At the Movies

Michael Wood

David Fincher’s The Social Network, which tells the story of Facebook, is fast and intelligent and mean, a sort of screwball comedy without the laughs. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include The West Wing and A Few Good Men, and based on a novelised history by Ben Mezrich, The Accidental Billionaires. As long as it stays with the details of its tale – the faces, the clothes, the dialogue, the rooms, the parties, the sleek restaurants – the movie seems both restrained and sure-footed, willing to leave the thinking and the conclusions to us. But its larger plot movements are strangely dedicated to an insistence on two intriguing but evasive fables. One says that genius needs humiliation to get it going: so much so that the humiliation may be more important than the genius, a nicely faux-democratic message. The other says you can only make real money, money beyond dreams as distinct from just a lot of ordinary money, if you don’t care about wealth at all. Genius doesn’t calculate, even when it’s a computational genius.

The film’s best line appears in a long, intense, information-crowded conversation before the credits. Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard, is sitting in a bar with a girl from the far less classy Boston University and boasting about his implausible chances of getting into one of Harvard’s fancy and exclusive social clubs. Once he’s in, he says, he’ll be able to introduce her to a better class of people than the ones she knows. For some reason the girl, Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara, doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion, and the mood goes from lousy to worse. Finally she gets up and leaves, telling him that he will go through life believing that people don’t like him because he’s a nerd. This won’t be true. They won’t like him because he’s an asshole.

Zuckerberg trots back to his dorm room and proves by inventing Facebook that Erica is absolutely right. No, that’s not quite the film’s line of argument, but it is largely what it shows us and a late attempt at a revision of Erica’s line lends it a weird retrospective authority. Just before the movie ends, a woman lawyer who has been present at the depositions regarding various suits against Zuckerberg and what he stole from or owed to whom, looks at our lonely hero, forlorn and with only his computer to befriend him, and says: ‘You know, you’re not really an asshole, you’re just trying so hard to be one.’ Then comes a truly mawkish moment. Zuckerberg hesitates, then types onto his Facebook page a version of the request that millions are now making and receiving every day: will Erica be his friend? No answer, film ends. Just as we’re wondering whether this little scene wouldn’t have been too soppy for David Selznick let alone David Fincher, a text crawls up the screen telling us how much Zuckerberg settled for: $65 million in one case, an ‘undisclosed amount’ in another. Facebook, the text informs us, is worth 26 billion. This is just a grand old American story after all. Nice guys finish last and assholes finish rich. If you’re feeling sentimental, you can ask the key, corny question. Yes, but are they happy?

Of course a lot happens between Erica’s insult and this ending, and what humanises Zuckerberg in the movie is the possibility that he’s so angry not because Erica has upped and left him, but because she had the last word and she’s smarter than he is. He can’t have this. When he gets back to his room, he drops a few sexist and ethnic slurs about Erica onto his blog for all who care to see, toys with inventing a web-game where people – I mean male students – are invited to compare pictures of girls with pictures of animals, and then settles for devising another game called Facemash. This involves hacking into the records of the university’s residence halls, collecting photographs of all the female students, and putting them up on the screen in pairs. The game is really subtle. The guys just say which of the two girls is ‘hotter’, and chortle away. The game is so successful that before the night is over Harvard’s computer system has crashed and Zuckerberg is famous.

Enter the Winklevoss brothers. These are two athletes, rowers, members of an elite that will never admit Zuckerberg even into its environs, who are looking for a programmer for an idea they have: a computer-based social network trading on the snob value of Harvard’s name, an extended electronic version, in other words, of the system Zuckerberg was describing to Erica. They contact Zuckerberg, who says he’ll work with them but does nothing but stall them for a month or two. Meanwhile he invents his own social network, and calls it The Facebook – later he drops the ‘the’. He and his friends, notably Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield, who puts a little money into the venture, start to include other universities in the system, including places on the West Coast, and well before the end of the movie, the network has gone international. The Winklevoss brothers learn about it just after they have narrowly lost a race at Henley. Close but no cigar; just the news that the locals too have Facebook.

Did Zuckerberg steal the Winklevosses’ idea? They think so, and the $65 million they received in the settlement suggests there was something ($65 million, to be precise) in the thought. Zuckerberg’s position is that he so transformed a lame, provincial project that he can’t possibly be taken as having nicked it: this would be like saying Shakespeare stole Macbeth from Holinshed, or Newton stole gravity from the apple. The case of Saverin is rather different. At the centre of the movie, with flashbacks radiating out from it, is the room where the depositions are being heard in the two cases. Saverin lent Facebook more and more money, and was CFO of the company. However, once Zuckerberg had met the charismatic Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), and moved to California, Saverin was edged out, and the film pictures him as the model of East Coast caution trumped by West Coast cool. Parker is the real-life inventor of Napster, a music-piracy system whose failure did more damage to the recording industry than even its success could have done, and what Zuckerberg likes about him is not just his savoir-faire, the sort of fast style that makes the poshest Harvard club look like a garden party, but his sense of risk and the future. Saverin too is suing Zuckerberg, ostensibly for cheating him out of the continuing profits but in movie terms for betraying the only friend he has.

The acting in the movie is quite wonderful, very disciplined and focused. Timberlake as Parker is charming, funny, reckless, even dangerous, but also nervous, an ex-nerd who hasn’t entirely forgotten his past. The film’s second-best moment, after Erica’s early line, comes when Parker announces at a party, as everything is being filmed, that soon all our lives will instantly be on the internet. Two minutes later the police burst into the apartment and take him off for snorting cocaine. Did somebody set him up? Saverin out of envy and revenge? Zuckerberg because he thought Parker was putting the company at risk?

Garfield is good as Saverin: sympathetic, decent, but limited, and easily made to feel inferior, a nice guy who won’t finish last but won’t be near the front either. The triumph of the movie is Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg. He manages that stolid, stubborn, stupid look that clever people often have, and when his expression changes, which is not often, we may think he is getting angry. But then Eisenberg’s closed manner robs us of any confidence that we can read any of his expressions. This is the whole trick of the performance. We can’t gauge the expression, yet our curiosity forces us to do something with a face that is held so long and so often in front of our eyes. So we keep guessing. Was that almost a smile, and if so, what did it mean? Contempt? Some milder form of amusement at the idiocy of others? Some of our guesses are irresistible, and might even be right. Zuckerberg’s social awkwardness, presumably real enough at one stage, has become a style, a mask, an aggressive pose. His confidence in his own intelligence, and his conviction that he owes nothing to anyone, least of all any sort of obligation to be nice to them, come across very clearly whatever expression is on his face, and his only weakness, it seems, is a defensive impatience: he just can’t afford to think anyone else has a mind that matters. He is a monster of sorts, and like all monsters, a mirror of something that humans want or need or fear. Certainly it’s as a monster that he is compelling, and that’s why the attempt to reduce him to a little boy lost, just a nerd after all, is so craven, a shameless reaching out for the Oscar-worthy stereotype.