As of Tuesday, October 5th, The Social Network has 47 thousand Facebook friends and counting. Director David Fincher’s dramatization of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise from Harvard computer geek to Silicon Valley billionaire, the promotional posters inform us, is not only the “movie of the year”; is also “brilliantly defines the decade.” Whether we agree with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers or not, we do not need him to tell us that the story behind the world’s most popular social networking site smacks of the generational. Facebook is a product of the millennium generation; along with Gmail, Twitter, and MySpace, it is bound to play a starring role in the history of a communications revolution tied to a specific time (the early 2000s) and place (the Web). But Travers seems to confuse history with its representation: is it The Social Network that is “definitive” of the decade now drawing to a close, or the flight of dorm-room inspiration it depicts?
In his choice of subject matter alone, Director David Fincher gambles on two basic assumptions, both asking that we suspend disbelief. First, he presumes that it is possible to recreate the past foibles and feuds of public figures — individuals who are still very much alive — and somehow resist the dual pitfalls of biased storytelling and historical inaccuracy. (According to Zuckerberg and other witnesses, he failed.) Second, The Social Network departs from the premise that it is possible — even desirable — to take stock in a massive social and cultural transformation when that transformation, to date, is still in its infancy. Mark Zuckerberg’s accidental brainchild may have a whopping 500 million friends and counting, but its ultimate impact on the quotidian of its subscribers — like the Facebook interface itself — remains as open to determination as it was in 2003, when the idea took seed.
Errors and distortions in the historical particulars of The Social Network are as inevitable and forgivable as in any biopic — especially where the story’s real-life protagonists do not necessarily concur. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who combined testimonies from court depositions and the research of The Accidental Billionaires author Ben Mezrich, structured the narrative as a non-linear back-and-forth between the conflicting recollections of Zuckerman (played by Jesse Eisenberg), founding partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and Harvard athletes Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Arnie Hammer). The film’s script is “honest” in that it rides on the assumption that the real truth behind Facebook’s origins will never — and can never — be known. And if all truth is relative, who is to say that there is anything wrong with subjecting the facts to the requirements of narrative arc, characterization, and good old-fashioned entertainment? Sorkin, whose past accomplishments include credits on “The West Wing” and A Few Good Men, spoke frankly to this effect to New York Magazine: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”
But is precisely in its attempt to tell a distinctly generational story that The Social Network becomes, if not entirely dishonest, then content to fall short of the challenges of such an undertaking. Even as we bounce eagerly from one narrative perspective to the next, we cannot help noticing that Fincher and Sorkin seem to be belaboring the minute details of a story that nobody seems to agree upon anyway — even, in the court room sequences, descending into over-scripted battles between immobile talking heads.
The Social Network is positively overflowing with research — but curiously very little when it comes to the specific cultural and social landscape in which this rags-to-riches tale takes place. By 2003, As Slate’s Nathan Heller points out, the Harvard of final clubs and cocktails with Prince Albert of Monaco that we encounter in the film survived as little more than a nostalgic nod to tradition. Despite the presence of scholarship brainiacs like Zuckerman, campus life remains mysteriously frozen in a world of static social hierarchies and old-world WASP aesthetics — as though nothing had changed at the university since financial aid and affirmative action, and social and professional mobility were still entirely contingent upon bloodlines and blond hair.
We encounter a lie similar to the one George Orwell describes in his 1939 essay on Boys’ Weeklies, fiction magazines that upheld the romantic past of the British public school (read: private high school) as an unchanging reality when the majority of its subscribers were living on rations: “The Year is 1910 — Or 1940, but it is all the same [...] There is a cozy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound [...] Everything is safe and solid and unquestionable.” Fincher’s Harvard is equally untrue, but with a few cursory differences: our hero is a computer programmer and there are half-naked girls dropping ecstasy and dancing to electronic music between these wood-paneled walls. We are not in 1910, or 1940, but in a hybrid between the digital era and the early years of the last great social revolution in memory, one which eroded the stodgy social conventions of Ivy League, or at least made them terribly unfashionable: rock n’ roll.
Instead of presenting a story of our time, Fincher and Sorkin deliver a classic rock n’ roll tragedy — a cautionary tale of a young, misunderstood genius who blasts open the social fabric of his generation when a hair-brain idea of his manages to strike a chord with a critical mass of young people. Hopelessly impractical — like any true artist — he gets swept away by promises of fame, money, and sex made by people looking to capitalize on his genius (here, Napster founder Sean Parker), and “sells out” to the big guys. As in any textbook rock and roll story, cash and two-dimensional college girls seem to be the only thing at stake here, criminally overshadowing even the slightest inkling that Zuckberg may have been onto something much wider in scope than a campus popularity contest.
After losing his closest collaborators (read: bandmates) to money-driven legal disputes, Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire alive — but even more alone than he was at the outset. The final shot of The Social Network — followed, not surprisingly, by The Beatles’ “Baby You’re A Rich Man” in the exit music — is the film’s most poignant. Jessie Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg signs onto the site he created and submits a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright, whose decision to break up with him at the beginning of the film is the implied motivation for his entire career
Peter Travers captures the sentiment of this moment, and the thesis of the entire film, all too well: The Social Network “uses the tangled roots of Facebook [...] to show how technology is winning the battle against actual human contact, creating a nation of narcissists shaping their own reality like a Facebook page.” The trouble is, like Travers — but unlike Facebook itself — Fincher’s film stops there.
Words: Emilie Friedlander