It must be tough being Mark Zuckerberg. “The Social Network” is just the latest bit of bad press after a string of books, magazine articles, editorials and news reports painted him as a cold, detached technocrat who cares little for the privacy of the users of his multi-billion dollar startup. There isn’t really any way for Zuckerberg to catch a break; in the Internet age that Zuckerberg built his fortune on everyone is a critic and everyone has a microphone with which they can share their opinion. Zuckerberg can do no right because no amount of work on his site’s privacy concerns will ever be enough. He can’t do anything right because someone will always be envious (not to mention litigious) of his success and because a $100 million donation will never be enough to erase the (perception of a) fundamental change he has made in the way we communicate with one another.
Really though, Columbia Pictures is creating its own zeitgeist to surround its zeitgeist film. Ironically, they build this zeitgeist not around the enthusiasm for Facebook but around the myth of Mark Zuckerberg as told by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and his source material, the 2009 Ben Mezrich book, “The Accidental Billionaires.” Portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is affectless and detached. He’s out there somewhere, but it’s never entirely clear where. During a deposition he is asked by an attorney representing the Harvard WASPs who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea if he has captured the young entrepreneur’s attention. Zuckerberg responds that his attention is, indeed, elsewhere: the offices of Facebook. But even his self-assured and mocking response to the lawyer’s condescending questions rings a bit false. Thinking about his nascent company would imply that he cares about something. The Zuckerberg presented by Sorkin and director David Fincher doesn’t seem to care for or about anything.
The film’s tone is set immediately as the first scene puts Eisenberg across a table from the girl that dumped him, thus prompting his creation of FaceMash– a Facebook prototype. The two spew pages of dialog about the elite of Harvard in seconds while Fincher, using his typically dark color palate, cuts between the pair with energy to spare. The film poses interesting observations about what drives our online interactions, but ultimately the tying of the creation of Facebook to Zuckerberg’s insecurities is unsatisfying and creates a rather shallow, simplistic impression of him. Sorkin, whose typically acerbic dialog is in top form, is smart to offer few concrete answers regarding the motives of the enigmatic Zuckerberg. For the time being, Mark Zuckerberg will be all things to all people, and Sorkin wisely avoids trying to pin him down. The irony of a young man with few social skills creating a social network is not lost on Sorkin, but his script doesn’t make many cheap shots. The Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” sees himself as the smartest guy in the room, and more often than not he is right.
But that isn’t enough for us to forgive him when he sells out his friend and Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Saverin is rendered as the better angel to Napster founder Sean Parker’s bitter demon (a phenomenal Justin Timberlake). “This is our time,” Parker tells an obviously enthralled Zuckerberg while at a San Francisco club. “This time you’re going to hand them a business card that says, ‘I’m CEO, bitch.'” This voice of imprudence wins out against Saverin’s sensible approach to Facebook’s future. In the climactic confrontation– the film’s best line is saved for this clash: “Sorry, my Prada is at the cleaners, along with my hoodie and my ‘fuck you’ flip-flops, you pretentious douche bag!”– after Saverin smashes Zuckerberg’s computer to bits he channels Jedediah Leland by yelling, “I was your only friend!”
The “Citizen Kane” references don’t fit as well as they might seem, though. The general shape is there, but Fincher and Sorkin have a hard time making the emotional connection from audience to character. Although Zuckerberg, like Kane, loses his personal relationships as he becomes more successful, the story never really hits at a gut level. Fincher’s color scheme and detached style leaves the film feeling frigid, and Sorkin’s script keeps the characters talking but they never say anything revealing.
The trouble is the film isn’t bad. Fincher’s deep-focus photography and fast, take-no-prisoners pace serve the film well and keep everything incredibly exciting. Sorkin’s script is full of spectacular one-liners and the type of quick speak that justifiably earned him praise on “The West Wing.” The performances are universally excellent, from Timberlake (is there anything this man can’t do?) to Garfield to Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is an actor that I’d always had doubts about, but he manages to erase them all here in a wonderfully detached performance. But I just didn’t care when the final credits started to roll. The film never coalesced into the “film that defines a generation.” It’s a film that, much like the website which prompted it, makes things feel closer (and more relevant) than they really are.