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October 3, 2010

Facebook takes a backseat in Facebook: The Movie

Maybe you’ve already heard the story of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a nicely-structured narrative, one of the hero’s ascent from drunken journal-posting, ethnic frat-going ignominy all the way to such rewards as fame, casual oral sex from Asian girls, snorting drugs off the fronts of Stanford girls, and the general satisfaction of being the youngest 6.9 billionaire ever.

The tale would be completely inspiring, except that our hero is also an asshole. By the end of David Fincher’s The Social Network, the man who made “friend” into a verb is being sued by his former best friend, and he is (justifiably) completely alone.

Fincher, who most famously directed Fight Club, as well as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, tends to make films in which every shot is painstakingly fine-tuned. And the film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, who gained screenwriting fame with The West Wing, tends to write screenplays in which every character is effortlessly clever. Together, they’ve created a very entertaining movie that is also one of the most accurate depictions of the social life of people currently in their early to mid-twenties.

As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg continues to refine the awkward type for which he is so often cast. He plays the college student with an inscrutable stare, causing viewers to wonder whether Zuckerberg’s standoffishness comes from some protective instinct or if there is simply no empathy behind those eyes. Andrew Garfield as Eduardo, the double-crossed friend, is clean-shaven and trusting. He gets really excited about futures trading. You probably know someone like him. Then there’s Napster founder, eventual Facebook president, and all-in-all S.O.B. Sean Parker, played to such excellence by Justin Timberlake that you soon forget you’re watching, well, Justin Timberlake.

While viewers from the right educational class will find every dorm room scene and pub encounter in The Social Network to have a documentary-like verisimilitude, many more will no doubt leave with the feeling of having glimpsed a staged, rarefied world. It would be a shame, however, to focus any discussion of the film on its Harvard setting. The story of the evolution of Facebook and its founder’s incredible self-advancement goes beyond the class tensions encapsulated in the film and instead demonstrates the selfishness that can be magnified when communication is depersonalized.

The Zuckerberg of The Social Network is always slightly apart from social contact. In a dramatization of the early programming of the site, the film guesses at how, exactly, he re-made online interaction in his own way. It’s not always an empathetic space. So, what about the real Mark Zuckerberg? Perhaps not coincidentally, the day before the premiere of this less-than-flattering portrayal, he donated $100 million to the Newark school system. But he, too, is only secondary to an appreciation of this film.

Although Sorkin himself has said that he has no idea what young people are like, the thing that’s so devastating about this script and this film is that Sorkin and Fincher have got it right about how it feels to be young, exceedingly smart, and engaged in a more or less constant contest of one-upmanship. Though the rest of us might not be as smart as he is, we are equally capable of cruelty. So it doesn’t matter if you don’t really care for Facebook, or even if you have an account: You still need to see this movie.

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