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.”


Kyle Puetz said...

I think you've hit the nail squarely on the head. I've read others describe the ending as trying to offer Zuckerberg redemption, but I think, rather, it depicts him as the consummate megalomaniac. Even after his massive success and having destroyed all of his perceived rivals, he cannot abide his (self-inflicted) rejection at the hands of Erica years earlier — and for no reason other than it fails to fit in with his own view of himself as superior to all around him. He's left refreshing the page until his former flame's forced to acknowledge him. I've seen Kane comparisons and didn't like them, but Plainview is much more appropriate: What drives these men is nothing but a pathological and largely nihilistic compulsion toward oneupmanship.

Jake said...

Hey Jason, I'm responding to your comment on my post here. I think Plainview is a great comparison. Like Daniel, Mark really doesn't care for the money, though he certainly enjoys placing himself in a position to make more of it. What he wants instead is power: oil gives Daniel the power to run entire towns (his indirect descendants would control nations), while Mark redefines social interaction into something he can control and manage.

I also agree that the ending is anything but forgiving. I mentioned Michael Corleone, who sinks into his own dark isolation, but someone actually tries to reach Mark, to give him an insight that he might be able to use. Instead, he goes back to the computer to play out his incessant obsession.

Craig said...

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.

Or, as Groucho Marx said, "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member." After lashing out at his girlfriend's query about the easiest clubs to join, Mark creates the easiest club of all. Yet, in a way, it's tearing down the Winklevosses' traditional elitism and replacing it with another form: the Nerdocracy. It's the online equivalent of the French Revolution doing away with the Old Regime only to bring in Napoleon.

I've neither read nor thought of Plainview as a comparison, but it's as good a frame of reference as any. I could see him sending his estranged son a friend request, refreshing endlessly in vain.

Richard Bellamy said...

Your comparison of Plainview and Zuckerberg is excellent here. I just wish I had found Eisenberg's Zuckerberg and The Social Network halfway as compelling as Day-Lewis's Plainview and There Will Be Blood. I just didn't. I found the film interesting but it just didn't grab me.

The Film Doctor said...

Excellent review, Jason, although I found your assessment of Zuckerberg a little harsh. I liked aspects of his reserve, his Machiavellian strategies, and his business sense. The film ends with the lawyer saying that Mark's not as bad as he tries to be, which suggests that Sorkin was looking for a little more nuance in the character.

Then again, I always like Michael Corleone too.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts, all.

* Kyle: What drives these men is nothing but a pathological and largely nihilistic compulsion toward oneupmanship.

Pathological is the perfect word for it!

* Jake: I think the isolation for Zukerberg is very similar to Michael Corleone (good call), except that I think The Social Network shows more hope for Mark than The Godfather shows for Michael.

* Craig: it's tearing down the Winklevosses' traditional elitism and replacing it with another form

Exactly. And in the case of Zuckerberg we never really have much proof that he was ever put upon in the first place. True, he's not in a final club (boo-hoo), but the film reminds us that much of what plagues Zuckerberg is a product of his own creation.

* Hokahey: No argument with the idea that Zuckerberg isn't as compelling as Plainview. On the whole, this film grabbed me, and it does what it does very well, but if I called it capital-G Great I'd be grading it on a curve to make up for 2010's lackluster output. In the year of There Will Be Blood, there was also Zodiac, and I'd put that Fincher film well ahead of this one.

* FilmDr: First, I want to make it clear that I'm assessing the movie's Zuckerberg and not drawing any connections to the real-life man. (Not that you didn't understand that, but it seemed a good opportunity to reinforce that.)

As I said in the reply to Jake and tried to convey in my review, I think the film finds some good in Zuckerberg, whereas Michael Corleone ends The Godfather on an unequivocal path to further doom.

As for the film's final scene, I find it problematic if taken at face value: Clearly Rashida Jones' lawyer doesn't know Zuckerberg well, and about all she does know is from negative testimony. So if she thinks Zuckerberg is acting the part (including his outbursts under oath), she's dumb. Or she believes he's a victim and that all the testimony against him couldn't possibly be true (she more or less says as much). If it's the latter, that justifies what she says, but that doesn't mean it's true. I'll take the girlfriend's testimony over the lawyer's, in other words.

But, again, I do think that the film suggests that Zuckerberg has begun to realize the error of his ways and suggests a glimmer of hope in the end. But it is just hope, until Zuckerberg proves he can overcome his megalomania, and there's no great proof of that.

Aaron said...

Great review, Jason. I was referred here by a link on Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and was immediately drawn in by the title of the post. Anything that references THERE WILL BE BLOOD is pretty awesome in my book. That being said, your comparisons of Mark Zuckerberg to Daniel Plainview have definitely piqued my interest. I previously had no desire to see this, but I may give it a shot now. A great read overall. I added you to my blog roll and look forward to exploring your site some more. Cheers!

Unknown said...

I would also like to join the kudos for this top notch review! I agree with your assessment of this film and really interpreted the ending to be rather downbeat, showing how sad and lonely Zuckerberg is and how he's essentially back to where he started, frustratedly pining over a girl who isn't remotely interested in him. The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife: an antisocial guy creates the most popular social networking website in the world.

Matt Lathroum said...

I too saw the similarities between Zuckerberg and Plainview. The third "character" I'd lump into their sick competetive world is Michael Jordan. I didn't really "get" There Will Be Blood until I saw Jordan's HOF speech.

I think Zuckerberg is searching for his "I'm Finished" moment when he sends the friend request to Emily. What sweet revenge it would be to make the girl who said, "I have no intention of being friends with you" not only eat her words, but conform to a world of friendship where Zuckerberg serves as Big Brother. But by doing this, Zuckerberg is depriving himself of his only chance at redemptive closure -- Emily sending the friend request to him.