When I first heard about The Social Network, I had what I imagine was a near-universal reaction: why would anyone want to make a movie about Facebook? That bewilderment persisted even as the film's buzz and reception grew more and more ecstatic, so that it wasn't until a few weeks ago, when I finally gave up and let myself look forward to seeing it, that a more pertinent reason for feeling dubious about The Social Network presented itself: this is an Aaron Sorkin film about the internet. Whether he's getting back at TWoP moderators by having his West Wing characters describe them as chain-smoking, muumuu-wearing Nurse Ratcheds, or bemoaning the fact that just anyone can start a blog and use it to say that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is not God's gift to the television medium, or blaming the internet for the birther movement, Sorkin's attitude towards the internet seems fueled by equal parts ignorance and disdain. Even aided by Ben Mezrich's research into Facebook's founding, it seemed unlikely that Sorkin would be able to comprehend the site's importance, the effect that it's had on online and offline life all over the world, and the new kinds of relationships and communities that it has enabled.
It's a good thing, then, that The Social Network is in no way a film about the internet. It's a film about business, about class, about the clash between old money and new ideas, and between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. It's a film about being a nerd, but it is not a film about the internet. The film is framed by discovery depositions in two lawsuits against Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)--by his former business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), alleging that he was driven out of the company he helped created, and by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Arnie Hammer playing both roles with Josh Pence as a body double) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who claim that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook for them--but the events that these depositions flash back to span only the site's first year in existence. They cut off when Facebook reaches its millionth subscriber--a drop in the bucket, as the film's closing credits concede--and thus well before it achieves its current cultural significance. As the film ends, Facebook is still restricted to a small number of prestigious colleges, and Sorkin makes much of the appeal that exclusivity holds for Zuckerberg, who creates the site as a substitute for the Harvard final clubs to which he hasn't been invited. But Facebook has long since been open to just about everyone on the planet with an internet connection, and the decision to make that transition is left out (perhaps because, in reality, exclusivity was not the site's purpose). The early cut-off point also means that The Social Network fails to address the growing concerns about Facebook's violation of subscriber privacy and its vulnerability to identity theft. There is, in short, no discussion in The Social Network of why Facebook works, what it means to its subscribers, and how it has changed the online world. Indeed, the film could easily be a story about any smart young person who comes up with the next big thing, and has to deal, on the one hand, with an entrenched business establishment that wants to exploit him without understanding what he's created, and on the other hand, with the friends who have helped him get started but who are now a drag on his ambitions. Sorkin and director David Fincher make riveting stuff of this story, but if you didn't know a thing about Facebook going into the movie theater, you'd probably walk out still wondering why the site was important enough to make a movie about.
Rather than being a film about the internet, or even about Facebook, The Social Network is a character study of Zuckerberg. Or, more precisely, of Sorkin's version of Zuckerberg. For convenience's sake, I'm going to keep referring to characters and events in the film as if they were their real-world analogues, but it should be noted that the film takes copious and often derogatory liberties with the truth, and is probably best thought of as a work of creative nonfiction, one that borrows significance from reality (and from the pretense that it is representing it accurately) while telling what is either a fictionalized story or just plain fiction. Just as he did in his last film, Charlie Wilson's War, Sorkin has changed the facts of history and its players to suit the narrative he wanted to tell. The crucial difference being that while Charlie Wilson's War was a quintessentially Sorkinish story--at least once Sorkin was done with it--The Social Network is neither the sort of narrative, nor does it have the sort of main character, that he tends to gravitate to.
Sorkin has always written about people--usually men--who are the smartest guys in the room, and his Zuckerberg is furiously intelligent, but he lacks the decency and compassion that Sorkin protagonists usually possess. Whether they're fighting for justice (A Few Good Men), governing (The American President, The West Wing, Charlie Wilson's War), or even producing popular entertainment (Sports Night, Studio 60), Sorkin's characters are trying to do good and make the world a better place. They're not motivated by personal gain, and certainly not by the desire for status and money, as Zuckerberg and his business partners are. The closest thing to a typical Aaron Sorkin character in The Social Network are the Winklevoss twins, who hold off on suing Zuckerberg and Saverin because they're "gentlemen of Harvard" and find the idea of squabbling over money and going to court over who thought of what first distasteful. That's an attitude that would have sat well in Sorkin's White House, whose inhabitants were above such petty concerns as money and status and tended to shake their heads over the litigiousness and money-grubbing of American culture (left unsaid is the fact that the West Wing characters, like the Winklevosses, already have money and status, which ties into my observation that the show often seemed to take place in the corridors of power of a monarchy, not a republic), though in The Social Network it's played for laughs--unlike Sorkin's idealized White House, the real world has no room for gentlemen.
Zuckerberg is everything that the Winklevosses are not--physically unimposing, unsophisticated, unpopular, middle class at best, and, though the film doesn't make much of this, Jewish. There are a lot of people like him in Harvard, hungrily looking in on the exclusive parties and clubs of the elite, but Zuckerberg is the sort of person who is left out of any party, even the ones he throws. With a mouth that runs a mile a minute, eyes that seem to bore into whoever or whatever they're looking at, and absolutely no concern for, or recognition of, the feelings of others, Zuckerberg is all brain and no heart, and as the film's events unfold he alienates both friends and strangers with a mixture of arrogance, selfishness, and rage at a world that hasn't yet handed him everything he wants simply for being the smartest guy in the room. It's a brilliant performance, and Eisenberg, Sorkin, and Fincher are to be commended for it, but it's not a person. Zuckerberg is a type--the Angry Nerd. There's nothing individual about him, nothing that doesn't conform to that type's familiar tropes--arrogance that conceals feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, social ineptitude, resentment of those who are wealthy, attractive, and popular, fear and incomprehension of women that quickly shades into hate. The Social Network is a sufficiently good film, and Eisenberg is a sufficiently actor, that Zuckerberg always feels human. It's clear that he has feelings, and that those feelings are neither unusual nor unfamiliar. Like all of us, he wants to be loved and accepted. But there's nothing unique to Mark Zuckerberg in this portrait, nothing that makes him a single, individual person rather than an emblem of an entire technophilic, socially maladjusted class that creative types like Sorkin enjoy poking at, possibly because they find them utterly terrifying.
The Social Network opens with a scene in which Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend, to which he responds by posting vile invectives about her on his LiveJournal, and creating a website on which one can rate the attractiveness of Harvard's female undergraduates. It ends, several years later, with him desperately refreshing her Facebook page, hoping that she will approve his friend request. The implication is that Zuckerberg created Facebook, made billions of dollars, and changed the face of the internet because to do all these things was easier, for him, than to simply apologize. This is a conclusion of Rosebud-ish triteness, and though there is a profitable comparison to be made between The Social Network and Citizen Kane, a crucial difference between the two films is that Zuckerberg isn't nearly as rounded a character--compelling and charismatic, even through his cruelty and selfishness--as Charles Kane. Neither is he as monstrously evil as There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, another modern attempt at the Kane type. In fact, it's difficult to see just what he's done that makes him eligible for the Kane treatment. Bad business practice? The film is adamant that Zuckerberg both stole the Winklevosses' idea and drove Saverin out of the company with nothing to show for his initial investment in it, but it also makes it clear that none of these people had what it took to make Facebook what it is today. What Zuckerberg did was wrong, but if he hadn't done it, there probably wouldn't have been a billion dollar company for Saverin and the Winklevosses to sue him over. The film recognizes this even as it paints them as victims, but it doesn't extend the same generosity to Zuckerberg. In the end, it's hard not to conclude that Zuckerberg is damned not because of what he's done, but because of what he is. "You're going to go through life thinking that women don't like you because you're a nerd," his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend tells him in the film's opening scene. "I'm here to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that it won't be because of that. It'll be because you're an asshole." It's a line that defines both the character and the film. An asshole is what Zuckerberg is and it's what dooms him to misery, and the fact that along the way he's made a billion dollars is entirely ancillary to both of these facts.
In the end, maybe The Social Network is about the internet, in the sense that it reflects Sorkin's distorted view of it, as a means of elevating sociopaths like Zuckerberg to the kind of power and wealth that a civilized society would deny them, for their and everyone else's protection (but then, keeping power out of the hands of people not smart or compassionate or worthy enough to deserve or use it wisely is a theme that underlies a lot of Sorkin's writing). It's hard to deny that Facebook, which so often rewards shallowness and cruelty, and which has been manipulated by its creators for greedy and exploitative ends, lends itself to this interpretation, but that's somewhat akin to John Sutherland reading Amazon reviews and concluding that there is no worthwhile criticism of books on the internet. None of which is to say that The Social Network is not a good film or that it doesn't deserve the plaudits that have been, and will be, heaped upon it. Eisenberg in particular should be singled out for his work, and Sorkin's feat of making, of a story in which people sit in front of their computers a lot and come up with the revolutionary concept of a relationship status indicator, an engrossing and exciting experience, should certainly be rewarded. But it's not a film that says much to me--not about the internet, and not about being a nerd. I already know a lot more about both of these subjects than it does.