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'The Social Network' fascinates by not taking sides

Hitting the screen after a wave of publicity, David Fincher’s "The Social Network" is a riveting drama about the creation of Facebook. But those expecting a verdict on the site's controversial creator Mark Zuckerberg shouldn't hold their breath.


It’s the film both techies and cinephiles have been salivating over ever since teasers appeared online over the summer.

Now, arriving on a tidal wave of publicity and stellar reviews, David Fincher’s “The Social Network” – otherwise known as “the Facebook movie” – finally hits the big screen. But those awaiting a verdict on controversial 26-year-old Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg should not hold their breath.

“The Social Network” is a dizzyingly smart, confident, often riveting drama about the creation of the groundbreaking Web site. What it is not, however, is either an indictment or a defence of Zuckerberg, who was sued by former friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, as well as Harvard students Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who alleged he stole their idea.

The film, which uses known facts and then fills in some blanks, shrugs off the classic biopic template in favour of a focused, thriller-like narrative about the rise of a social media juggernaut. At its heart is a tricky, ambiguous portrait of the young man in the eye of the storm, who comes off neither as villain nor hero, but rather an enigmatic blend of insecurity and bravado, ferociousness and fragility. In other words, Zuckerberg’s recent damage control campaign – he appeared on popular US TV host Oprah Winfrey’s show to flaunt his soft side – might have been unnecessary.

David Fincher’s Filmography

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Zodiac (2007)

Panic Room (2002)

Fight Club (1999)

The Game (1997)

Seven (1995)

Alien 3 (1992)

Creator or destroyer?

If the slippery Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is not the conniving, dollar-hungry villain many are expecting, that is because director Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (adapting Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires”) have differing views on the figure behind Facebook.

In a promotional interview in New York, Fincher admitted to identifying with Zuckerberg as a creator. “What Mark does is no different than directing a movie”, Fincher said. “Your job is to grow it well and to make sure it gets enhanced and to take care of it...And if you have to hurt people’s feelings in order to protect that thing, that’s what you have to do”.

Sorkin, in his press interview, agreed, but noted that Zuckerberg was “not only a creator but also a destroyer”. Moreover, Sorkin expressed skepticism about the site itself, saying that rather than bringing people together, Facebook has “actually done the opposite”.

The tension between these two visions of Zuckerberg – one empathetic and almost admiring, the other bleaker and more biting – produces a fascinating protagonist: an offputting, but oddly vulnerable anti-hero of intellectual might and deeply human flaws.

The filmmakers waste no time establishing the contradictions of Zuckerberg’s character. “The Social Network” opens with an apparently fictionalised scene of blistering comic force, in which Harvard student Zuckerberg, then 19, gets dumped by his girlfriend after unintentionally insulting her. Zuckerberg’s panicky attempts to justify himself only alienate the young woman even more; he ends up running back to his room, where in a fit of lovesick fury he creates the site that will eventually become Facebook.

The irony of the set-up is obvious, but potent: someone inept at face-to-face communication invents something that re-shapes the way an entire generation communicates. In an extraordinary sequence, Fincher alternates between Zuckerberg frantically typing in algorithms and the writhing bodies of Harvard students dancing at an exclusive party; as the privileged celebrate, the outcast catches them in his net, building something that will alter the way they interact.

Privilege and betrayal in the Ivy League

In films like “Seven”, “Fight Club”, and “Zodiac”, Fincher created sombre, nightmarish worlds, and in comparison, “The Social Network” is one of his most stylistically muted and least grisly works. Still, Harvard is portrayed as its own seductive, sinister ecosystem: sumptuous, dimly lit, and teeming with attractive overachievers sizing each other up.

The famous university is also seen as a place in which an underclass of Jewish students (represented in the film by Zuckerberg and cohort Eduardo Saverin) yearn to be accepted by an Aryan elite (embodied by the blond, athletic Winklevoss twins). Indeed, what Fincher sees behind Zuckerberg’s invention in “The Social Network” is a young man’s attempt “to connect to the world in a way that he’s unable to do in his own life”.

But if “The Social Network” locates the pathos behind Zuckerberg’s gesture, it also recognises the ruthlessness. The film moves back and forth between the feverish excitement of Facebook’s early success and the depositions, several years later, in which Zuckerberg faces off against those who accuse him of betrayal. If this cerebral film has an emotional core, it is undoubtedly Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield), who is left reeling when Zuckerberg essentially edges him out of the Facebook fortune to make room for charismatic Napster founder Sean Parker (played by pop star Justin Timberlake).

Saverin’s sense of being cast aside by a trusted friend gives the film a moral sting. But the filmmakers are careful never to take sides. In press interviews, screenwriter Sorkin said: “I hope people will ask…how much of the destroyer part is real, and how much of it is being projected onto Mark by people who believed they were destroyed by him”. In other words, “The Social Network” lets the viewer make the call. As Sorkin noted, “There are many bedrock issues that you and the person sitting next to you in the theatre aren’t going to see the same way”.

The double-edged approach to Zuckerberg’s character gives the film a pull it might otherwise lack; after all, the story of Facebook is in many ways a typical American tale of unchecked ambition, unexpected success, and its mostly predictable costs.

Luckily, the movie charges ahead at a breathless pace, mirroring the speed with which Facebook caught on and expanded. Watching “The Social Network”, you sometimes wish the filmmakers would slow down, step back, and take the measure of the cultural moment they are examining. At the same time, you understand why they don’t: we are still in the thick of the Facebook revolution, and that moment is now.


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