Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Are We Made in Zuck's Image? The Social Network Review

Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg is a villain for the ages. To call him cold would be to discount the venom he spits at just about anyone who questions him. He'd be the digital Antichrist, but the Antichrist is supposed to be charismatic and, as Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek points out, Eisenberg "exerts almost negative charisma." Or perhaps he's merely an asshole...or just trying to be one.

Jesse Eisenberg's performance is touted as the high point of David Fincher's The Social Network, and it's hard to argue. The actor once called the poor man's Michael Cera gives a brilliantly unlikable performance, a reductive feat that strips Zuck down to furrowed brows, shifty grins, and a wounded puppy-dog affect that quickly turns vicious. And, of course, there's the dialogue.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson's War) has built his reputation on lightning-fast patter, a screwball-esque series of jabs and counterjabs. The Social Network contains some of the best dialogue Sorkin has ever put to page, which is especially laudable considering he's outside of his comfort zone dealing with twentysomethings who don't worship Don Henley and Dire Straits. His Zuckerberg is so devilishly quick-witted (maybe too much so) that I kept wondering why he sat in front of a computer all day.

The Social Network traces the rapid ascendancy of Facebook from its early days as a Harvard-only, well, facebook, to the behemoth institution of American social life it has become. It's also an apparently loose adaptation of Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires, a tell-all based on the probably vindictive testimony of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor).

The film, which was written concurrently with Mezrich's book, also draws on depositions from two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg for alleged intellectual impropriety. In one, Saverin, CFO for the company when it was still "thefacebook," is suing his former best friend for diluting his initial 25% stake in the company to less than 10% at the urging of geeky playboy-wannabe Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, deserving all the praise he's gotten). In the other, fratboy archetypes (and twins!) Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, playing both parts and nailing it) and programmer Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) are taking Zuck for failing to work on their Harvard-only dating site while laying the groundwork for Facebook's monopoly over Harvard's online social life.

Critics have compared the film to both Citizen Kane and Rashoman, and I'd agree, at least on a structural level. I think the former, though, is a closer analogue; while characters verbally dispute their peers' versions of the events in the film, Fincher never goes so far as to actually show two differing remembrances of the same event. Let it also be said that The Social Network, while undoubtedly a triumph and certainly the best movie of the year, doesn't touch either film in terms of quality.

Whatever the reference point, the flashback-heavy structure is nicely suited to the subject, because what is Facebook if not a world-spanning aggregation of different versions of the same events? The blogosphere balked when the Library of Congress announced that it had acquired the entire archive of Twitter. I was intrigued. I find it fascinating and oddly comforting to know how my peers are responding to something I've experienced. That those events are usually banal (the latest episode of Glee, for instance) explains the eye-rolling. But for those who've experienced traumatic events, sites like Twitter and Facebook can help people digest what they've gone through and discourage the loneliness that often accompanies such trauma.

The question The Social Network raises is whether Facebook has irrevocably changed how we deal with such events and, indeed, our collective human experience. Specifically, has Facebook's founder remade the world in his own image? Mark Zuckerberg's villainy, at least as interpreted by Eisenberg, stems from his autistic inability to deal with those around him. The jury's still out on whether that makes him a sociopath or just a good business man.

But if the world's biggest social institution was invented by a guy who can barely talk to human beings, has Facebook's founder turned us into a society of Zuckerbergs? The Social Network doesn't have the answer, but it might send you away from Facebook to find it.