helped along by a cast of hilarious assholes and a dramatic clip—is a testament to Fincher’s genius.

I wish my mom's basement was this cool.

In early 2004 Mark Zuckerberg released Facebook unto the world, a social networking site that would one day cost companies thousands in stolen work-time, students countless hours of failed study sessions, and the creator himself millions in civil claims drama. But like anyone who’s ever created something meaningful to society—Thomas Edison, The Wright Brothers, nearly every classical author—Zuckerberg didn’t independently “invent” Facebook. Instead, the idea was built from a germ planted by the Winklevoss twins, a pair of Harvard Aryan Superman.  The twins approach Mark after reading a story in “The Crimson” (Harvard’s newspaper) about a prank he pulled— hacking all of Harvard’s Finals Clubs’ “facebook” websites, downloading their photos, then uploading them to a site called “Facemash”, where users could choose the more attractive of two students. Impressed with his nerd prowess, the twins commission Mark to build a crappy Friendster knockoff, believing people will be attracted by the Harvard.edu requirement of the site. Already burnt by Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he instead creates “TheFacebook,” a site the entire web-savvy world now knows and loves for feelings of inclusion and friendliness. Outraged, the Winklevosses call up their lawyer daddy and file suit against Zuckerberg.

The web entrepreneur’s second case comes from lifelong friend and Facebook “CFO” Eduardo Saverin. After the site launches at Stanford and reaches Napster-creator Sean Parker, Saverin falls behind, refusing the move out to California in the name of an unpaid New York City internship. Meanwhile, Parker forms a relationship with Mark, and through a few marketing maneuvers establishes himself as the company’s true Chief Financial Officer in all but name only. While Eduardo remains in The Big Apple, the California duo hatch a scheme to cheat him out of his company shares—a plot that leads to the eventual dissolution of Mark’s closest friendship.   As Facebook’s user-base grows and things sour between friends and co-founders, Mark finds himself increasingly isolated by his creation—ironically ostracized at the cost of his social networking site.

There’s a subplot revisited throughout concerning Mark’s ex-girlfriend, who breaks up with him at the beginning of the film. When he first re-approaches her it seems like innocuous clutter for an already complex movie; it’s only when he adds her on Facebook years later, far-removed from the possibility of knowing who she has become, that the point of this relationship comes to fruition. Mark, for all his creative genius and ambition, doesn’t know how to be a friend–to anyone. Like most users on Facebook, he adds people he wishes he knew–has become a victim of his own creation. Regardless of whatever relationship problems he suffered before, Facebook effectively obliterated all connections with the people in his life. Sure, this is the burden of a man who turns friendships into business–quite literally–but how different is he from any of us in this age of texting over actual conversation, of 140 word updates rather than meaningful composition?

When trailers first hit, I was put off by Fincher’s trademark dim lighting and techno rave lasershow–this is a guy whose filmography, with few exceptions, has tailored itself to a grimy “underground” look. With The Social Network, it looked like he was trying to shoehorn a visual style where it didn’t fit. Fortunately, this style is used to immerse viewers in the Harvard world, transporting them back to college’s ubiquitous oak and classical office interiors, late nights, and seemingly windowless rooms. The dramatis personae only add to this feel–the Winklevosses concerns with upholding university honor and expertise at the pansy sport of rowing, Mark’s ex-girlfriend crapping on him in front of her friends, an unamused college president who couldn’t give less of a shit about his students or policies, instead touting his role as a former presidential economic something-or-other. College is in true form here, with all its social concerns, meaningless rivalries, and unmatched arrogance smeared across the screen.

A lot of buzz bounced around during production over the real Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to even accept advertising for The Social Network on Facebook.com—buzz suggesting a smear slant on the entrepreneur’s life. Now that I’ve seen the film, I don’t understand the conflict; sure, Mark’s an asshole and a bit awkward, but no more than I would expect from any genius working on his level. He stole a few ideas from the Winklevoss’s web-plan, but only as much as Shakespeare stole from Thomas Kidd for Hamlet. Though it’s a story about the ethics of intellectual creation and theft, it’s more about greed—about the common man’s need to claim anything successful or brilliant as his own. The real kicker is that this Ayn Randian discussion of Creator and Leach is coated in a legitimately compelling drama complete with hilarious dialogue and heartfelt characters. The Social Network is a film that fosters mindless entertainment and intelligent discussion— is on par with the greatest dramatic thrillers of our decade. This is the swiftest two hours I’ve spent in a cinema in a very long time, and you’d be cheating yourself to miss it.

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