Posted on Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by Adam Quigley
Spoiler Warning: The Social Network is not a movie that can be spoiled by mere plot details, as most of those plot details are revealed within the first 20 minutes. Regardless, if you’re hoping to go into the film fresh, you should obviously avoid this review.
There’s a hopeful, almost celebratory moment in The Social Network when Napster-creator Sean Parker declares to Facebook-creator Mark Zuckerberg, “This is our time!” And that, at its core, is what the film is about: the era of the geek; the triumph of the reject; the rebellion of the social outcast. Where once business relied heavily on having a wealthy, privileged, image-centric mediator to buy and sell smarter people’s work, the Internet has made way for a generation of 20-somethings that no longer need to rely on the societal rules of generations past to secure a billion dollar enterprise. In this digital age, geeks have a platform filled with possibilities, and as the president of Harvard so succinctly puts it, “Inventing a job is better than getting one.” In this digital age, the geeks rule. And with their newfound power, they say “Fuck you” to those unwilling to accept that they are no longer in control.
Tragically, for many of the well-meaning characters in The Social Network, they are on the receiving end of that “Fuck you”.
The Social Network is not a coming-of-age story. It isn’t a journey of self-discovery and growth. It’s a coming-of-success story, about a kid who learns almost nothing, doesn’t change and ultimately doesn’t need to, thanks entirely to the luxuries that the Internet provides. His only life lesson (hence the “almost”) comes as a result of betraying his best friend, a decision which costs him the only real relationship in his life.
That aforementioned moment of triumph? It’s deserving of neither hope nor celebration. Were it just the landscape of business that was evolving, it might’ve been, but this isn’t Revenge of the Nerds, and Mark Zuckerberg isn’t an underdog who deserves rooting for. No, Mark Zuckerberg is a product of his time—a seemingly hollow vessel of a person that’s self-important and coldly calculating, constantly shifting emotions just below the surface. He’s oscillates between being petty, insecure, vindictive, apathetic, conniving, and just about every other trait that results when youth, intelligence, and an increased disconnect from genuine human interaction collide.
Mark Zuckberg is an unlikable character, no doubt, but he’s also a tragic one. In an earlier decade, somebody like Zuckerberg probably would’ve been taken advantage of, his intellect helping catapult the success of a lesser mind with a fuller bank account. Maybe that’s an experience from which Zuckerberg would’ve benefited. The illusion of his invincibility would’ve been broken, allowing him to grow up and mature and better himself. With the Internet though, all you need to achieve success is a good idea, the know-how to implement it, and enough money to keep a website running. At age 20, Zuckerberg already has those things, so all that’s lacking in his life—humility, respect, basic human decency—he has no reason to learn.
The Social Network is scary, in many ways. It taps into a very real change in our society, highlighting how adolescents motivated by petty rivalries and trifling girl squabbles can very easily come to define the modern business world–and, in turn, our lives. As Zuckerberg rushes to his first billion dollars, he has no remorse for the toll his actions are taking on others, and no sense of the toll those actions will inevitably take on himself. He gains power and wealth, but in doing so only further alienates himself from the rest of the world. There’s a poetry to that; the man responsible for reinventing how people connect to one another is himself completely disconnected from everyone.
The brilliance of The Social Network is that there’s never a moment where screenwriter Aaron Sorkin feels the need to spell out what the film’s themes and ideas are, or tell you how to feel about them. He saw how these people could serve the purpose required of them by providing them with personalities and motivations that would best personify the changing times, and allows their naturally resulting actions and dialogue—commonly occurring through propulsive streams of genuinely funny and whip-smart verbal sparring—to communicate the rest.
If the veracity of the picture is in question, it shouldn’t be. Like any other story that’s been inspired by true events, The Social Network is a work of fiction, plain and simple. Though the characters of the film are depictions of real-life individuals, they are not accurately representative of those people, nor are they intended to be. Zuckerberg and all those surrounding him are fictional creations, completely to the film’s benefit. Honestly, for all of the film’s dealings with legal dispositions and computer coding, the alternative would’ve been a slog. The question is: does the truth matter? Ethically, maybe. Cinematically, absolutely not. The film is real in the ways that it should be, and all of these characters suit the needs of the story that the film is trying to tell.
Take, for example, Divya Narendra and the Winklevoss twins, who see the potential in Mark and ask him for help creating their website, only to get royally screwed when he goes live with his own website first. The irony in this is that they’re the would-be mediators who probably would’ve taken Zuckerberg’s work and left him with nothing to show for it. They’re the ‘old business’ to Mark’s ‘new business’, and they keep coming up second in a world where getting there first means everything. If you’re not the best, nobody gives a shit. The Winklevoss twins know this. Mark knows this. And Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) definitely knows this.
Parker is everything Mark wants to be, but doesn’t realize he shouldn’t be. He’s a smart, confident, freewheeling ladies’ man who fought the system and won, at least according to him. Through Parker, Sorkin reflects the consequences of approaching business in this fashion. He’s a huge risk to every endeavor he’s a part of, advice Mark fails to heed from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield, soon to be the new Spider-Man).
Eduardo is by far the film’s most sympathetic character. All he wants is to please his father, who’s clearly ‘old business’ all the way. He’s also completely out of his element, naively trying to adhere to business practices that Mark knows will get them nowhere.
Meanwhile, minor displays of jealousy surface when Eduardo gets punched to join the Phoenix Club, the appeal of which is primarily its exclusivity. Here The Social Network examines a part of society that will never change: the constant need to be part of something that others aren’t, whether it’s a club, a relationship, a clique, a business, and so on. And thus: the appeal of Facebook—to both Zuckerberg and the rest of the world. (The website has since become open to everyone, but only after it attained popularity as a social networking site exclusive to college students.)
Despite the surprising maturity and thoughtfulness of The Social Network, Columbia Pictures is trying desperately to sell the film to teens. A quick glance at the film’s TV spots will find Kanye West’s “Power” blasting over it, the screen flooded with single-line hooks promoting Zuckerberg for “dropping out of Harvard” and becoming “the world’s youngest billionaire”.
They’re selling to the wrong audience. The people this film will resonate most with are adults—those that grew up in a world without the Internet, and who are familiar with the business world of old, and can contrast that knowledge with the business world of new. I acknowledge the inherent irony in me—a youth of this generation—making that point, but in a generalized sense, it’s the truth: Adults will get far more out of this movie than those within the age range its being geared toward.
This is in complete contrast to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, one of the few other films that’s attempted to capture and define Generation Y, but one that did so by appealing to the generation’s pop culture sensibilities through hyperactive, fantastical satirization in place of The Social Network‘s bleak comic realism. And where Scott Pilgrim was about a wide-spanning generation of youths that will go on to accomplish nothing of any world-altering value, The Social Network is about the select youths from Generation Y that will change everything; that are changing everything; that already have.
If not of all-time, The Social Network is at least one of the most important movies of the aughts. It’s also, for all of the many, many other reasons so eloquently articulated in David’s review (which I won’t bore you by repeating), one of the absolute best. It feels funny admitting that, considering that the first time we heard about “the Facebook movie”, the announcement yielded laughter, ridicule and cries of depression.
Oh, how wrong we were.
/Film Rating: 10 out of 10
You can follow Adam Quigley on Twitter at twitter.com/alwayswatching or e-mail him at adamquigs(AT)gmail(DOT)com.