Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Social Network

So is it true? Is any of it true? Is none of it true? Did Mark Zuckerberg steal the idea for Facebook from a pair of Olympic rowers? Did he cheat his best friend out of his shares of Facebook? Is Mark Zuckerberg that much of an asshole?

The real life Zuckerberg says David Fincher’s new film ‘The Social Network’ is a piece of fiction. But Mark has a clear, vested interest in discrediting it. However there is further cause to doubt its source material. The film is based on a book by Ben Mezrich called ‘The Accidental Billionaires.’ Now some years ago Mezrich wrote another book based on a true story called ‘Bringing Down The House.’ The problem is that according to The Boston Globe, significant parts of that book were just plain made up. Truth fudging is accepted in film, but is kind of a no-no for books labeled ‘non-fiction.’

The story gets complicated here because ‘The Social Network’ isn’t exactly based on ‘The Accidental Billionaires.’ At the time the book was sold to Columbia Pictures it was just an outline. Screenwriter Arron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) used that outline as his starting point and did the majority of his own research independently. He found transcripts of Mark's former blog concerning the creation of Facemash (a website Zuckerberg wrote while in an inebriated fit over a girl) Facemash allowed users to compare the looks of female Harvard students. The initial idea was to compare the girls to farm animals, but he thought better of it. The blog transcript appears in the film almost verbatim. Looking at Sorkin’s work, I know that he is an idealistic man consumed with details, but as a storyteller his loyalty is always going to be to the story he’s trying to tell.

The Facemash incident not only gets Zuckerberg in trouble with the Harvard Admin board, it also earns him and his roommate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) the scorn of every girl on campus. But Mark also gains the notice of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) who want him to build them a social networking site. The site would mirror MySpace, but be exclusively for Harvard students. Around the same time Mark asks Eduardo to help him fund a new social networking site that uses exclusivity as its core idea. Before long Facebook is up, the Winklevoss twins are threatening legal action, and Eduardo is at the end of his wits just trying to eek out a profit for him and Mark before it all goes to Hell. To help, Mark hires Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) as a consultant. Eduardo sees Sean as a paranoid moocher and a bad influence on Mark. But Mark sees Parker as a rock-star beyond reproach, and begins to push Eduardo away, leading to more legal trouble.

The obvious comparison is to ‘Citizen Kane’ and it’s not completely undue. Both are well-crafted, controversial films told in flashbacks and based on the lives of media tycoons. But ‘Kane,’ loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst had the decency to change all the names (though it was obvious who it was about). Also while Charles Foster Kane was clearly based on Hearst, co-writer/director Orson Wells put just as much of himself into the character, resulting in a film that is a much more personal statement about greed, ego, etcetera. The two movies are also very different stylistically. ‘Kane’ is a grand, operatic film encompassing its subjects entire life. ‘Social Network’ is more down-to-earth and centers on Zuckerberg’s early days. The later is not a fault of the movie as Zuckerberg is only 26 and therefore has nothing but early days.

The best structural comparison would be to Akira Kurosawa’s film ‘Rashomon’ and it’s countless imitators. That film told the story of a crime from the point of view of four witnesses who all claim to be the culprit (go watch it, if you haven’t already). ‘The Social Network’ is told in flashback by Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and various hostile witnesses called in two law suits brought against him. Kurosawa used the point of view in ‘Rashomon’ to say that memory and emotional testimonies are inherently unreliable. ‘Social Network’ does so too, but in a subtler way. We don’t see events replayed from different points of view so much, as we are made aware that the witnesses have their own agendas.

I have no clue how ‘The Social Network’ will be viewed in 20 years. I doubt that it’ll be held in the same esteem as ‘Kane’ or ‘Roshomon.’ But that said, ‘Social Network’ is a fantastically well-made film. Its complexly structured script is brimming with multi-tiered conversations and exceedingly technical details would defeat many filmmakers. Yet Fincher finds a way to make it not only watchable, but also enthralling. He boils it down to a simple core and builds on it so no matter how complicated the film gets, we always see the basic human drama going on. At the end of the day ‘The Social Network’ isn’t about coding, or theft. It’s about an awkward guy who just wants to belong and sit at the cool kids table, even if he manages to alienate the few people who might actually want to be his friends.

The film is a technical marvel as well. This is to be expected from David Fincher who, like Zuckerberg, is a tireless perfectionist (he did 99 takes of the opening scene alone). The film has a chillingly effective score by ‘Nine Inch Nails’ front man Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It adds a sense of playful menace to a film that is really toying with its audience. Mischievousness in story telling is a trademark of Fincher’s films (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club), but he’s more sly about it here.

Going in, I wasn’t certain if Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook and I’m still not. The way the film depicts him, he is certainly brilliant enough to have come up with it on his own, but he’s also arrogant enough to have stolen it. I know that a lot of the little details are true, but the answers to the big questions are really only known to Mark Zuckerberg and possibly Eduardo Saverin. The filmmakers understand this and they don’t try and give us any definitive truth. They give us truth and myth. Truth plus. A lot of movies based on fact do this, they say "based on a true story" and expect you to assume that it's all true. But Sorkin and Fincher have done something different here, by creating a film where the truth of the story we're being told is always being questioned by it's characters, they invite discussion and skepticism of the film itself. In it's own quiet way, 'Social Network' may be Fincher's most subversive film yet. This is a film that demands your attention and in exchange it gives you something to think and talk about with your friends. So you tell me, is it true?

Grade: A+