Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Originally posted on Feb. 16, 2011

The gist: In this creation myth of the quintessential Silicon Valley tycoon's social-networking game-changer, David Fincher's ingenious, rhythmic directing and Aaron Sorkin's signature machine gunfire dialog balance each other out remarkably, along with Jesse Eisenberg's perfectly tuned performance. This is a culturally relevant morality tale of the new breed determined to redefine American capitalism.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stressed that The Social Network is a work of fiction. He's right, in a way. It's not a completely faithful account of the birth and expansion of the social networking service, which has recently surpassed a 500-million user base. The key events of the story, the creation of Facebook and the two lawsuits lodged against its creator, are facts, but the little details that account for the motivations and conflicts in the film are not. Zuckerberg jokingly said that, while the filmmakers got right about the shirt and fleece that his fictional self wears in the movie, they got wrong about the "whole reason for making Facebook." Though writer Aaron Sorkin claimed that he'd created the characters based on the transcript of Zuckerberg's former LiveJournal blog, the billionaire denied the existence of Erica Albright ("Erica"), whose breakup with the fake Mark Zuckerberg ("Mark") in the opening sequence prompts him to launch Facemash, the prototype of Facebook.

The reason the breakup scene exists is roughly twofold: first, it simply distinguishes the made-up Mark from the real one; it also motivates Mark's actions and foresees the more complex confrontations he faces later on. After the couple split up, Mark rushes into a vengeful stunt: he blogs about his now ex-girlfriend and, out of bitterness toward girls in general, builds Facemash overnight. Its short-lived success drives every girl at Harvard away from Mark, but draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Harvard super-elites. From then on, the film crosscuts between the genesis and growth of Facebook and the two legal battles involving Mark himself, the Winklevosses, and Eduardo Saverin ("Wardo"), the co-founder of Facebook and Mark's ex-best friend.

Unlike David Fincher's previous works like Se7en and Zodiac, The Social Network doesn't feature any serial killers we expect to be brought to justice eventually. Nor does the film let us have a clear sense of right and wrong, even though, at first glance, Mark seems to be solely to blame for the legal entanglements. As the three parties take turns telling their side of the story, confusion creeps in: there is no solid evidence that Mark stole the Winklevosses' idea, Mark insists he did not steal their source code, hence no case of intellectual property theft. Furthermore, it's in large part Wardo's fault that he did not have his lawyer go over the papers before he signed them, resulting in the dilution of his shares down to .03%. The plaintiffs allege that Mark is the ultimate bad guy: he turned the twins' idea into his own business and betrayed his best friend. But the movie also incorporates the flashbacks told from Mark's perspective, which, with the help of Jesse Eisenberg's superbly subtle performance, depict the antihero as a pathetic outsider who doesn't fully grasp how to communicate with real people, thereby feeling rejected and alienated.

By cutting dexterously back and forth between past and present, Fincher’s camera captures two opposite sides of Mark: he eagerly seeks social approval, yet he seems to despise everyone else. He patronizes his girlfriend, misleads the twins, and backstabs his best pal, but we also see him having a hard time making eye contact with Erica, not knowing what to do to win her back. Though disgusted by the Winklevosses when they offer to rehabilitate his image, Mark is secretly jealous of those 6'5'', 220-pound rowing elites, wants to get accepted into one of those final clubs, and admires their exclusivity. Then there is a strained pause and disbelief crosses Mark's face when Wardo confesses he got "punched" by a final club. As suggested later in the furious CFO's climactic outburst, that was probably one of the reasons Mark turned against his business partner and best friend.

So while we instantly find this future billionaire to be unlikable, and while we realize that Internet-age success raises even more intricate ethical dilemmas, our protagonist's ambiguity and complexity make us wonder if it's sufficiently legitimate to judge his character and actions based on the values and norms that we take for granted. Here, Mark is the epitome of a new breed born out of today’s Internet-driven American culture. In an alternative community this new breed sets out to create online, politeness, tact or consideration has no place. But it's too bad because, in real reality, Mark still has to live in the same world as those people he just can't connect with. It’s nearly pitiful to watch him lose the people he actually seems to care. The film thus avoids being either a cheap glorification of the success story of “digital capitalism,” or just a didactic allegory about how the digital-minded capitalists further undermine traditional morality.

As said earlier, the opening breakup foreshadows the deposition-room conflicts and provides a swift examination of Mark's character. In a span of five minutes, the small bar argument not only presents the irony that our future social networking magnate has zero communication skills, but also hints at the nature of the resentment Mark holds onto. For instance, compare a self-conceited Mark promising to introduce Erica to the people she would not normally meet, with a bitter Mark who is repelled by the Winklevoss brothers' condescending proposal to restore his damaged reputation. Mark experiences the feelings of superiority/inferiority on two different occasions, but these emotions come from the same source: social status. Mark's relationships with the other characters are based on his perception of their social positions. Mark disregards Erica because she attends Boston University, which he considers lower-tier than Harvard. Meanwhile, he thinks the twins look down on him because they are at the top rung of the school's social ladder, whereas he is not.

Social status is also a criterion by which Mark defines friendship. Wardo claims that he was backstabbed out of jealousy because he got accepted into a final club and Mark couldn't. In a flashback, when Wardo tells Mark he was punched by the Phoenix, Mark tries to brush it off as a "diversity thing," but feels left behind because he assumes that they are always going to be on equal footing as Harvard nobodies. To Mark, Wardo's final club admission is sort of a sign of betrayal, which makes him feel further excluded, so he sort of gets revenge, albeit not admittedly. Along the way, Mark finds a new best friend, Sean Parker ("Sean"). Sean is the complete opposite of Wardo, in that he does not mind getting ahead at the expense of others. Wardo, by contrast, acts as an ethical counterweight and constantly asks questions like, "You think this is such a good idea?" (when Mark designs Facemash), a concern that Mark immediately dismisses. To Mark, Sean is the personification of true success based on his own ability and effort, not inherited privilege. Mark sees an ideal image of himself in Sean's cool, cocky demeanor, considers them socially equal, and accepts him as a friend.

However subtle they may seem, Mark's words and actions reflect his obsession with getting attention. He believes that elevating his social status, and subsequently earning people's respect, will stop him from feeling excluded. Mark strives toward success, not because he is money-hungry—he declined Microsoft's offer to buy his app—, but because he is recognition-hungry. This ambitious Harvard nobody, however, fails to look at his own cavalier attitude and inability to interact with people, which is, in fact, the most likely reason he is hated by many. He has no idea what he’s done to make people consider him an asshole. He resents the society so focused on useless things such as likability, as well as its class-based hierarchy. So he develops this online platform now we call Facebook, hoping to bring some transformational change at the societal level, but not even for a single second does he think of doing it for the public interest whatsoever.

His ambition is, albeit tautological, completely self-centered and directed toward climbing atop everyone's shoulders—and looking cool—with the revolutionary idea as a stepping stone. The whole point of the American dream is that you work hard, make money, and move up. Mark already has more than enough to succeed under this system: motivation, a top-notch education, and his brain. He knows that, and goes on to use all his resources to gain wealth and, ultimately, recognition (again, the former is merely a means to the latter). Having faith in the "self-made man," Mark naturally loathes the “Winklevii,” who were born privileged, call themselves Harvard "gentlemen," and accuse him of ethical misconduct citing the Harvard code of ethics, which is laughed at even by the university's president.

This society we live in sees so many young entrepreneurs like Mark. They make the best use of all resources at their disposal to carve out their own slice of the market. A lot of them think nothing of sabotaging friendships as long as they succeed. Some of them pay the price, some just walk away. Of course, the film does not advocate moral anarchy at all — Mark certainly pays for his callousness. He loses his only true friend, agrees to multimillion-dollar settlements and isn’t so sure if the money that can buy a ping-pong room can also buy Erica's heart. In short, this Facebook flick does not blindly extol the brainy young tycoon's accomplishments. Half the time Mark defends himself against the accusations by Wardo and the Winklevii and against a barely concealed tinge of contempt in their respective lawyers’ otherwise flat voices.

The depositions are mostly shown in medium or medium close-up shots at eye level, and Fincher rarely allows subjectivity to spoil the very matter-of-fact tone of the film. His restrained yet powerfully rhythmic directing and Sorkin’s machine gunfire dialog balance each other out so well that it's hard to believe such static scenes generate as much energy as any action-packed flick does. Throughout, there’s almost always information overload; viewers are inundated with the clues that they can use to form an opinion about this fictional Mark Zuckerberg. Paradoxically, however, the more we learn, the less able we are to get a definite picture of him. In real life, we are going to see more heroes like him: tech-savvy, socially inept, enviable, loathsome, sympathetic, and morally vague. And it’s going to be even trickier to make ethical judgments about them. In this creation story, Mark is indeed vague, close to an archetypal tragic hero, but he's still characteristic of the new breed determined to redefine the landscape of American capitalism. That's why The Social Network is a morality tale that is relevant and significant.

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