Living in Silicon Valley, one is surrounded by tech heads. Watching the previews for “The Social Network,” I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Great, a movie about a computer engineer who is a gifted programmer but alienates everyone close to him. Oh, and not just any programmer, but Mark Zuckerberg, who created the nigh-ubiquitous Facebook and is a renowned jerk. The previews did not exactly make the film look appealing to me, but I decided to go anyway. Early reviews were lauding it as the film of the decade, and I was highly skeptical — either I’d like it or I’d have the satisfaction of being right.
In the end, it was more of a mixed bag. I am still skeptical when it comes to the idea “The Social Network” being the film of the decade. Certainly it’s very topical, but it suffers from the same problem a lot of Aaron Sorkin’s writing since “The West Wing” does: it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. It’s also about as subtle as a two-by-four to the forehead. It does, however, have the appeal of any great tragedy: watching someone with great talent and a serious flaw progress due to the talent and get taken down due to their flaw. Tragedy is engaging, and “The Social Network” is no exception.
The basic plot is based on public record: Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) got dumped by his girlfriend, went back to his dorm room, got drunk, and in a fit of spurned-boyfriend misogyny coded up a little site called Facemash. It let visitors rank photos of girls from the various Harvard dorms (whose digital face books Zuckerberg hacked into with ease) according to their hotness, and got so many hits that it crashed the network.
Eisenberg is spot-on for the part, capturing the rapid-fire speech, flattened affect, and intensity the part requires. He makes Zuckerberg a fascinating character while simultaneously making it obvious why, by the end of the film, nobody genuinely likes him. Sure, people are drawn to his fame and fortune, but even the young associate lawyer on one of his cases who is kind to him looks at him with pity rather than friendship.
Zuckerberg managed to evade expulsion for the Facemash stunt, but his actions got him noticed. He was approached by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer in a dual role) to work on a Harvard-only social networking site, and in the following weeks he and his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) created the site we now know as Facebook.
Zuckerberg’s complete lack of tact or people skills is obvious from the beginning, and will be familiar to anybody who works in tech — or in any other field that rewards single-minded determination over interpersonal finesse. Ultimately, though he ends up the youngest billionaire on the planet, he manages to alienate pretty much everyone he comes into contact with. The one exception is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a bit of inspired casting). Parker is the entrepreneurial bad boy behind Napster, and he charms Zuckerberg completely before essentially ruining himself and having to be excluded for the sake of the Facebook company.
“The Social Network” alternates between the early-days origin story of Facebook and footage of depositions for the two simultaneous lawsuits Zuckerberg wound up facing: the Winklevoss twins sued him for intellectual property theft and his former best friend, Saverin, sued him over the completely artless way Zuckerberg drove him out of Facebook.
This film is definitely a film of now, and it is in many ways a fascinating spectacle to watch, but for folks who deal with people like Zuckerberg every day, it may, like its protagonist, be more abrasive than enjoyable.