Citizen Zuckerberg

The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, directed by David Fincher, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones (2010): If it’s difficult to depict the act of writing onscreen in a way that can show the agony of some people who write to live, it’s almost impossible to depict computer programming. The Social Network gives it a shot, especially in the early going, but it’s still difficult to realize by the end of the film what a terrific programmer Mark Zuckerberg (and secondary character Sean Parker) was when he designed Facebook.

Sorkin’s screenplay, sharp and flat at the same time, imposes a structure and a motivation on Zuckerberg’s story that seems to have been lifted from Citizen Kane, with some modifications. Zuckerberg’s Rosebud is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salender in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the girl who got away and whose dumping of him, in the movie’s logic, rocket-fuels Zuckerberg’s programming engine. The facts of the founding and expansion of Facebook apparently bear almost no resemblance to this movie, but The Social Network does act as an interesting, albeit often one-note, character study and social examination. “It’s all high school,” the parents say in Heathers (1989): welcome to the operating logic behind Facebook!

Jesse Eisenberg gives a nuanced performance in what could have been a pretty dull role. He is stuck with the fact that the movie imagines Zuckerberg as being borderline autistic or, possibly, part-Vulcan. All of the performances are solid. I found myself empathizing with Zuckerberg more than perhaps the filmmakers intended because the people he may or may not have screwed over on his way to social networking history are written as such lazy, whiny idiots. Justin Timberlake captures the partyboy aspect in Napster-creator Sean Parker’s personality, but we never get much of a sense of a keen programming brain at work inside Timberlake’s noggin.

Zuckerberg’s best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, playing a wronged nebbish) , who puts up the first $20,000 or so in financing and is rewarded with being Facebook’s original Chief Financial Officer, steadfastly refuses to move to California with Zuckerberg during the time of the company’s first great expansion, instead diddling around in New York failing (so far as we can tell) to sell advertising. When he’s harshly removed from the company, one can see Zuckerberg’s point: Saverin is a fool.

The hilariously privileged Winklevoss twins, who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea for a Harvard-centric social networking site, are the comic highlight of the movie, bumbling Aryanesque Supermen who, in the funniest scene in the film, get castigated by the President of Harvard for essentially being whiny assholes.

And the Rosebud stuff…well, the way it’s handled here, it’s basically screenwriting 101, where every character has to have a simplistic motivation for everything he or she does. Awkwardly giving Saverin a crazy girlfriend he met because of his Facebook exacerbates the problems of the film’s reductionism: Facebook leads to bad relationships! Give me a break. The Social Network is beautifully shot and edited, and the performances pretty much uniformly strong. Did it get robbed of a Best Picture Oscar? I don’t think so. Recommended.

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