A film review by Craig J. Koban October 12, 2010

Rank:  #22


2010, PG-13, 120 mins.


Jesse Eisenberg: Mark Zuckerberg  / Andrew Garfield: Eduardo Saverin / Justin Timberlake: Sean Parker / Armie Hammer: Tyler Winklevoss/Cameron Winklevoss / Rooney Mara: Erica Albright / Rashida Jones: Marylin Delpy

Directed by David Fincher / Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the 2009 book THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES: THE FOUNDING OF FACEBOOK, A TALE OF SEX, MONEY, GENIUS, AND BETRAYAL by Ben Mezrich

At one point in David Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK a young lawyer (Rashida Jones) quietly confronts Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg).   “You’re not an asshole,” she calmly inflects, “You’re just trying so hard to be one.” 

She has a very good point, which is made all the more apparent during the ingeniously executed and scripted opening scene of the film, which under screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s hands is a masterful nine-minute verbal ballet of low key and slowly festering hostility.  We are in a dark Cambridge bar in the early 2000’s where we see Zuckerberg on a drink date with his girlfriend, Erica (the rock solid Rooney Mara, soon to be a household name when she appears in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO remake next year).  This is not a cordial date between the pair; it’s a pathetic show put on by Zuckerberg where he self-indulgently vents out to his girlfriend about how every aspect of the Harvard elitist society is shunning him because he is not one of them.  

This guy does not just speak his words, he is borderline assaultive with how rapidly he lashes them out at his innocent companion.  Erica does not hold back either, and when she has had enough of her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend’s obnoxious and self-aggrandizing level of entitlement, she bolts on him.   “You’re going to be successful and rich,” she peacefully retorts, “But you’re going through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek.  That’s not true.  It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  In a fidgety and introverted rage, Zuckerberg is left all alone with his half empty beer glass and a plan.  It is at that moment where he begins to formulate would eventually become the most omnipotent and influential social networking site in the world, one that, by 2010, would have 500 million users (one out of every 14 people in the world) and one that would make the barely in his 20’s Zuckerberg the youngest self-made billionaire in history. 

Well, it was not that easy and swift for him.  The film’s script - based on the 2009 book THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES: THE FOUNDING OF FACEBOOK, A TALE OF SEX, MONEY, GENIUS, AND BETRAYAL by Ben Mezrich - is told in a semi-RASHOMON flashback structure that shows how Zuckerberg put Facebook together that’s further intercut with a pair of deposition hearings during which he is being sued by two parties – one being a former best friend – that he, for lack of a better phrase, screwed over in some capacity or another.  Regardless of chronology, THE SOCIAL NETWORK shows Zuckerberg as a hauntingly lonely and emotionally isolated figure of determination.   

Hooked by the desire to belong, but also by his dream of what a game changer Facebook could be, Zuckerberg does whatever it takes to push his vision forward.  He's can be an asshole, but in his devious techno-entrepreneurial way he's also an idealist, driven by a force greater than greed or his own ego.  This is a young man that’s fiendishly intelligent, but also intellectually arrogant to the point of making him hopelessly alienated from just about everyone around him.  He lives in a perpetual state of tunnel vision: he oftentimes can't understand why people think he’s a jerk and seems oblivious about why people are angered by his actions.   All he cares about is bringing his idea and concept of Facebook to successful fruition and it did not matter whom he stepped over to make it happen. 

The film is intoxicating and intuitively perspective for how it thrusts us into the college dorm room lives of Zuckerberg and his initial partners in the creation of Facebook, and to say it had humble – if not a bit controversial - beginnings is an understatement.  After being spurred by Erica, Zuckerberg goes home to his dorm in a drunken and juvenile fit and, with the assistance of his BFF and college roommate, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), he proceeds to hack into protected areas of Harvard’s computer mainframe network, steals and copies the house’s private dorm photos of female students, places two images together on his own site and asks users online to vote on which is hotter.  Although puerile in inception, the site he created – which represented some aspects that would later make up Facebook – drew 22,000 photo views in just two hours, which subsequently led to the servers crashing.  Zuckerberg was charged by the administration with breach of security, violating copyright and privacy laws, and faced expulsion, but he smugly – in another brilliant scripted scene – and matter-of-factly informs his disciplinary panel that his hacking should be “recognized” for the holes it revealed in a system that its experts thought was foolproof.  His charges are dropped, but he earns himself several months of academic probation. 

This initial site, called Facemash, made Zuckerberg an instant geek celebrity on campus, but also a notorious leech among the female population.  His site really catches the attention of some Harvard seniors that are looking for Zuckerberg’s talents to help them launch a dating website that has some decided similarities to what would be Facebook.  The seniors are twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoos (Armie Hammer, physically playing one while having his head CGI’ed over the body of Josh Pence, whom from the neck down plays his twin sibling) and Zuckerberg hears their initial ideas and agrees to help them.  Unfortunately for the twins, he does estrange himself from them for several weeks and takes the bare essence of their plan and begins to forge his own concept for Facebook, leaving them completely out of the loop.

Facebook was eventually born and although it was limited to Harvard at first, it later expanded to other Boston colleges and then other universities and then….well…the rest of the planet, and Zuckerberg did this with the assistance of Napstar creator Sean Parker (a deceptively good Justin Timberlake) that manages to get Zuckerberg the capital to get Facebook really off to the races.  The Svengali-like presence of Parker greatly alienates and angers Saverin, who has been making several failed attempts to get financial backing for the company.  Just when the site is on the tip of being an online phenom, Parker conspires with Zuckerberg to sever business ties with Saverin, which destroys Zuckerberg’s only real friendship. 

Part of what makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK so unmistakably intriguing is how completely it tackles the thorny ethical issue of how corrupt and unethical Zuckerberg was in his pursuit to create Facebook.  Did he really put knives into the backs of his best friend Saverin and the Winklevoos (or as he humorously calls them, the “Winklevi”) or did he tread on proper ethical ground?  The important thing to grasp with Sorkin’s script – which highlights his supreme command of snappy, rocket-velocity dialogue exchanges that are so crisp and sharp they could cut glass – is that he creates a fact based structure to the film concocted from multiple points of view that culminates in a dramatic presentation of history.  The whole controversy as to whether the film is ostensibly “fact based” is rubbish; the important thing is how the film is constructed and how well it works, and on the level of presenting the multiple prerogatives of Facebook’s fractured developmental origins, the film is on resoundingly solid ground. 

But, again, did Zuckerberg steal Facebook?  Zuckerberg is played with such an odious edge at times by Eisenberg that you want to find him guilty of the charges, but the film is more layered with its outlook to simplistically point fingers like that, and this is one of the few films that makes you understand the motives and the ideology of a rascally rogue.  Yes, the twins came to Zuckerberg with a basic concept that was arguably similar to Facebook and, yes, Saverin did provide the modest financial backing ($19,000) to get Zuckerberg’s site going.  But, how much of the twins’ idea did Zuckerberg appropriate for his own needs?  The film tantalizes on the definition of intellectual copyright:  Zuckerberg did not steal, in my mind, another person’s “property” (the entire code of Facebook is his own alone) and the idea of a social networking site is surely not a patent (as Zuckerberg rightfully explains at one deposition, “A guy that makes a new chair does not owe money to everyone who ever built a chair.  They came to me with an idea, I had a better one”).   

The conclusion that I arrived at leaving the theatre was that Zuckerberg committed no real crime against the Winklevoos twins…other than being a dishonest prick (he is guilty of misleading them that he was working on their project when he was working on his own, but he did not steal Facebook from them).  Zuckerberg is perhaps more accountable for the backstabbing business politics he engaged in with Parker that lead to some murky legal papers being signed by Saverin that ultimately left him with a miniscule ownership of Facebook (one of the screenplay’s central weaknesses is that it never satisfactorily and cogently explains Saverin’s case against Zuckerberg, other than he was screwed over).  Saverin did provide the business plan and initial backing, so, in hindsight, Zuckerberg’s treatment of him seems cold and remorseless.   

This brings me to another of the film’s minor faults, which is that it takes an awfully long time for viewers to find an emotional portal of rooting interest in the narrative.  Zuckerberg is so criminally anti-social, neurotic, ruthless minded, and egomaniacal at times that it’s really hard to applaud his efforts, and the twins – a couple of filthy stinking rich Harvard students with hurt feelings and wounded egos because their idea was stolen and feel the need for financial restitution – are equally hard to empathize with (the film also does not deal with the overriding ludicrousness of the egregious $65 million dollar payout that Zuckerberg eventually gave them, as revealed in the film’s closing title cards: are “hurt feelings” and a flimsy lawsuit without much ground worth that much?).  Ultimately, I think that sympathy lies with Saverin, who seems like the only decent and well meaning lad of the group, and the way that Garfield (and future Spider-man) plays him as such a wounded and soulfully melancholic victim is inspired.  He’s our emotional conduit into the film’s crazy world of business malfeasance, legal ramblings, and friendship double-crosses. 

David Fincher does an immersive job of centering viewers in the Cambridge (and later Californian) environments that are as cold and oppressive as the film’s characters: he creates a dark and drab lived-in look with the Harvard bars and dorm rooms, and snow-covered outdoor settings that occupy the film.  However, for as technically proficient and savvy as Fincher is with re-creating the world surrounding Zuckerberg and company, there are a few instances where he lets his penchant for artificial movie magic get self-indulgent (some conversational scenes set outdoors during what appears to be frigid Massachusetts’s winter nights uses such obviously phony CGI-breath that it's glaringly distracting).   

Nonetheless, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is not so much Fincher’s film as it is Sorkin’s, as you can feel his voice through every pore of this ambitious and convoluted real life narrative.  The film is also owned by the actors as well, and Eisenberg – who has made a career of playing bright, soft-spoken, and affably shy geeks – deserves serious Oscar consideration for his electrifyingly tour-de force portrayal of a toxically dislikeable nerd that, despite his overt personality faults and disturbingly anti-social behaviour, is portrayed with a remarkable even-handedness.  Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as a distinct asshole, but not a raging thief.  Perhaps even more revelatory is that Eisenberg taps into the twistedly dark ironies of the film through his performance: the final image shows Zuckerberg blankly staring as his laptop screen as he sends a friend request for Erica on his website, the girl that very appropriately dumped him in the opening scene.  He waits…and waits…and waits…to see if she accepts the invite.  She doesn’t. 

The pathetic and sadly paradoxical truth of Facebook is that a friendless dweeb that knew nothing about forming and maintaining human relationships created a multi-billion dollar website that’s all about online human contact.  Even more incongruous is that Facebook has spawned a generation that loves the solitary pleasure of sitting at their PC’s to see what their friends are doing instead of engaging in physical contact with them.  It’s strangely fitting, because the Zuckerberg of Fincher and Sorkin’s intricate social drama may be rich enough to buy multiple people a thousand times over, but he is all alone in the world.     



I am on TWITTER, but I am not on FACEBOOK, which has puzzled not only my friends, but my readers as well.  TWITTER allows me to reveal to strangers what movie news I am following, but I would rather spend time with close friends face-to-face than spend time finding out what they are doing on FACEBOOK. 

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