Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake in The Social Network: “This is our time!”

Algorithms and power

The Social Network, David Fincher's brilliant and timely new movie based on Ben Mezrich's book Accidental Billionaires, begins with a huge irony: The young founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, isn't social. And he isn't nice either. Not so indirectly, the film suggests that perhaps the brave new world of programming and Internet personal revelations is a corruption and downgrading of human interaction (as well as a systematic invasion of privacy). If computer nerds rule, our moral compass may be out of whack. The opening scene, packed with Aaron (West Wing) Sorkin's nasty-smart rapid-fire dialogue, shows both Mark Zuckerberg's steel trap intelligence and his total lack of human warmth. He's so coldly condescending toward his Boston U. girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, who's to be the US Dragon Tattoo girl) that she decides right then to break up with him. She demolishes him with the closing lines: "Listen. You’re going to be successful and rich, but you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole."

Facebook grows out of this insult. Stung, Mark rushes back to Kirkland house, his Harvard dorm, drunk, and begins blogging his resentments toward Erica and simultaneously writing Facemash, a website onto which he hacks Harvard girls' ID photos and puts them in pairs so students can pick which one they prefer. (Mark abandons an earlier idea of comparing girls with farm animals.) He has gotten the site completed by using an algorithm provided by his well-off friend Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield), who will emerge as the most likable character in the film. In hours Facemash goes locally viral. It's October 28, 2003. This breach of Harvard security gets Mark six months' academic probation. It also makes him famous at Harvard. The patrician, rowing champion, final club member Winklevoss twins Cameron and Tyler (both played with panache by Armie Hammer) decide Mark is the man to construct the Harvard social network they have dreamed up. Mark is flattered at being invited to talk to what he later calls "the Winklevi" at Porcellian, Harvard's most elite club (though he was only allowed in the bike room). He's also impressed that the tall, godlike twins "work out." In the verbal sparring with Erica he has talked about the desirability of entering an exclusive Harvard club. (Note: the real Mark Zuckerberg has denied that he ever wanted to join such a club, and the film omits mention that he not only graduated from an exclusive Eastern prep school, Phillips Exeter, but was captain of the fencing team there.)

The twins ask Mark to build their site and he agrees. But Mark thinks bigger -- and tells no one. He strings the twins and their pal Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) along for weeks with stalling emails. (We start getting this through inter-cut scenes of legal meetings when the principals in the events are deposed.) But he has realized the idea is too good not to steal. Facemash is replaced by what is at first called "The" Facebook. Eduardo remains Mark's business partner, but Mark does not share everything with him.

All this happens very fast, almost too fast to think -- this is the smart, competitive world of East Coast colleges where the pace is brutal and the stakes are high. There are juicy images of Ivy League party times. "The" Facebook spreads to other colleges. Eduardo's story is a foil for Mark's. He's Facebook's chief financial officer, but he's a nice guy, a guy who reaches out. He gets into some trouble, while punching for another final club, Phoenix, exposed in the Harvard Crimson for feeding a chicken chicken meat in a restaurant as part of club initiation. Later Mark's accused of tipping off the Crimson to discredit Eduardo. The friends eventually aren't.

There are many actors, including producer Douglas Urbanski as Harvard president Larry Summers, who haughtily rebuffs the Winkelvoss's request to intercede on their behalf for what they see as Mark's stealing their idea. Mark says the twins don't deserve recognition as co-creators of the site and are just upset because once in their life things haven't gone their way. The other major figure in the movie is Sean Parker (a lively Justin Timberlake), Napster's bad boy creator. As Sorkin's screenplay depicts it, Parker is a main cause of Eduardo's greatly reduced role and eventual expulsion and humiliation. But Parker is an ally and protector of Mark's interests. He knows Mark is onto something huge, and gets him bigger funding and dreams of moving Facebook not only beyond colleges and out into the rest of the USA, but to other continents. All this while Mark is still working with a mere $19,000 investment. It's Parker who, at a sushi lunch, with two sexy girls who've latched onto Eduardo and Mark, stuns them with the word "billionaire" -- and also says Mark has got to move to California, to Silicon Valley, home of the young Web rich. The big split comes when Eduardo spends a summer in New York ostensibly as a financial intern, and Mark moves out to Palo Alto.

The final focus of the movie, which makes much of the conflicts between Zuckerberg and the twins and Savarin through the deposition scenes where they confront each other at various stages, is on Mark's loneliness. He has millions of "friends," but nobody likes him. He's gained the whole world and lost his own soul -- if he ever had one. Yet he's not unsympathetic. And partly his loneliness is the loneliness of genius. He has not only gained the whole world -- which he doesn't care about: both the movie Mark and the real one are indifferent to money -- but he has changed it.

The settlements are various. No one present at the creation of Facebook has wound up a pauper. Though Mark's lack of connectedness is a theme, he's neither Machiavellian nor cruel, just cut off from people. On a Facebook page (!) about Eduardo Savarin, we learn that, "He owns a 5% share of Facebook, worth US$1.1 billion as of May 13, 2010." The twins, their father, and their partner Divvya Narendra, one source says, received a settlement that including Facebook shares is now worth around $121 million. The twins also came in sixth in the last Olympic rowing competition, and are still in training.

The movie has a subtly distinctive look that can best be called muted. Without forcing anything, Fincher and his crew bring dialogue to life without any artificial jazzing up. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's music blends nicely with ambient sound, which is often important. Great skill is exercised in conveying young people talking in loud party or club settings while still keeping tricky dialogue audible. Needless to say, Eisenberg anchors the piece amazingly. He showed in Holy Rollers that he could give life to a nerdy, peculiar guy; that ability explodes here, with an impersonation that is creepy, funny, stunning, and sometimes appealing. Garfield is equally good as a kind of foil, an innocent, but warm and when needed, combative. Timberlake creates a character that is not only wild and dangerous but smart and relatively worldly wise.

Fincher's movie relies heavily on Aaron Sorkin's writing, which makes characters and events come to life. A criticism is that the witty dialogue is so infectious all the characters begin to talk the same "Sorkin-speak." But Sorkin has a great knack for depicting power struggles among rapidly changing and spreading events. This is above all a series of riveting scenes with great, memorable dialogue. Erica's initial put-down is just one of a host of zingers. This is a classic story of greed, jealousy, and rapacious free enterprise. It may metastasize faster in the world of x's and o's, but it's old-fashioned Americana. Besides this we get character studies of boys growing into men that is a whole set of coming-of-age tales, but above all an ensemble piece. This is not a "biopic." Actually, we don't know who Mark Zuckerberg is, or who any of the main players are. That means some controversy, but that only tightens the movie's vice-grip on the zeitgeist. The Social Network is not only one of the best American films of the year but one of the most significant.

Seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was the Opening Night film September 24, 2010. The Social Network opens wide in US and Canadian theaters October 1, 2010. Facebook is everywhere, and this film will open in at least 29 other countries over time. It's probably going to make Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake (already famous anyway) as well known as Mark Zuckerberg, or more so.

Todd McCarthy's review on his IndieWIRE site Deep Focus. David Denby's eulogistic piece in The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010, "Influencing people, David Fincher and 'The Social Network'," calls it a lot of flattering things.

YouTube videos (5) of NYFF press and industry Q&A with Sorkin, Fincher, Eisenberg, Garfield, and Timberlake Sept. 24, 2010 begin here.
A "making of" begins here.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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