The Social Network: A Pie in the Face for Zuckerberg

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Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

Here's a novel way to try to deflect attention from a movie you think portrays you unfairly: the day it opens, go on Oprah and announce a $100 million gift to the Newark, N.J., school system. That's what Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old billionaire founder of Facebook, did last Friday. He insists that the alignment of his Winfrey windfall with the world premiere of The Social Network at the New York Film Festival was purely coincidental. That could be true. But few may believe him, so unflattering is his portrait.

The briefest summary of this fast, caustic, super-brainy entertainment is that Zuckerberg, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard College, was a brilliant, prickly loner — "He doesn't have three friends to rub together," a rival says — who created a website that gave him, at last count, 500 million friends. Zuckerberg can be seen as a disabled hero, like a legless man who invents a better wheelchair, or a tragically flawed king, like Superman with a Kryptonite chip embedded in his brain. Either way, the film says, geniuses are abnormal. The obsessive focus that these blessed, cursed minds bring to their goals often excludes social peripheral vision. They don't notice, or care about, the little people in their way. Zuckerberg, incarnated by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) with a single-mindedness so cool as to be lunar, isn't inhuman, exactly; more post-human, a series of calculating algorithms. He is his own computer code — complex, and to most of those who know him, unfathomable.

To pursue his upward trajectory, Zuckerberg must walk in a straight line, over live bodies. Did he filch his social-network idea from the Harvard Connection, dreamed up by upperclassmen Divya Narendra and twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss? When Facebook went global, did Zuckerberg stiff his roommate, business partner and closest friend, Eduardo Saverin, out of the hundreds of millions of dollars Saverin deserved as the company's CFO? The Social Network, which plays out these issues via their ensuing, overlapping lawsuits, doesn't exactly arbitrate, but its sympathies are clear enough. As written by Aaron Sorkin (Syracuse, class of '83) and directed by David Fincher (did not attend college), the movie's Mark Zuckerberg is a genius — and, as nearly everyone in the film calls him, an asshole.

If you want to embarrass any adult, show him what he was like as a teenager. The real Zuckerberg, in his brief stint at Harvard, was in some ways mature beyond his or anyone's years and in other ways a clumsy adolescent. As revealed in e-mails leaked on the Internet and cited in a recent New Yorker profile, he boasted a vindictive streak nearly as impressive as his intelligence. The young man whose site popularized friend as a verb was also fond of another F word. When asked in an e-mail how Facebook acquired its information from Harvard students, he replied, "people just submitted it ... i don't know why ... they 'trust me' ... dumb f___s." And when quizzed on his plan of action against the Winklevosses: "i'm going to f___ them." He had a great notion, whether it was his or not, and the business instincts to bring it to fruition. Earlier Internet entrepreneurs made millions of dollars selling sex; Zuckerberg would make billions selling friends — and if need be, the film reckons, selling them out.

The opening scene plops the spectator into a Boston restaurant with Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salander in Fincher's remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Worst date ever. He rattles off imperious judgments like Triumph the Insult College Dog ("You don't have to study ... because you go to B.U."), while she tries shooting down his helium-filled self-regard ("What part of Long Island are you from — Wimbledon?"). Erica, finally announcing that they're no longer a couple, is the first to toss Zuckerberg down the A-hole. She's exasperated but, even more, exhausted. "Dating you," she says, "is like dating a Stairmaster." She's Sisyphus, and he's the rock.

Angry at being dumped by Erica, Zuckerberg gets drunk and, at his dorm computer, has a purely adolescent inspiration: FaceMash, a college site that displays photos of two coeds and urges participants to vote on who's hot and who's not. This earns him a reprimand from school officials for the crime of hacking and a visit from those tall, blond, handsome jocks, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both guys played, in an astonishingly subtle trompe l'oeil of special effects, by Armie Hammer). In most other films set at a college, the twins would be the preening, privileged Aryans who torture the lonely nerd until he gets his revenge. Here, though, Zuckerberg is also an overdog: the child of a psychiatrist and her dentist husband, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy (where he was on the fencing team) and was recruited by AOL and Microsoft before he decided to attend Harvard. Zuckerberg's defense, in Fincher and Sorkin's version of the Winklevoss trial, is that "they came to me with an idea. I had a better one." Yet the Winklevii (as Zuckerberg dubs them) claim Zuckerberg misled them for months, promising to work on their site while he perfected his own.

For help running the business side of "the Facebook," as it was then called, Zuckerberg turns to his roomie Saverin (Never Let Me Go's Andrew Garfield), a Brazilian Jew with a dazzle quotient Zuckerberg lacks and envies. But Zuckerberg is ahead of his BFFN — Best Friend for Now — in seeing the site's potential and finds a slicker ally in Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), co-founder of Napster. Parker, who is older by 4½ years, shares Zuckerberg's vision: he sees the site as "a once-in-a-generation, holy s____ idea," suggests that the be dropped from the name ("Just Facebook; it's cleaner"), and hooks Zuckerberg up with big-time investors. Without warning, Saverin claims in his deposition, Zuckerberg cut Saverin's 30% share of the company to less than 1%. Parker, the smiling, coke-addled seducer, becomes president of Facebook.

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