The Social Network
Claire and Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
It seems that director David Fincher has outdone himself with his newest film, The Social Network, having succeeded in making a movie more relevant to our times than his previous Fight Club and yet as enjoyable and gripping as one of his best films, Se7en. Perhaps that’s because Fincher has managed to turn what could have been a simple account of unlikable computer nerds gone power-hungry into a story of both mythical and historically significant proportions.
The Social Network not only tells the (admittedly biased and partially fictional) story of how Mark Zuckerberg created the social networking website Facebook, but more importantly, it delves into the power struggles behind the multi-billion dollar idea, as well as the social/historical significance of the website’s concept. One might be tempted to deride Facebook, but we say, dismiss it at your own peril. Facebook heralded an entirely new kind of social networking, and thus, a new generation of Americans.
The film begins with a conversation between Zuckerberg (played expertly by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (Mara Rooney, in a small but memorable part), showcasing everything the audience needs to know about Zuckerberg in a matter of minutes. During a lightning-quick repartee, Zuckerberg displays both his brilliance and his crippling insecurity, all the while unintentionally insulting Erica and goading her into dumping him. As Erica storms away she leaves Zuckerberg with one fact central to his character: “You're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” The Social Network is one of those rare movies a viewer can wholly enjoy while simultaneously hating nearly every character on screen. (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, reviewed in this space a few weeks ago, is another – and one with many similarities to this.)
The events of the film, and seemingly the idea for Facebook, evolve from that first scene. Prompted by Erica’s dumping, Zuckerberg creates – in one night, and by hacking into the entire Harvard network – a website that allows users to rate all of the women on Harvard’s campus. The site racks up twenty-two thousand hits within two hours and crashes the Harvard network, rewarding Zuckerberg with academic probation and the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), who hire Zuckerberg to create a Harvard dating website for them. This inspires Zuckerberg’s idea for Facebook and he teams up with his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to create his own social networking site. The rest, as we like to say on this site, is history – in this instance (as in Wall Street) power-mongering, dangerously ambitious, backstabbing history.
Part of the movie is told in real time, while the rest consists of depositions from the various parties – both Winklevoss and Saverin, in two separate lawsuits – suing Zuckerberg for rights to the company. The Facebook litigations made legal history in their own right, delineating the turf on which other battles for the profitable domains of cyberspace are being and will be fought.
The acting here is top notch, with Eisenberg in his finest role to date and Garfield in a very solid supporting part. However, what makes The Social Network such a compelling tale, at bottom, is its ability to take something as apparently ephemeral and transient as an online trend and root it in ancient, timeless, themes, such as ambition, corruption, friendship, and – as David Hume might have observed – our ability to empathize with one another. Indeed, at the center of it all is the need to connect, and what Facebook means to that particular need. By the end of the film, Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in history, and yet he still feels the need to impress his ex-girlfriend, to make her like him again. The only way he can think to do this is to “friend” her on Facebook. One can’t help but ponder: what does it mean when the very creator of the most popular social networking website is himself devoid of the ability to connect with anyone in any meaningful way? What does the “Facebook generation” portend for the American Republic at a time when the daily newspaper is withering away and it’s estimated that only one percent of remaining readers bother to peruse the editorial page?
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language.
Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia lawyer and journalist, is the author of 18 books, including "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" (2009). Claire Castagnera is a freelance writer and editor, whose website is accessible at http://clairecastagnera.wordpress.com/