The Social Network: A Pie in the Face for Zuckerberg

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Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

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A film this rich emits all kinds of literary and cinematic reverberations. One thinks, just among the Zs, of Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound, about the unwanted attention a novelist gets after writing a blockbuster best seller; and of the zip and sass of the Airplane!, Naked Gun and Hot Shots! movies made by the Zucker brothers. The Social Network, for all its 21st century interests, is connected to social dramas from the 1970s: fact-based films that created severely flawed protagonists and addressed big, contemporary themes, never stopping to worry about the youth market or the Hollywood edict of a happy ending. The honor roll would include The Godfather, The Parallax View, Taxi Driver, Serpico, All the President's Men and Network, a scalding satire that foresaw the rise of demagogic newscasters and the know-nothing America whose outrage they could cannily tap.

The Social Network's most obvious touchstone is Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; Fincher has called it "the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies." IndieWire's Todd McCarthy detailed The Social Network's kinship to that Greatest American Film: a rich young man's rise in a burgeoning medium (in Kane, the daily newspaper), as recollected by his colleagues; his difficulty communicating with women; his estrangement of his best friend, etc. But there are also similarities between Zuckerberg and Kane's director, star and co-writer. Immense in achievement and ego, both men revolutionized their media. Both wanted their names stamped all over their work (Facebook, in its early days, was proclaimed on every page "a Mark Zuckerberg Production"). Both men alienated their early sponsors and friends. And both were amazing, almost unnatural, prodigies. Citizen Kane, Welles' first feature film, opened two weeks before his 26th birthday. Zuckerberg became the world's youngest billionaire by 23; The Social Network opens four months and two weeks after his 26th birthday.

And the John Hughes part? Well, this is not high school but college — Harvard College, the college — and though the movie has sex and drugs (and a thrumming underscore by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor), the lust here is for Internet immortality, or a piece of that action. The competition among Zuckerberg's eventual adversaries is for tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which opens on Friday, The Social Network takes place in a man's world. Aside from Erica, the elusive creature whose two scenes bookend the story, the women are either eager bodies, possessive squeezes (Saverin's girlfriend Christy, played by Brenda Song, drags the film down in her few scenes) or spear carriers of exposition (Rashida Jones as a junior lawyer on Zuckerberg's team).

The TV shows Sorkin created — Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — all focused on people packaging concepts as either entertainment or enlightenment. Sorkin did plenty of research into the founding of Facebook and talked to many participants but acknowledges that he was relieved when Zuckerberg refused to cooperate. Within the perimeter of known facts, he fictionalized part of Zuckerberg's biography, including his loser status with the ladies. (Zuckerberg has been with the same woman since his Harvard days.) We should almost refer to the film's central character as "Mark Zuckerberg," with quotes. As Sorkin told New York magazine's Mark Harris, "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth. I want it to be to storytelling." One resists the temptation to throw the most famous line from Sorkin's play and film A Few Good Men — "You can't handle the truth" — back at him. But movies are stories, not depositions; and Sorkin is following the dictum from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Fincher, who like Zuckerberg was gainfully employed (at George Lucas' special-effects company ILM) while still a teenager, empathizes with his subject. He can remember being the smartest, youngest man in the room, facing the skepticism of his dull elders. And because Sorkin is a solitary writer and Fincher a field-marshal director, the two have differing views on creativity. "For Aaron," Fincher says in the movie's press notes, "invention is somebody sitting alone in a room ... and for me, invention is swindling the right people." In other words: making movies.

Almost nobody today makes them better; conjuring the mood, inspiring the crew, shaping a superb group of actors into a faultless ensemble. After his who-knows-what's-real early thrillers (The Game and Fight Club) and his beautiful, backward love story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher here is closest to the serial-killer docudrama Zodiac. The muted tones and prowling camera make The Social Network a neo-noir, stalking the truth. Make that Rashomon versions of various truths. Again, like films of the '70s, this one ends with a question mark. To the rapt viewer, Fincher and Sorkin say, You finish the movie.

However critical The Social Network may be of certain things Zuckerberg allegedly did, its tone and tempo are very Mark — at least the movie Mark. The film is like a video game at warp speed, but for the ear-brain instead of the eye-hand. It's determined to say it all and say it wittily at blinding speed; Sorkin's script was expected to play at 2½ hours, but with the actors speaking at an amphetamine pace and Fincher directing them like a NASCAR official who lost his red flag, the picture came in at two hours flat. And like Zuckerberg, Sorkin and Fincher simply ignore any in their audience who can't keep up. But the rewards for paying attention are mammoth and exhilarating. This is a high-IQ movie that gives viewers an IQ high.

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