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|Written by April Yorke|
|Monday, 04 October 2010 00:00|
Buzz was building so intensely for the October 1st premiere of The Social Network that the backlash became inevitable. "Facebook Feels Unfriendly Toward Film It Inspired," reported the New York Times. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz wrote that the trailer portrayed a lot more sex and drugs than he remembers experiencing at the time. Twin articles in Slate deride the movie for getting both Facebook and Harvard wrong. Even an article whose headline suggests it tells the real story behind the movie's alleged hatchet job ends up making Mark Zuckerberg look worse than writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher ever did. Is it too much to expect a movie about such recent history to tell the truth? Better question: should we expect this movie to function as journalism?
The Social Network is not a documentary nor does it claim to be. It's based in part on The Accidental Billionaires, a book where the author, Ben Mezrich, admits to recreating scenes according to his "best judgement" rather than difficult-to-verify facts. Even now, Sorkin and Mezrich don't agree about how much of the material from the book appears in the movie. There seems to be as much mythologizing about the making of The Social Network as there is about the making of Facebook. What its opponents don't realize is that they're making the same point as the movie itself.
Critics celebrate The Social Network's Rashômon-like structure, while detractors note that it doesn't use its multiple viewpoints in the same way as the classic film: to get at a central truth. What they miss is the fact that this is intentional. The Social Network is not The Mark Zuckerberg Story. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) may be the protagonist, but he's not a fully realized character for much of the movie. Instead, he's the villain of another piece.
Much like Batman in the The Dark Knight, Zuckerberg is at the centre of everything without ever seeming to be a part of it. He simply sets things in motion and disappears. He's dumped, spectacularly, in the movie's opening scene, creates Face Mash Up as a direct result, and sinks into the background once Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) shows up to provide an algorithm that makes the site function. Once Saverin's on the scene, it's The Eduardo Saverin Story. Framed by a deposition that was part of a lawsuit wherein Zuckerberg's former best friend and Facebook co-founder sued him for an undisclosed amount, we start to see everything from Saverin's point of view. In it, Zuckerberg is the creep from the movie's trailer. He's a brilliant programmer and designer in addition to being passive-aggressive, petty, and pathologically dissociated from his feelings, actions, and the consequences thereof. Saverin, on the other hand, is emotionally and financially supportive of his friend's new venture. It's only much later when they begin to disagree about the direction in which to take Facebook that the relationship between Saverin and Zuckerberg truly becomes strained. And just like that, Saverin is forced out of the business. We never see Zuckerberg come to the decision to remove Saverin. We can't. Saverin doesn't know why, and, at that point, it's his story.
There are rare moments when we can feel Zuckerberg's hurt and outrage at Saverin's characterization of his betrayal, but they're not part of The Mark Zuckerberg Story either. They're part of The Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss Story. They're identical twins (both played Armie Hammer with an assist from body double Josh Pence), who together with Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), invited Zuckerberg to design a website they called "Harvard Connection." To hear them describe it, it sounds almost indistinguishable from the site Zuckerberg went on to create while blowing them off after stealing their idea. Of course, that's entirely from the Winkelvoss point of view. They received numerous emails and texts over the months between their initial meeting and the launch of The Facebook, as it was then known, but we don't see Zuckerberg sending these emails. We don't see him not answering the door when they knock or getting chased across the quad like Cameron claims he did. We only see Zuckerberg hard at work on Facebook as necessity dictates he must have been at the time. To Saverin, when Zuckerberg receives a cease and desist order on behalf of the Winklevosses, he offers one explanation for his intellectual property theft: does "a guy who makes a really good chair owe money to anyone who ever made a chair"? To the Winkelvosses, he's even more succinct: "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook."In the movie, Zuckerberg characterizes the "Winkelvi" lawsuit as the entitled not getting what they want for the first time in their lives. His own bitterness at not being a part of "final club" (like they are, like Saverin will be) is at the source of his betrayals, according to many who see the story as nerdy Jewish upstart vs. jock WASP elite. The movie, however, doesn't portray them that way. The Winklevosses aren't treated as meatheads with a good idea too stupid to program their own site. They made the mistake of imparting too much of their idea to someone who dealt with them unethically. They're bright, thoughtful young men who resist legal action until they exhaust all other possible avenues. What's more, they're afforded some of the movie's best lines ("I'm 6'5", 220 pounds, and there are two of me."). They're no sooner vilified than Zuckerberg is.
In the end, Mark Zukerberg may not be the hero, but he's not the villain either. When Sean Parker, Napster creator and Facebook partner portrayed by Justin Timberlake, asks Zuckerberg to pull a prank on a company he swears screwed him in some way, we never see the results. Zuckerberg leaves the frame, and the movie doesn't follow him. In a way, it can't. That scene would be part of The Mark Zuckerberg Story, and we're squarely in Sean Parker territory.
There are many Zuckerbergs and no Zuckerbergs in this movie. To Saverin, he's presented as a lovelorn creep who created Facebook to get the attention of the final clubs and cuts down those who stand in his way once he eclipses those clubs. To the Winklevosses, he's the thief who used their idea to become a billionaire. To the movie, though, Zuckerberg is all of those things and more. To boil him down to scenes that aren't tainted by someone else's testimony, Mark Zuckerberg is a young man whose genius, greed, ambition, and wounded pride pushed him to do some things that made him a billionaire and others that he now deeply regrets. He's not the first person to think that entrance to an old money club or society at an Ivy League school would give him certain advantages. He is, however, the first to discover the advantages of being the youngest billionaire ever.
In our era of competing 24-hour news cycles and endless gossip blogs, no one believes in single source truth anymore. Everything we see is only part of the story. It's next to impossible that someone is going to go into a screening of The Social Network without some idea that what they are going to see is a dramatization. If anything, that foreknowledge is freeing. While countless hours of research and preparation no doubt went into the movie on the part of its filmmakers, it doesn't matter how close they come to or how far they stray from the literal truth. In their fiction, they've achieved something just as important: literary truth.
Tags: aaron sorkin, andrew garfield, armie hammer, balance, cinema, david fincher, eduardo saverin, facebook, jesse eisenberg, justin timberlake, mark zuckerberg, max minghella, napster, sean parker, the social network, truth