Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network

I believe there is a certain type of mental wiring that makes a successful programmer. The ability to logic out sequences, patterns, follow algorithms, create algorithms. We have all likely encountered individuals who can spend days at a monitor, engrossed in code, forgetting even to use the restroom. Often, these same individuals do not carry such brilliance and focus into personal relationships. Call it lack of "emotional IQ" or whatever, but many protoypical geniuses in music, mathematics, and computer programming tend to be, politely stated, socially inept. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK, a film of fiction, we observe a portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, a real person who is also the world's youngest billionaire and founder of Facebook. He more than fits the above description.

At least that's what screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher allege in their new film. I'm apt to believe them, even if there are many (depending on what source you read) out there laundry listing all of the things this film has gotten wrong. For all of the details, the fictional embellishments for dramatic effect, etc. etc., THE SOCIAL NETWORK does one thing (actually, several things) perfectly: capturing the hollow core of genius. Whether within that genius is a conscience or some desire to have a true emotional connection is up to your perception.

The opening scene immediately makes the point. It's the fall of 2003. Undergrad Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is downing beers with Erica (Mooney Albright), who is about to break up with him. Before she makes that declaration, we witness a verbal marathon between the two that is dizzying. More accurately, Mark is delivering a monologue that is designed to make lesser mortals feel inadaquate. He reasons the non-sequiturs to the point of exasperation. You've probably heard psuedo-intellectuals on college campuses and at Starbucks speaking this way. It's clear that Mark is unable to pick up on turn taking and social cuing, so essential for a healthy conversation. The more we listen to and watch him, it seems as if he is perhaps a case of undiagnosed Asperger's. His mind is just too fast for everything else to which to catch up.

The break-up proves to be an historic catalyst. Zuckerberg will return to his Harvard dorm and create a wildly popular website with the help of his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield): a version of the "hot or not" rating game where pictures of campus coeds are placed side by side. Zuckerberg will also enlist fellow students who are also programmers to hack into university servers to the point where the traffic will shut it down. This action puts Zuckerberg on academic probation, but history continues to gestate.

Identical twins and collegiate rowing champs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both amusingly and well played by Armie Hammer) are impressed by Zuckerberg's escapades and expertise and, with business minded classmmate Divya Narenda (Max Minghella), attempt to enlist him to help with their own site, one that will allow students to view non-invasive profiles of their friends. Zuckerberg agrees, but the spinning wheels greased by this proposition will not prove beneficial for the Brothers Winklevoss and co. Within a month, Mark and Eduardo (as business manager) will launch "The Facebook". You know the outcome. It would spread to other college campuses, even internationally. Then beyond the dorms. It's still happening. And growing. 500,000,000 users to date. Pretty much every advertiser in the world throwing money at them. Crazy algorithms that allow seemingly personalized ads to appear based on what you typed on someone's "wall."

THE SOCIAL NETWORK goes back and forth in time quite deftly and creatively. We are often at the table of counsel for all of the above players at some point after Facebook becomes a runaway success. After much deliberation and a lack of making the case to the President of Harvard, the Winklevosses and Narenda decide to sue Mark for stealing their idea. Eduardo also sues Mark for allowing the former to be be shut out of company ownership. This will be a far more personal battle, as the movie repeatedly states that Eduardo was Mark's only friend. How ironic for the creator of a social network like Facebook.

But is it really ironic? Facebook continues to intrigue me after nearly 2 years of my succumbing to its time sucking charms. The "friends" I've/we've collected there are often people never met. Friends of friends, people who know people we know. You hear many users talk about how they prune their lists periodically, shedding those people who were friended in efforts to pump up the list, perhaps. I've done this. How many peeps on our lists are actually "friends"? Close, true-blue friends? Facebook certainly doesn't promote Dunbar's Rule of 150!

Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps the iconoclast the film says he is, has rather created the ultimate contact list, yet curiously remains detached himself. The site's users' mileages vary, of course. There are stories of reunited friends and family because of Facebook. I have a few of those. There are also severances: lost friends, divorces, lawsuits, perhaps even murders. Zuckerberg is just the creator, the facilitator. Kind of like Sean Parker once was...

Remember him? The creator of another controversial and game changing site: Napster. As played in THE SOCIAL NETWORK by Justin Timberlake, Parker is the exception to my opening paragraph statements: a social magnet AND a genius. For both reasons this is perhaps why Mark Zuckerberg is fascinated with and allies himself with him. There is relatability and envy on Mark's end. Parker will play an integral role in the Facebook saga (something I wasn't aware of). The movie states that Parker was instrumental in Eduardo's eventual ousting as well. Zuckerberg will learn, perhaps too late, why (at least in part) Sean lost control of his earlier enterprises.

Sorkin's expertly written script, as I mentioned, flies across time dazzlingly. We hear the principals' attorneys bark accusations on both sides of the table, the answers sometimes coming in real time from Mark's mouth or other times through a flashback. The story is so compelling, so immediate that it is easy to miss how well-directed this film is. That is saying quite a bit considering that Fincher (SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, ZODIAC) is a modern day master, often compared to everyone from Ophuls to Kubrick. His visual sense is again striking, instantly putting us at Harvard or in Palo Alto, CA, where Facebook headquarters would be built. He and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (son of the late Jordan) create a colorful canvas of harshly lit corporate offices (perfect to compliment interrogation scenes or office confrontations) and the muted hominess of a dorm. The mood shifts accordingly to the location. The pace is just right. Trent Reznor's score also adds the right amount of dissonance at opportune times.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is an exemplary collaboration of great writing, direction, and acting. Eisenberg just hits all the right notes as Zuckerberg. One thing that struck me was the way he reacted to various characters. Note how, when someone "speaks his (Mark's) language", the sort of verbal code to which he best comprehends, Mark nods, understands with a specific recognition. It's very subtle, just there. I recalled the same acknowledgments seen on the faces of the Zuckerberg-types I've known. Talk to them about relational dynamics, they may glaze over. Start talking about game theory or anything that can be diagrammed, the eyes widen. Yet, Eisenberg allows the character this ability to perhaps understand, at least in binary form, how social politics work, even if he can't seem to immerse himself in it. THERE's a possible irony.

The rest of the film's ensemble each nail their roles similiarly, never lapsing into caricature. Hammer avoids making the preppy Winkervosses seem like a thousand other Aryan fraternity stereotypes, for example. Whether or not it is accurate to the real Winkervosses, at least to me, is not that important. This is a work of fiction, and should be viewed as such. The theses are put across with great urgency, and I believe that was the intention behind this project.

Critical reception has mostly been favorable to this film. One forum poster on even hailed it as "a modern day CITIZEN KANE"! That's very generous, and puzzling for multiple reasons. If a cinematic comparison is to be made, I would choose director Alan J. Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, the 1976 drama about the Watergate scandal. Even though this film is very different fom THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the narrative drive through intense and dense dialogue is similiar. The suspense, or better, the riveting nature of the drama, is almost entirely through scenes of attorneys and their clients recounting the sad tale. It is enough. There are fireworks in their words. Sorkin has achieved this effect before. The climax of A FEW GOOD MEN is a good example. Fincher also sometimes evokes Pakula's clinical, yet still frightening, plain style. Even the voices are disturbing at times.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK will certainly be of current interest for obvious reasons, but long after Facebook ceases to be the white hot force that it is, this film will remain a clear-eyed study of isolation, of greed, of avarice, timeless things, as old as Cain and Abel. What will continue to distinguish this film is the keen sense it has, the privileged glimpse into the soul of pure genius at the expense of the ability to have even one genuine real life connection. Never mind the friend list...
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