Some film directors have a theme uniting all or most of their work. These directors pursue source material (or in Christopher Nolan‘s case, generate material) which lets them present preferred concerns with the human condition. Stanley Kubrick dwells on the animal nature of humankind, and certainly its vulnerability. With Peter Weir it’s the presentation of a closed society or a special moment in time, often a society of men. Francis Ford Coppola has made several great films about people who accepted an ethical or moral burden that compelled them to do extraordinary (often terrible) things. Roman Polanski‘s movies often center, as Dennis Lim cleverly observed for the New York Times online, on paranoia; other common elements include an “investment” protected by many collaborators, and yes, an often-unnamed yet strangely-obvious sexual transgression. With the very-pseudomodern Nolan, there is a common theme of fundamental uncertainty about the “reality of the World”–and the unimportance of that reality for authentic and morally-upright living.
David Fincher‘s movies, such as Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and Zodiac, usually deal with seemingly-normal people moved by an obsession with an investigation/performative statement intended to transform either individual lives or (always uncomfortably) society. While it won’t come out until next year, David Fincher’s planned remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo definitely sustains his interest in themes of individual or social-imaginative subversion through an idiosyncratic project.
The Social Network also exemplifies Fincher’s interest in the Great Subversive Thing which emerges from seemingly (but not actually) incidental encounters. This is the (very-dramatized, but still eye-opening) story of the imagining of Facebook–by others and on a modest scale–and its subsequent creation as something very different by brilliant programmer Mark Zuckerberg.
The film has generally landed rave reviews, and unlike Fincher’s critically-acclaimed Zodiac, its popularity matches this critical respect. TV media hype (which I will leave unattributed, as was the initial comment) called The Social Network “the film of the decade.” I disagree, both in terms of the movie’s supreme quality or its role as a statement about its times. First of all, The Social Network isn’t really about its times, it’s about some of the people who made them and why. I’d still say Se7en is Fincher’s best movie and a clearer statement on the 1990s than the current film is about the Aughts; that said, I thought this was a marvelous experience that managed to portray not merely an entrepreneurial spirit, but an amazing moment in which 20-year-olds casually debated how they would change society, and 1 of them proceeded to do it.
While Mark Zuckerberg is and deserves to be the protagonist, the film maintains an admirable ironic distance and sense of equity towards these undergraduate makers of history as they find themselves in conflict–some of which is petty, some of it insurmountable. Zuckerberg is both the protagonist and the antihero, and neither his creativity nor his talent are portrayed as a function of his marginal social status. (David Fincher is not Tim Burton; he is an adult and never blames the normals for the isolation of the exceptional.) Zuckerberg’s solitude is presented in juxtaposition with an undeniable arrogance and lack of empathy. None of those qualities are being celebrated. The aristocratic Winklevoss brothers and their partner Divya Narendra, who sue Zuckerberg for coding his own website in the weeks after agreeing to code a similar but less-ambitious site for them, make very sympathetic characters. The narrative highlights their good faith, sense of grievance towards Zuckerberg, and even apparent ambivalence on taking the step of suing him. Not surprisingly, Cameron Winklevoss expressed his approval of the parts of the film involving the trio.
The only player in these events who is damningly portrayed (besides Eduardo’s girlfriend) is Napster founder Sean Parker, who stimulates Zuckerberg’s often-mild but inexorable me-vs.-them disposition towards competitors. A central conflict emerges between Facebook’s original CFO, Eduardo Saverin, and Parker. Saverin grasps economics right down to models; Zuckerberg’s strange behavior makes capital-raising for Facebook next-to-impossible. Saverin thinks Parker is just trying to key-in to the Next Big Thing when he advises Zuckerberg to move out to Silicon Valley; Zuckerberg’s move actually made good strategic sense. Zuckerberg socializes with other computer programmers easily out there, and Facebook obtains easy capital support entirely without the properly-educated and practical Saverin. All his work aside, Saverin was simply expending his efforts in the wrong place–New York City. A friend of mine recently found a very persuasive blog post which argues that New York City’s incentive structure, infrastructure, and social structure all make financing tech startups almost prohibitively-difficult.
David Fincher has made a complacent, unmoved society a sort of refrain theme, but in his films the plot is always driven by the agents of revolution. The Social Network isn’t about the users of Facebook or the social change wrought by it; it’s about the people who midwifed it, and their interesting inability to share the credit for it, let-alone influence over it. It’s interesting to see the creative lights behind a great idea suing each other for millions–and to find it convincing when the narrative tells me this is really about validation.
The Liberal Ironist would be misleading if he said this movie didn’t do a good job of highlighting some of the uses of social networking sites. The closing scene, for all its simplicity, is effective for this reason: If you’ll indulge this resort to cliché, the closing angst really isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, it’s about us.