Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is one of those on the outside. Early in the film he despairs, “how do I distinguish myself when I’m surrounded by people who all got 1600 on their SATs?” He sees induction into a final club as being his ticket to greater things in life, and he pictures (fantasizes?) soirees in which Harvard’s best and brightest bus in stunning young women for all sorts of decadent activities. Meanwhile, the best Mark can manage is to get into a Jewish frat that holds kitschy “Caribbean nights.” It doesn’t help that Mark is lacking in social acumen- the movie’s first scene finds him talking circles around his girlfriend, belittling her college (“Why do you need to study? You go to BU”), and insinuating that she slept with the doorman.

Naturally, the girl in question calls Mark an asshole and breaks up with him, which prompts Mark to get drunk, post nasty remarks about her to his blog, and extrapolate his feelings about her into a resentment toward all the women around him by starting a blog called “Facemash”, which asked visitors to compare the relative hotness of Harvard’s coeds. The stunt ended up crashing Harvard’s servers and landing Mark in hot water with the school’s administration, but it also made him a celebrity on campus and attracted the attention of a trio of popular seniors, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The three of them approach Mark to assist them with an idea of theirs, called The Harvard Connection, which would connect Harvard men to connect with interested women, since “women want to go with guys who go to Harvard.” Mark, of course, accepts.

It’s the so-called “Winklevii” who present the movie’s strongest contrast to Mark. Whereas Mark is average in stature and appearance, the Winklevii are practically Aryan poster boys (“I’m 6’5”, 220 pounds, and there’s two of me”). Likewise, the Winklevii are rich kids, honors students, and star, Olympic-bound rowers on Harvard’s celebrated crew team. Divya appears to be formidable unto himself, but he’s practically the Winklevii’s sidekick. Perhaps most importantly, all three are longstanding members of one of Harvard’s most elite final clubs, and when they propose their idea to Mark they’re only able to take him into the club as far as “the bike room.”

So why does Mark take the Winklevii and Navendra up on their idea only to turn his back on them almost instantaneously to pursue what would eventually become Facebook? According to the Winklevii, Facebook was a ripoff of their Harvard Connection concept, but I don’t see that many similarities to be honest. On the basis of The Social Network, Mark didn’t steal the concept so much as turn it upside down. Whereas the Winklevii were two of Harvard’s golden boys, Mark was an outsider in almost every sense. He saw The Harvard Connection as reinforcing the sense of entitlement that the Winklevii and their peers felt at being rich, smart, and popular. While he and guys like him yearned to be accepted into the Winklevii’s sphere, he also resented their eagerness to trade on the irresistibility of their lifestyle, while employing someone else to do most of the leg work. All this, of course, in the guise of “rehabilitating Mark’s image”, to use the Winklevii’s condescending phrase. What they don’t realize is that Mark won’t be condescended to- not by Harvard’s chief of security, not by the Winklevii’s smug attorney, not even by the golden boys of a final club Mark wishes to join.

The Harvard Connection was basically another way for the Winklevii and those like them to confirm their awesomeness by trumpeting the irresistible allure of the Harvard name to women who were in the market for the most eligible men out there. Like so many aspects of their blessed lives, it was defined by its exclusionary nature. But although Facebook was only available at certain college in its early years, any student who attended those colleges could join. Consequently, Mark’s creation of Facebook feels like a raised middle finger to the Winklevii and their cocoon of privilege. When asked why the Winklevii filed the suit, Mark posits that “for the first time in their lives things didn’t turn out as they’d planned.” In short, they weren’t the golden boys anymore. We see the Winklevii competing in one of the world’s toniest upper-crust sporting events, the Henley Regatta, and their hard-fought loss to the Dutch crew team feels like small potatoes to them after they’re told that video from the race had already been posted on Facebook. In response, the Winklevii (who had previously tried to be honorable about the whole thing because they thought it was the Harvard way to be) show their true colors by saying, “let’s get this frickin’ nerd.”

Of course, it would be much easier to root for Mark Zuckerberg if The Social Network it was just about him beating a matching pair of Teutonic stuffed shirts at their own game. But Mark is too prickly a character for that. Fincher and Sorkin contrast Mark’s difficulties with the Winklevii with a very different lawsuit filed by his Facebook co-founder and former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, very good). As Mark worked on the coding and design of Facebook, Eduardo supplied his business savvy, first supplying some of his own money before venturing out to find advertising revenue.

Unfortunately for Eduardo, advertising didn’t mesh well with Mark’s image for Facebook, which was “cool” precisely because it wasn’t plastered with ads. So when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) swooped in to hook Mark up with his venture capitalist friends, Eduardo found himself being forced out of a business he’s helped start and into which he’d poured much of his money and energy. Once again, there are some class dynamics in play- Saverin was a buttoned-down prep school graduate, whereas Parker was a self-made Silicon Valley rock star who lived fast and seemed less interested in making money than staying on the edge. The difference between Eduardo and the Winklevii is that Eduardo honestly cares about Facebook. The business with the Winklevii was just that- business- but Eduardo comes off almost like a jilted lover. In fact, during his final deposition, Eduardo can’t even bear to look Mark in the face, turning his chair around and gazing out the window with tears in his eyes.

The Social Network is the most impressive Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year, with a whip-smart screenplay, stellar filmmaking, and impeccable performances across the board. Eisenberg’s work as Zuckerberg is light years from the affable nebbishes he usually plays, and the supporting cast- yes, even Justin Timberlake- is first-rate across the board. But honestly, I think I’ve said plenty about the movie already. Not only are the film’s other pleasures articulated clearly by some of the other reviews out there, but this is such a deep film that it will take multiple viewings just for me to absorb everything it has to offer. And who knows- maybe after I revisit it, I’ll bump this rating up even higher.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

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