“They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations…They overdo everything – they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.” – Aristotle.
David Fincher’s The Social Network feels like the first film of the new decade (despite the fact that it documents events that took place in the previous ten years). It tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the boy genius behind the now-ubiquitous website Facebook, and the people he (unwittingly? willingly?) trampled on the way to becoming the world’s youngest billionaire. Yes, it’s about the founding of Facebook, but it is also an incisive masterwork. It’s a heartbreaking look at a friendship gone sour, a parable about the folly of youth, and a witty look at the evolving (devolving?) state of modern relationships (in which the phrase “Facebook me” is an acceptable pick-up line, and in which partners can come to blows over the inane minutiae posted on someone’s profile). Scoff all you want at the so-called “importance” of a film that chronicles the inception of a mere networking site. This picture helps convey the significance of the social media revolution; the one that simultaneously brings us together and tears us apart. The Social Network is scarily good. It gets us.
Do not turn to The Social Network for an intricate (or even totally truthful) account of the creation of Facebook. Thanks to a couple of multi-million-dollar non-disclosure agreements (and more than a couple of bruised egos and distorted perspectives) we’ll likely never know the real story. Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) has adapted Ben Mezrich’s heavily fictionalised account The Accidental Billionaires, and I’ll offer a brief synopsis of the events through their eyes. It all begins at a Harvard bar in 2003. Mark Zuckerberg (a pitch-perfect and endlessly compelling Jesse Eisenberg) bombards his patient girlfriend Erica (an unforgettable Rooney Mara) with information about China’s population, sliding in thoughtless insults and driving her to break up with him. He returns to his dorm tipsy, angry and determined to do … something. A few hours later, he’s created Facemash – an early Facebook prototype – in which two images of female students are randomly generated, and users are invited to vote on which one they think is hottest. It’s an evening fuelled by misogyny and ignorance – a state-of-mind that will later be embraced by Facebook users around the world.
The veracity of these events seem fairly cut and dry, as Sorkin uses Zuckerberg’s actual blog postings from that very evening as an indication of events (although Zuckerberg denies that he was dumped that night). Here is where it gets messy. Zuckerberg – now recognised amongst his peers as a genius hacker and a total jerk – is approached by competitive rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer – in two equally complex and comic roles) and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to create for them Harvard Connection: a social networking site exclusive to Harvard students. Simultaneously, Zuckerberg approaches his best friend Eduardo Saverin (a heartbreakingly naïve Andrew Garfield) with a similar idea; one he maintains is totally different to that of the “Winklevei”. Zuckerberg’s final product – Facebook – is launched, and so begins a series of betrayals and billion-dollar lawsuits. So, who really invented Facebook? What came first, the chicken or the egg? As Zuckerberg suggests: “A guy who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.” Like I said … it’s messy.
When news of Sorkin and Fincher’s involvement in “the Facebook movie” was first announced, it seemed as if these two talents were slumming it. Little did we realise how appropriate they would be for the subject matter: Sorkin often tells tales of ambition (both noble and misguided); Fincher revels in the dark side of humanity (the actions of these characters, as well as the unseen actions taken on Facebook itself can be read as a complete disregard for human decency). So what if the film is not entirely truthful? Accuracy should be saved for journalists; this is a work of art. It tells a tale greater than the mere origin of a website – it is giving us the origin of a generation. There is the beginning of Facebook, and then there is the beginning of what Facebook means. The Social Network tells the latter tale.
Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is a similarly timely picture that discusses the way in which we define ourselves and our relationships, specifically in the age of the internet. Although both are classically told tales – Up in the Air is modern-day Capra, while The Social Network is Rashomon as penned by Billy Wilder – they herald a new age in cinema. They are the first films to change the conversation; they are films not about “where we are”, but instead about “where we’re going”. In 30 years, they will either be remembered as relics of an immature age, or as the first films to welcome the dawn of an as-yet undefined future.
In an interview with the New York Times, Fincher described his film as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies”. Of course he would. But, past the hyperbole, there is a kernel of truth. Zuckerberg’s rise to power is framed much like Charles Foster Kane’s in Orson Welles’ classic motion picture. Both The Social Network and Citizen Kane are tales of unbridled ambition, and they even employ a similar framing device. Throughout the film, amidst all his success, Zuckerberg can’t help but think back to his girlfriend Erica (his very own Rosebud). And let’s not forget the biggest comparison: youth. Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane – considered by many to be the greatest film of all time – at the age of 25. Zuckerberg invented Facebook when he was 19. Although the “Mark Zuckerberg character” may not end up being as iconic a contribution to cinema as Kane, he is without a doubt one of the most interesting and engaging protagonists in recent history. He reminds me of our good friend Scott Pilgrim: He’s a jerk, but he wants to be better.
To say that Mark Zuckerberg caught the ‘social media lightning bolt’ is unfair, but perhaps not entirely untrue. Needless to say, had he not created Facebook, the online masses would likely be united on some other networking site. However, he did create the site, and it is indeed the work of a genius, artist and visionary. Similarly, a movie about Zuckerberg was inevitable, but perhaps only this collection of wunderkinds (and former wunderkinds) could have crafted a film of equal genius, artistry and vision. The film is directed by Fincher (who at the age of 22 directed the unnerving and iconic “Smoking Baby” ad), written by Sorkin (who wrote the acclaimed play A Few Good Men in his late twenties), set to the tune of Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross’ propulsive score, and stars immensely talented – and intense – young actors. This film was crafted by kids and kids at heart. Kids who understand the true weight of these events. Kids who aren’t afraid to look towards the future, and imagine the immense possibilities of this new generation. Facebook is but one result. The Social Network is another. Who knows what’s next? It’s exhilarating to ponder.
The Social Network opens in Australian cinemas October 28th.