Monday, October 4, 2010

Rants on The Social Network

Truth plays an important role in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Did Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), founder of Facebook, steal the original idea for the site from Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, two all-American rower twins, and their best friend, Divya Narendra? Did Mark maliciously drive his best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) out of the business through an underhanded business transaction? Was Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), guiding hand to Mark after the initial success of the project, the one to convince him to dump Eduardo? The Social Network raises all of these questions and, thankfully, the film refuses to answer them as well. There are plenty of reasons why Fincher, writer Aaron Sorkin and company are unforthcoming with what exactly went down between these characters but perhaps the biggest is also the simplest: no one knows the truth. The lack of what constitutes “the truth” in The Social Network really sets off the film’s detractors, who are angry that the filmmakers did not get certain facts correct or that certain characters do not resemble their real life counterparts. To complain about this, however, is to completely miss the point of the movie. Fincher and Sorkin are not interested in perfectly recreating history like this was some Oscar bait biopic about an artist with a physical handicap; they relish the moments of ambiguity, the way the story of the founding of Facebook does not have a clear trajectory. As one character says about deposition testimony, 85% of the memories are greatly exaggerated while the other 15% are complete bullshit. One cannot expect a typical biopic when you’re dealing with a story that is all about exaggerated memories and unclear motivations spurned on by unhealed emotional wounds.

The character most affected by this ambiguity is, of course, Mark. Fincher and Sorkin have a blast playing with his role in the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. He starts off quite obviously as the villain of the piece, where scathing attack after scathing attack are hurled at Mark with reckless abandon from each of the characters. Whether in the flashback scenes at Harvard or in the present day deposition scenes, where we realize that the Winklevoss twins, Divya and Eduardo are all suing Mark, smug, superior and self-satisfied when delivering his testimony, for their rightful part of the company, The Social Network wants to position Mark as the bad guy, no ifs, ands or buts. As the film progresses, though, and more and more of the supporting characters’ motives are revealed, Mark’s villain status becomes murkier. Were the Winklevii, as Mark snarkily calls them at one point, and Divya in the right for suing Mark, or were they actually jealous of the fact that he had found a way to make an extremely successful, highly-functioning social networking site and, for the first time, “things didn’t go according to plan”? Did Mark in fact steal the program, or was his chair analogy—just because you invent a chair does not mean that you can claim copyright to every chair afterwards—on point? And was the motivation for kicking Eduardo out of the company revenge-based as Eduardo suggests after discovering the bad news? Was Mark, who Eduardo had previously admitted did not care about money, even involved in the whole affair? The answer is not so clear anymore and leads to a far more interesting film than one with a pat resolution or more decisive black/white reading of the characters would have been.

Even without the duality and consistent flip-flopping of these dilemmas, the Mark Zuckerberg character is an enigma through and through. Even the ones closest to him are unable to read his moods or predict what his reaction to any particular situation will be. When we first meet Eduardo, he is coming to the aid of Mark after hearing that his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Eduardo invites Mark to share his sorrow, practically begs for it in fact, but Mark, who had worked through his feelings through blogging and creating a website that ranks the hotness of the girls of Harvard, looks at him as if he does not understand why he would need to do that. He has quickly moved on to the next thing and has no need to reflect on that experience again. As if Mark’s not enough of a cipher on his own, The Social Network presents him in Citizen Kane-like fashion where each of the characters around him remembers him in a different and distinct way. In the opening scene, Mark is in the middle of a His Girl Friday-style rapid-fire conversation with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) about everything from taking the SATs in China to getting into one of Harvard’s prestigious Final Clubs. Mark is animated, jumping around from one topic to the next so quickly that Erica is always three questions behind. He is perhaps more animated here than he is with any other character in the film, although it is more likely a symptom of nervousness than because he is truly involved with the conversation. Mark is also always on the defensive, looking for ways to attack Erica first before she can hurt him, which prompts her to say as she dumps him, “But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

With Eduardo, Mark is freer to be himself, to be lost in his own little world 90 percent of the time. Because Eduardo is accepting of this behavior and will not call him out on it, Mark can act this way. Eduardo knows to tiptoe around every sensitive subject and seems to understand Mark’s inability to offer praise and congratulations when something good happens to him (although you can tell that Eduardo wishes just once Mark would surprise him). For example, when Eduardo comes to tell Mark that he made the second cut to get into one of the Final Clubs, he approaches the conversation methodically. Instead of openly admitting, “Hey, I made the second cut!” Eduardo tosses the information out with a self-effacing tone, as in “I don’t know how in the hell I got in. It must have been a clerical error rather than because they truly want me to be a part of their club.” Later on in the film, Mark also loses his temper at Eduardo when he, in a fit of anger when Mark was allowing Sean to set up investment meetings behind his back, freezes the account that Mark was using to finance the company. Andrew Garfield is perfectly cast in the role of Eduardo, for he proved in Boy A that he is at his best juggling 14 emotions at once. With Mark as his screen partner in a good majority of his scenes, Garfield is really put to the test since he needs to work on three different levels of caution just talking to him in a normal conversation. And when he’s speaking with Mark in the aforementioned scene, not only is he dealing with that while trying to explain his position, he also has his crazy girlfriend, who has just burst through the door uninvited, in the other room, lighting the present he just bought her on fire. With so much going on, it is no doubt that it is Garfield’s best scene of the film.

When Sean Parker enters the life of Mark, he is immediately accepted as a sort of god. Sean thumbed his nose at the music industry and earned a reputation for not playing ball with the bigwigs in Silicon Valley. Mark highly respects him for this and treats everything that he says like scripture. During their initial meeting in a sushi restaurant in New York, Sean regales Mark, Eduardo and Eduardo’s girlfriend with tales from the days of Napster and his spectacular fall from his second start-up company. Eduardo thinks he is full of shit and finds him to be slightly paranoid, but Mark is captivated by him and finds Eduardo’s reservations unfounded. As the film wears on, Sean becomes the devil on Mark’s shoulder and, in a way, could be seen as the catalyst that ultimately drives apart Mark and Eduardo. One way of looking at the situation is that Sean seduces Mark with the good life and everything that could come to him if he ignored Eduardo’s “lame” advice and waited just a bit. There’s a scene that takes place in a club (with sound design that reminded me of the club scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, oddly enough) in which Sean, surrounded by Victoria’s Secret models and ultra expensive alcohol, tells the story of the founder of Victoria’s Secret who sold the company for $4 million only to have it valued two years later at somewhere close to $500 million. His message is clear: bide your time and the rewards will be larger.

With a character as complex as Mark Zuckerberg, it might appear strange that Jesse Eisenberg, best known for being an awkward smartass in the shadow of Michael Cera, was cast in the role. But in The Social Network, Eisenberg is really able to push the boundaries of his persona to the breaking point. The deep furrow that takes residency on his face throughout the film becomes a part of Mark’s enigma; his face becomes an unreadable mask and you have no idea how the outside world is affecting him. But, then again, there is no outside world to Mark besides Facebook. He becomes so focused on it that even the relationships he once maintained, as flimsy or difficult as they were for him, get pushed to the background. Thankfully, though, Eisenberg does not completely rely on this blank mask to do all the work. There are flashes in several important scenes where you see the guard come down and find a vulnerable human being. In the opening scene again, Erica at one point says something quite rude (albeit totally on point and appropriate) to him and he visibly winces for the briefest amount of time. It’s a crack in the façade, but it proves that Eisenberg is still fully aware within each moment of the film. For a character that was so thinly characterized and completely obtuse in the source material, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, Eisenberg does a hell of a job at finding ways to integrate his own persona (the funniest bit of the entire movie is when he checks the math of one of the lawyers: “One second…yes, $19,000 is what I got, too.”) into the uneasiness and impenetrability of Mark. In a film filled with unsolved mysteries, Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is the biggest question mark of them all. A-


RJ said...

What I appreciated was that Sorkin and Fincher were careful to present everyone's argument balanced. I could see Eduardo's point in that he was with the company from the beginning, but I could also see Mark and Sean's point that, had Facebook followed Eduardo's lead, it probably never would have become the success it is today.

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