The big question is “what will Mark Zuckerberg think of The Social Network?” Will he like what is being said about him at the multiplex, which, because it amplifies and magnifies everything in surround sound and Massive-o-Vision, is the most public and uncouth forum for telling an intimate story about private enmities. There’s a definite hint of schadenfreude in the film’s purported laying bare of Zuckerberg’s social ineptitude, his near-autistic inability to engage with friends in ways they can relate and warm to – so the man who made a career out of commoditising other people’s private lives in ways they were ill-prepared to comprehend doesn’t like the way he’s talking about in the pop-cultural echo-chamber? Poor lamb.
Actually, the film is stacked in his favour, with only Eduardo Saverin (played by the eminently sympathetic future Spider-Man) coming off better: Zuckerberg is not friendly, despite his fame arising from his packaging of friendship, but he is preternaturally witty in his defensive verbal quips, outsmarting the more socially and professionally advantaged around him. His accusers, with the exception of Saverin, while not villainised, are emphatically portrayed as the kind of privileged elite we usually find putting nerds in headlocks in movies set at college. His is an automatic underdog story, and you can’t help following the script and feeling for the guy. What does Zuckerberg think of it? Well, according to Aaron Sorkin, the film’s writer, he “really liked the parts he agreed with.”
The Social Network begins with Zuckerberg being told by Rooney Mara‘s Erica Albright, in a cactus-spiky break-up scene, that he is, and most likely will always be, an asshole, and ends with him being told by the next woman to find him attractive outside the noise of his fame and wealth that he is not said asshole. The asshole curse, and its lifting, bookend the story of Zuckerberg’s obsession with being accepted, with cracking the code of social interaction. That end scene also contains the film’s craftiest get-out clause. Rashida Jones, playing a legal assistant observing the case to prove that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook and passed it off as his own, tells him that it doesn’t matter whether the accusations are true or not – the very fact that they’ve been raised has started people thinking about them, and he should just cut his losses, pay out and move on. In other words, the way we take hold of and run with the subject is a discourse independent of Zuckerberg’s control, and even though he might like to think he has a handle on the way people socialise (because he’s made a successful website that seems to do just that), he has no power to influence it. Facebook’s membership stats snowball into an abstracted mass that obliterates the singular contact with an individual that was all he craved in the first place. By concluding on a note of resignation to the forces of hearsay, the film spreads itself a meta-fictional safety net – it opens up the possibility that it is itself part of that circuit of announcement and credence that lets any statement, true or untrue, gain a foothold in the public imagination. Don’t like this version of events? Well, never mind, it’s just a bunch of noise and light ringing in your ears and eyes. Pay it no heed.
Zuckerberg’s story is painted as an epic, futile quest for very little. Biopics usually tell us the stories of people who changed the world, restating as historical events activities that may at the time have been negligible trifles, but there’s a difference between changing the world by granting it what it had been lacking and, as with the “invention” of Facebook, giving the world what it could use but without which it would have carried on regardless. In that sense, The Social Network follows the biopic template that lets you say anything, however unflattering, about a public figure as long as you stress the significance of the enterprise, but then leaves us with the sense that none of this ever mattered. The legal arguments, the muscular dialogue in the mouths of milksop nerds, the astronomically fat numbers and dollar signs make this all seem more urgent than a story about the founding of a website has a right to be, but then there are reminders that all that heft is in the service of a system for letting a man feebly click on a little icon of his desired human. The courtroom’s spectacularly severe cases of unfriending show up the pathetic convenience of Facebook’s impotent imitation of those emotional exchanges. The click, the poke, the ping in your inbox are inadequate approximations of their real-world equivalents. The best indicator of this as an attitudinal spine of the film? While you’re watching The Social Network, count the number of times you see Mark Zuckerberg touch or be touched by another human being.
This could have been a slight, opportunistic story of fashionable things. But David Fincher is too meticulous a film-maker to let anything slip by sloppily, and he reigns in any potential zaniness that might come from the sight of geeks gaining power and influence. With Trent Reznor’s insistent and austere soundtrack adding fuzzy tones that scratch out some of the comforts that might come from such a sassy, cobra-quick script, it all stays grounded by sensible aesthetic selections and perfect timing. Fincher has mostly managed to reign in his tricksy style – he resists the urge to flourish the visual effects that have allowed Armie Hammer to play two twin brothers (it was only halfway through the film, while temporarily bored, that I tumbled to the illusion at all), and though there’s a needlessly stylised tilt-shifted rowing scene at the Henley Regatta, at least it avoids the obvious nervy-cam style that tends to be compulsory for films set in offices these days, in favour of a more sobre, measured style.
Fincher has long been an expert at pointing to the rot around the edges of society, and manages to make Facebook seem like a sickly index of a needy people’s ethical dearth rather than a happy little Farmvillian community (is there even an oblique reference to the site’s real-world disconnect in those running jokes about farm animals?). Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay will hoover up most of the awards and applause, but I can’t be the only one who finds the over-written, impossibly witty banter ultimately trying. There’s not a single stammer or stumble that might lend an extra dash of human frailty to characters who seem supremely sharp, confident and articulate. I could add that the film has an abnormally pronounced lack of interest in the subjectivity of its female characters, and a dishearteningly low opinion of most of them, particularly the roster of “Asian girls” who sprout like prize shrooms wherever money meets nerd. The dramatic trope here is that Zuckerberg’s madly expanding creation was just the natural outcome of his need for inclusion, and attention, his wish to deal at a distance with how people communicate. In tying the public Facebook to the private man, the film almost accidentally confirms it as his invention, an electronic expression of his human lack, a numb cataloguing of human contacts that most of us take for the real thing.