In recent weeks, a lot of ink has been spilled debating the accuracy of David Fincher's The Social Network, a film that attempts to tell the story behind the founding of Facebook and its meteoric rise to the 25 billion dollar company it is today. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself dismissed the film on Oprah last week, and the company has relentlessly tried to poke holes in Aaron Sorkin's script that he adapted from Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires. This raging debate of the facts has produced more buzz Fincher could have hoped for, and serves to reinforce the very conflict at the heart of the film. A small miracle for a film with a 50 million dollar budget and no big-name actors to bank on. I'm here to put this frivolous chatter to rest. The truth of this film is irrelevant because whether of not the Mark Zuckerberg portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg bears any resemblance to the real Mark Zuckerberg, what drives him is universal.
Computers get a bad rap in films. They are portrayed as cold, calculating hubs of wire and circuits which ruthlessly dispel protagonists with the logical precision that comes from being untethered to the human anchor of emotion. The Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is little more than a powerful computer with some sophisticated algorithms. He codes, he dispenses resources, he performs functions. He recruits others to perform tasks he cannot do himself, whether it's providing the capital for his idea or a list with email addresses of popular students. He is gifted with a supreme understanding of the human condition, which allows what could have been a voyeuristic niche to become one of the largest companies in the world. His genius is made all the more interesting when it is contrasted with just how callous, jealous and awkward he his away from his computer. He views the world in stark logical terms, evaluating everything based on how it can get him closer to his goal. If it can, he must absorb and exploit it. If it cannot, it's not worth another thought. While some may think this makes him a monster (or at the very least an asshole), his refusal to play the social games we play to get what we want can be refreshing and exhilarating.
It is said that there is no such thing as an unselfish act. That no matter how friendly the gesture or how generous an action, there is always a egocentric motivation at its core. A man offers an elderly woman his seat on a bus? Well, wouldn't you know it but that simple act of kindness earned him a smile from a pretty girl across the aisle. A nice woman helps you change your tire on the side of the road? Now she has an excuse when her boss asks her why she missed the big meeting. Whether he was born like this or achieved this level of social indifference, to Mark Zuckerberg, we are suckers for being so coy. If only he had applied this attitude towards his social life, he could probably have been a Tucker Max clone. Instead, it seems he wanted to burrow his way into popularity and esteem by inventing a new world that he was the center of, and allowing everything else to fall in place around him.
Of course, in a world that still runs on favors and tact, this journey was not without conflict. His only friend (for reasons I can't understand) Eduardo is forced to become his PR man and CFO. He crashes and burns over dinner with a girlfriend in the opening scene that I can't fathom how he ever got past a first date with. He has a plan for Facebook that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with power and the satisfaction you can only get from succeeding where others have failed. He alienates and exploits people, decisions which will have legal repercussions but I'm not sure he would have done any differently in retrospect. All in the name of filling some mammoth hole in his psyche that feels judged and patronized under normal circumstances.
Despite what critics have been saying (it currently has 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), I don't believe The Social Network to be a masterpiece. It is an exquisitely well-crafted film, filled with razor-sharp dialogue and compelling characters. The acting is effective and characters are well-cast. Justin Timberlake is a howl as the playboy Sean Parker, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg with a perpetually sour face and detached stare, but it is Andrew Garfield's brilliant role of Eduardo Saverin that shoulders the emotional load of this movie, and gives it heart it could stand to have a lot more of. He is the comic relief for most scenes with Zuckerberg, and the only one interested in asking the tough questions when things get out of control. Of course, his loyalty becomes his achilles heel, but it's riveting to watch.
The difference between The Social Network and There Will Be Blood, (another story of a man who categorizes humans as either "obstacle" or "tool") is that at the end of TWBB, we see Plainview in a bed of his own making, forced to come to terms of his actions and the consequences of a life devoid of compassion. At the end of The Social Network, the arc is incomplete. After 2 hours of scratching at these themes in a compelling and technically satisfying way, there's still a whole lot that feels unearthed. One day, Mark will have to reconcile being king of a digital world and a prick in the real one, but at 26, that day seems a long way off. Perhaps the filmmakers should have shelved the biopic for a time closer to his comeuppance.