Sunday, October 3, 2010
He Drinks Your Milkshake: The Social Network
If Daniel Plainview went to Harvard in 2003 and knew quite a bit about computer coding, he might have invented Facebook. In the least, he’d have been a lot like Mark Zuckerberg, the relentlessly driven and socially ill-equipped antihero at the center of David Fincher’s The Social Network. I’ve already gleaned via Twitter – without reading any proper reviews to this point – that the more popular comparison for the quasi-fictional Zuckerberg is to Charles Foster Kane. And that’s not inappropriate. But as I watched Fincher’s film, the parallel I saw was to the central figure of There Will Be Blood, because both Plainview and Zuckerberg are obsessed with demonstrating their superiority and humiliating their rivals; both are unmotivated by wealth except as an example of their dominance; both treat anything short of full obedience as an insult; both exhibit a paranoia about the world around them even while they steadfastly believe, and repeatedly confirm, that they are without suitable rivals; and both fail to realize that their greatest antagonist is the man in the mirror. So much did Zuckerberg remind me of Plainview, despite a physique that’s considerably more Eli Sunday, that when Zuckerberg finds himself in a verbal confrontation with a business partner who discovers he’s been cheated out of a considerable fortune because he underestimated his Harvard chum’s deviousness, I half expected Zuckerberg to respond, “Drrrrrraaaaaaaainage!”
To call Fincher’s film a scathing portrait of Facebook’s founder is to put it lightly. Zuckerberg’s offenses are far more numerous than what I’ve described. Zuckerberg’s core problem is that he’s as arrogant as he is insecure, and thus he’s constantly lashing out at people – aggressively or passively, overtly or surreptitiously – because he’s positive he’s better than they are and he’s just as sure they don’t know it. Over the course of The Social Network we are given numerous possible motivations for Zuckerberg’s behavior – that he wants to get back at a girl who dumped him; that he wants to humiliate those who were born into good fortune (financial or physical); that he wants to be popular; that he wants to have control – but the origins of Zuckerberg’s need for superiority are irrelevant. What’s significant is that Zuckerberg is incapable of relating to the world in any other way. There are numerous times in which Zuckerberg clearly understands that he has hurt someone, and maybe even grasps that he has acted inappropriately, but he can’t bring himself to change because his insecurity is so severe that the only way he survives is by regarding everyone around him as inferior. And in that way, Zuckerberg is also something of a sympathetic figure, because in his desire for recognition and acceptance he builds a club so exclusive that he’s the only one qualified to be a member.
Zuckerberg is played by Jesse Eisenberg in a performance so consistent that it can’t possibly receive the recognition it deserves. It’s a one-note performance, but then it had to be, because Zuckerberg is a one-note character (which isn’t to be confused with lacking complexity); Zuckerberg’s social dysfunction is a direct result of his inability to grasp emotional nuance, and so there’s no other way to play him. Armed with Aaron Sorkin’s familiarly punchy dialogue, Eisenberg is one of the many actors in The Social Network who deliver their lines as if following George Lucas’ infamous instruction from the set of Star Wars: “faster and more intense.” The swiftness of the dialogue implies urgency (as Zuckerberg races to get his product to the masses), anger (as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss protest what they believe is creative theft) and even egotism and callousness (because Zuckerberg doesn’t have enough compassion to consider how his words might be received). But maybe more significant than any of that, the rapid-fire monologues and debates also convey the pedal-to-the-metal, stimuli-addicted, stream-of-consciousness lifestyles that (stereo)typify Generation Y. By the end of the film we don’t just know something about how Facebook was created, we also know, if we didn’t already, why it succeeded.
As in almost every Sorkin-written production, the dialogue in The Social Network is one of the film’s defining characteristics. But it never takes over. It’s a lot like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, actually: clever, focused, confident and at the core of almost every scene, but not flashy. At least, not often. As on Sorkin’s The West Wing, the benefit of writing dialogue for smart characters is that their witty one-liners and portentous monologues always seem appropriate (highlights here include two entirely unrelated occasions in which characters perform simple math to make a point). And whereas Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, for all its lively drama, never stops feeling like exactly what it is, a big-screen rendering of a stage play, thanks to Fincher The Social Network is undeniably cinematic. Most of the movie’s compositions fall into one of two color palettes: a kind of dark, ale-colored golden brown that evokes the engrained Ivy League establishment that Zuckerberg both envies and detests, or a kind of washed-out gray/blue that suggests Zuckerberg’s aloofness while mimicking his typical outfit (sweatshirt and jeans). Given that most of the film’s action involves Zuckerberg sitting at a computer or meeting with someone across a table, Fincher isn’t presented with many opportunities for visual flourish, but he frequently uses the film's locations to his advantage. One of the film’s best scenes is the opening credits sequence, moodily scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, in which Zuckerberg, fresh off of getting dumped by his girlfriend at a local pub, hustles through campus to his dorm so he can enact some online revenge. Simple though the montage is, it’s a perfect visual representation of Zuckerberg’s solitary existence, his singular focus and his desire to get what he wants right now.
Just before that title sequence, Zuckerberg is told by his girlfriend that he’s an asshole. At the end of the film, he’s told something similar, this time by a Rashida Jones character who exists solely to provide the second half of Sorkin’s bookend analyses. In between, Zuckerberg lives down to that label, but not without demonstrating the kind of determination and intensity that we so often celebrate in America. And so it struck me that if Zuckerberg simply possessed the ability to treat people with decency, that he’d come off as endearingly dogged instead of obnoxiously obstinate, and his story would be something fit for The Paper Chase instead of something reeking of the sensationalized pulp of so many unauthorized biographies, perhaps including Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, upon which Sorkin’s screenplay is based. (I haven’t read it.) According to Fincher's film, there were many casualties in the creation of Facebook, and Zuckerberg might have been one of them. The Social Network closes with Facebook in hundreds of countries with millions of users but with Zuckerberg bitter, lonely and perhaps beginning to glimpse the error of his ways. The problem with treating the entire world like an enemy is that only by completely crashing the system can someone sit back and say, “I’m finished.”