Oscar Wilde said, "Difference of opinion about a work of art means that it is complex and vital." Sometimes, however, the complexities surrounding a work of art demand consideration if we are to sort out our own reactions to it.
The Sept. 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker contains a profile by Jose Antonio Vargas of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Among other things, the profile casts considerable doubt on the accuracy and fairness of The Social Network, the movie about the founding of Facebook written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. Sorkin's screenplay is based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires; Mezrich, Vargas tells us, based his book largely on interviews with Eduardo Saverin, Facebook's first CFO, whose lawsuit against Zuckerberg forms much of the plot of The Social Network. Neither Mezrich nor Sorkin nor Fincher ever spoke to Zuckerberg; Scott Rudin, The Social Network's producer, tried to, but Zuckerberg refused. Vargas, who interviewed Sorkin for his Zuckerberg profile, also notes Sorkin's "extreme dislike of the blogosphere and social media." (In an article in the Sept. 30 issue of Slate, writer Luke O'Brien was even blunter, dismissing both Mezrich's book and Sorkin's screenplay as "pretty much hooey.")
Two weeks later, in the Oct. 4 issue, New Yorker film critic David Denby gave The Social Network an enthusiastic review—as did 97 percent of the nation's critics, according to the Rotten Tomatoes website. Denby, noting the accuracy questions surrounding the film as well as Sorkin's "old-fashioned, humanist distaste for electronic friend-making," nevertheless proclaimed the film a masterpiece. "(The Social Network) is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place," he wrote. "It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake."
It's far from unprecedented that two writers from the same magazine should write in opposing terms about the same film. But the Vargas and Denby articles help me explain to myself my own reaction to The Social Network—which is, in a word, conflicted.
It has always been a given that the makers of any movie based on a true story will telescope, conflate or even invent characters, events and dialogue to enhance the story and make the points they wish to make. It is silly to assume that Fincher and Sorkin would avoid doing this in making The Social Network. That they have made a smashingly entertaining movie is obvious. Fincher's direction, though not as showy as in Se7en or Fight Club, is a marvel of sweep and concision, taking the Rashomon-like structure of Sorkin's screenplay and making it all dazzlingly comprehensible, even if some details still zoom past us on first viewing. As for Sorkin, he proves once again—as other critics have noted—that he is the great living master of screen dialogue, the true heir to Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges. The dialogue in The Social Network coruscates, even if it's so rapid-fire that it's hard to quote without access to a printed script. I hope it will suffice to quote a line from a minor character to Mark Zuckerberg near the film's end. "You're not really an asshole, Mark," she tells him. "You're just trying so hard to be."
The crux of The Social Network is how much of an asshole Zuckerberg really is, as well as how useful Facebook is as a social tool. On the latter question, I stand somewhere between Sorkin and The Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz, who body-slammed Sorkin and the film for what he perceived as their hostility to technological progress and entrepreneurial genius. I am a card-carrying member of both Facebook and the blogosphere, and I have fun keeping tabs on my friends and family members via Facebook. It's a quick yet friendly way of staying in touch. Yet whenever a friend or family member asks me via Facebook to join a group or take a quiz, I balk the second I see the page demanding my personal information—user ID, Friends list, etc.—as a prerequisite to proceed.
My mixed feelings about Facebook mirror my mixed feelings not about Zuckerberg—I've never met the man—but about how the film portrays him. Did Zuckerberg (played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg) steal the idea of Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer, with Josh Pence as a body double) for an Internet-based social network? And did he force his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), out of Facebook with the collusion of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)? No one, including Vargas, denies that Zuckerberg has a difficult personality ("He's been overprogrammed," one of Zuckerberg's friends told Vargas) or that he can be brutally dismissive of people for whom he has no use. But other evidence made me wonder.
For instance, Zuckerberg told Vargas that he never cared about being asked to join one of Harvard's "final clubs," which seems to jibe with his universally acknowledged indifference to money. His desire to join those clubs, however, is a major engine of The Social Network's plot. "They're exclusive, they're fun, and they lead to a better life," the film's Zuckerberg tells his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Similarly, Erica's dumping of Zuckerberg leads to his taking vicious revenge in his blog, in an action that eventually leads to the creation of Facebook. (Here's where the story really gets Rashomon-like: Erica is supposedly a fictional character, based on a woman named Jessica Alona who, according to Luke O'Brien, has herself never been located. According to Vargas, Zuckerberg has been dating the same girl—Priscilla Chan, currently a medical student at the University of California-San Francisco—with only a slight interruption since 2003, the year The Social Network begins. Yet someone claiming to be the real Erica Albright has started up a blog and a Facebook page in recent weeks.)
The more the web gets tangled, the more you wonder whether The Social Network is at least reasonably fair to its protagonist. Zuckerberg is still a very young man—younger, indeed, than the actor who plays him—and when he tells Vargas he has grown and matured since his Harvard days, it seems churlish to doubt it.
I have to be concerned when Vargas and Sorkin don't even agree on Zuckerberg's footwear. (According to Vargas, Zuckerberg always wears sneakers, whereas The Social Network puts him invariably in flip-flops, even during a Boston winter.)
Nevertheless, Sorkin told Vargas that he strove to be fair to Zuckerberg, and in fairness the screenplay's portrait of Zuckerberg is masterfully complex. In the film, he is hostile, cold, single-minded as a terrier chasing a tennis ball, yet motivated by very human emotions, ambitions and failings. For Zuckerberg, conversation is a form of one-upmanship, yet there's an innocence about him that suggests he sincerely thinks he is being helpful and informative.
Sorkin and Fincher have the great fortune to have Jesse Eisenberg—an actor to watch ever since he played Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney's rebellious son in The Squid and the Whale—as their Zuckerberg. It is impossible to tear your eyes from Eisenberg as he stares down friends and foes alike with his laser-beam gaze, strafing them all with AK-47 bursts of words. In his face, however, fear and a nascent tenderness mingle with prickly superiority. It is a face that shouts, "Fuck you," but whispers, "Please be my friend."
Sean Parker—quoted in Vargas' article but otherwise not a part of it—is the one who might truly be nursing his wounds after The Social Network. If he's half as bad as he's portrayed in the film, he's Satan in Nikes. According to Fincher and Sorkin, Parker is Zuckerberg's id—the coolest, most daring, most far-seeing guy in the room, who uses his coolness, daring and foresight to wreak vengeance on anyone who has ever offended him in the slightest. Sensing Zuckerberg's mingled ambition. resentment and naivete, Parker deploys him as a meticulously guided search-and-destroy missile.
Unfortunately, one of the people who offends Parker is Eduardo Saverin, who takes one look at Parker and sees a vampire. Saverin is the conscience of The Social Network, an honest and well-meaning young businessman whose only sins are not thinking far enough outside the box for Zuckerberg and getting tapped for one of the clubs Zuckerberg is desperate to join. The film portrays Saverin as a hapless innocent, lost in the high-stakes atmospheres of Harvard and Silicon Valley, flummoxed both by his high-maintenance Asian girlfriend (Brenda Song) and by the chicken he must take with him everywhere as part of his club initiation.
The Social Network is a thrilling, superbly acted film, even if in the end I found it unsatisfying without quite knowing why. Is it because this is a chapter of business and social history that is still being written? Or is it less because of incomplete history than incomplete story? In any case, the film's final image—which I will not reveal, even though other reviewers have—has an unforgettable sting, even if factually it is total bushwah.
In The Social Network, not only Eduardo Saverin gets chewed up and spit out, but also the Winklevoss twins—or, as Zuckerberg refers to them, "the Winklevi"—who are dumbfounded by how little their birth and breeding avails them. Straight-A students, children of privilege and the stars of the Harvard rowing team (they went on to compete in the Beijing Olympics), the Winklevoss brothers are outraged by what they see as Zuckerberg's outright theft of their idea. Unfortunately for them, they find Lawrence Summers (Douglas Urbanski), Harvard's then-president and Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, less than sympathetic to their assertion of a gentlemen's tradition at Harvard. I cannot improve on how Denby sums it up: "Fincher and Sorkin wickedly imply that Summers is Zuckerberg thirty years older and many pounds heavier. He has that same kind of brightest-guy-in-the-room arrogance, and little sympathy for entitled young men talking about ethics when they've been left behind by a faster innovator."
Lawrence Summers isn't the only factor in The Social Network that allows a smooth segue into Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's documentary about the economic meltdown of 2008. Both films portray an ultra-macho financial culture that links success with sex; if the Porcellian Club members of The Social Network send a bus to gather suburbanBoston girls for their orgiastic parties, the Wall Street tycoons of Inside Job each drop thousands of dollars a night on strippers and call girls. In both films the message is clear: to the victors belong the spoils, and those of the wrong type, gender or level of coolness need not apply. But in Inside Job, the alpha wolves give the finger not only to their nerdier frat brothers, but to every wage-earner and homeowner. And not just in the United States, but in the world.
Summers was one of many former government officials, economists and financial-industry CEOs who declined to be interviewed for Inside Job. Those who declined comment automatically look smarter than either, say, Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, or Glenn Hubbard, George W. Bush's chief economic advisor. It is painful to watch Mishkin sputter like a schoolboy when asked why he wrote a report praising Iceland's financial status, when in fact the country's entire monetary system was circling the bowl. It is infuriating to watch Hubbard's bristling indignation when asked why he advocated financial deregulation that ended up costing this country and its citizens trillions of dollars. What is far more painful and infuriating is to realize that mortgage foreclosures continue at an unprecedented pace, and that the putative recovery is still too weak to support job creation on any meaningful level.
Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job is a cleanly made, swiftly moving documentary, relying strictly on recorded fact and expert testimony. It is as efficient as a knife slitting a throat, and leaves us in no doubt as to whose throats are being slit. The only weak part of the film is the call to action in its finale. It has already, emphatically, made the point that Barack Obama has offered only token resistance to Wall Street kleptomania, and continues to reward the same people and activities that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did in succession. What possible opposition candidate for president in 2012—one, that is, with a prayer of getting elected—would do differently?
Meanwhile, speaking of succession…Vargas writes, "Zuckerberg's ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet." Vargas spells out what that "different kind of Internet" is, and will be: "Facebook's privacy policies are confusing to many people, and the company has changed them frequently. almost always allowing more information to be exposed in more ways…Zuckerberg's business model depends on our shifting notions of privacy, revelation, and sheer self-display. The more that people are willing to put online, the more money his site can make from advertisers. Happily for him, and the prospects of his eventual fortune, his business interests align perfectly with his personal philosophy. In the bio section of his page, Zuckerberg writes simply, 'I'm trying to make the world a more open place.'"
In this context, is the thought that Mark Zuckerberg is Lawrence Summers thirty years younger and many pounds lighter a comforting one? Send me a message on Facebook, explaining your views. And don't worry about that message asking you to share your personal information.