Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) is showing May 27 - June 26, 2018 in the United Kingdom.
“As for security,” Jesse Eisenberg tells some baffled Harvard administrators early into The Social Network, “I believe I deserve some recognition from this board.” Watching Mark Zuckerberg address the US Congress on the Cambridge Analytica data leak scandal nearly eight years after David Fincher’s feature came to life, the line kept playing in my head in a loop. That brief university hearing is the first time in The Social Network that Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is forced to own up to the consequences of his creations; that speech before Congress was possibly the closest real-life Zuckerberg came to reenact it. Take them together, and the two scenes look uncannily similar, each stuffed with antiquated 1.0 humans trying to roast Generation 2.0’s cover boy over things they do not seem to fully grasp, each featuring Eisenberg/Zuckerberg’s ever-motionless eyebrows and ever-emotionless voice mumble an apology—one too imbued with ill-disguised arrogance to really sound convincing.
When Fincher’s film premiered to a cauldron of acclaim and controversy at the 48th New York Film Festival in September 2010, scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin’s final title card said Facebook counted 500 million users, the company was valued at $25 billion, and Zuckerberg had been crowned the world’s youngest billionaire. By the time Facebook’s co-founder and CEO sat before Congress in April this year, the platform had enrolled over 2 billion users, and its value had sky-rocketed to a staggering $500 billion. As Facebook changed, so has the discourse around Fincher’s generation-defining work. Those who have recently revisited The Social Network have either hailed it as a Cassandra-like, eerily prophetic oracle or deflated it as a quaint relic too besotted with its protagonist to adequately question the implications of his creation. Fincher’s work, in essence, is either praised for foreshadowing the way the Internet has become an advertiser’s cornucopia and Zuckerberg its dangerous emperor (remember the way Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker ominously warns Mark over drinks? “They’re scared of me pal, and they’re going to be scared of you”), or slammed for redeeming Zuckerberg’s persona (the socially inept nerd who “tried so hard to be an asshole,” but maybe never really was) while failing to understand just how catastrophic his spite-fueled rise to the top would turn out to be.
Whichever argument you choose to side with, both presuppose that whether or not The Social Network holds up ultimately depends on the creation it documents. They make the fate of Fincher’s film, for better or for worse, depend on that of Zuckerberg’s own. And while there is definitely room to question Sorkin’s decision to bookend that opening and rage-filled altercation between Eisenberg and Rooney Mara's Erica Albright (girls won’t like you because you’re a nerd, but “because you’re an asshole”) with a somewhat problematically near-redemptive finale, and still plenty more to revisit The Social Network in light of Facebook’s troubled last few months, neither argument seem to appreciate that, as much as Fincher’s film may be centered on an ever-expanding, ever-changing cutting edge technology, its foundations rest on timeless tropes.
Zuckerberg and I belong to the same generation—our birthdays are only six years apart—but our worlds couldn’t be more different. The universe Zuckerberg and his fellow twenty-something Ivy League tech-savvy developers are wired in is so alien to me they may as well all belong to some unknown Amazon tribe. So why is it that eight years after The Social Network first came out, the sight of Eisenberg walking through Harvard grounds—revenge stirring inside him, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s melancholic score reverberating above him—still leaves me thrilled with intimate identification?
Speaking to Time with David Fincher ahead of the film’s New York premiere, Sorkin claimed what led him to adapt Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires with feverish enthusiasm was not the opportunity to tackle a generation-defining yet still cinematically under-discussed phenomenon, but the story itself. “There are elements of it that are as old as storytelling: friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, betrayal […] it struck me as a great big classic story.” Part of what makes The Social Network so timeless—and the debates around whether or not it aged well largely irrelevant—is that Sorkin does not reduce these elements to corollaries of Facebook’s creation, but makes Facebook emerge from them.
Zuckerberg’s invention, in Sorkin’s script, originates at the crossroad of a double rejection: a spiteful break-up with Erica and a frustrated quest to enter Harvard’s uber-exclusive Final Clubs. To be sure, Mark does concede the website can serve as a platform where “people can get laid,” but also and far more importantly, he hails it as a place that retains a peculiar sense of exclusivity—a place people would want to belong to. Barred from entering clubs too prestigious to let a nobody in (here’s another aspect of Sorkin’s extraordinary script that deserves greater study: Mark’s awareness of his class vis-à-vis that of the socialites he aspires to hobnob with), Sorkin’s Zuckerberg creates his own. Yes, the twenty-something is a computer nerd who speaks in codes and lacks the most basic social skills, but his motives are universally recognizable. At the heart of Zuckerberg’s ascent is not a quest to make money (in this, Sorkin’s Mark is quite different from Sean “You Know What’s Cool? A Billion Dollars” Parker) but a struggle to be loved and accepted. Sorkin’s bravado was to expose its tragic irony: too busy trying to earn everyone’s admiration, Mark eventually loses the only friend who gave him plenty, Facebook’s co-founder and former CFO, Eduardo Saverin (played with soulful composure by a terrific Andrew Garfield).
This is why I fear readings that square The Social Network with Facebook’s evolution remain problematically misguided. Far from an account of Facebook qua company, The Social Network is first and foremost an intimate look—however fictionalized and embellished—at the people who destroyed each other while creating it. Its strength does not reside so much in the prophecies nestled inside it, but in the way it understands how a friendship can crumble under the weight of ambition, betrayal and jealousy. Its climax is not Facebook’s million members party, but that line Garfield tells Eisenberg with imploring disbelief in an earlier courtroom deposition: “I was your only friend. You had one friend.”
Still, I think this only addresses part of The Social Network’s ageless brilliance. Watching Fincher’s work a few weeks after Zuckerberg’s Congress deposition, I was baffled at the amount of time Fincher’s characters spend inside courtrooms—all the more so considering how viciously addictive those scenes feel. They are meant to be dull and static (they’re depositions, for goodness’ sake!), but vibrate with so much anger and tension to recall some courtroom dramas classics, from 12 Angry Men to Inherit the Wind. They are replete with words, but never feel verbose. They take up considerable scene time, but never feel long. Sorkin’s sharp writing may well be behind their hypnotic charm, but if The Social Network wires you in with the same compelling force Mark’s developers are glued to their computer screens, that is credit to Sorkin’s writing talent as much as Fincher’s ability to turn his words into cinematic delight— and rally a pitch-perfect cast behind his vision.
In The West Wing, Sorkin’s notoriously grandiloquent verbiage was often conveyed through walk-and-talks, with the camera tracking before characters as they paraded through offices and corridors in an effort to ensure dialogues would be delivered in a flux of ever-changing visuals. In The Social Network, Fincher achieves the same effect by resorting to relentless cutting. Characters still converse in impeccably designed sets, but they do not have to move to keep up the scene’s momentum: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s editing does it for them, splitting and patching their conversations through an array of different shots and camera angles. Not only does Fincher ensure the narration never loses steam (especially in the scenes when you’d expect it to), he also turns Mark’s universe into a somewhat accessible and strangely captivating milieu. Watch Garfield write down the algorithm of FaceMash on Mark’s dorm window (a nod to A Beautiful Mind), or Eisenberg organize a vodka-shot-and-hacking party to recruit new Facebook programmers: the scenes may not tell us any more about coding than we already know, but they do bring Mark’s world closer to us—to a dangerously hypnotic extent.
That our distance from that universe is in the end magnetically sealed is ultimately courtesy of a number of career high performances—hovering above them all, Eisenberg’s and Garfield’s. Recalling the casting process toward the end of that Time interview, Fincher claimed Eisenberg did not look or act anything like Zuckerberg (in none of the footage Sorkin and Fincher had access to did Mark speak “anywhere near that fast”), yet Eisenberg’s was “the perfect representation of the character.” If Sorkin crafts an immediately recognizable nerd (enraged, ostracized, academically gifted and socially incompetent), Eisenberg spins it around ever so slightly to embody a markedly different archetype. Placed next to the nerds canonized in countless other classics (think of Brian, the enfant prodige from The Breakfast Club), Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg looks utterly out of place. Sure, he’s still a loner, and one riddled with deep-seated anxieties and insecurities, but he is also shielded with that toxic mix of Ivy League self-righteousness and Silicon Valley bro-ish arrogance that can hardly mask a perpetual smirk. And it’s in Garfield’s heartfelt gaze that his obnoxiousness converges in all its humiliating strength. If Eduardo’s accusations against Mark feel so endearing it is because of the soul-shattered tone Garfield mouths them with—a tone that belies a question he never asks, and yet echoes inside the deposition room like a scream: how could you do it?
Sometimes I wonder if we will ever scoff at Facebook the same way Timberlake/Parker chuckles at his own Napster, as a relic of a different geological era. It’s a question that in the wake of Facebook’s data leaks is becoming all the more pressing, but I do not believe it will ever concern the fate of The Social Network. Whatever the shape Zuckerberg’s creation will assume, Fincher’s work will outlive it. By that I mean: a time may come when the supposedly prophetic look of Sorkin’s script will grow out of date—together with the Internet as we know it—but the timeless tropes at its heart will not, nor will The Social Network ever truly grow old. Perhaps this is the secret of its age-defying beauty. Never mind how radically disruptive future modes of communication will ever be, they’ll still be tied to creation myths as old as storytelling itself.