Monday, October 25, 2010

After "The Social Network", I Quit Facebook--A Movie Review

On rare occasions, while I'm watching a movie, I am aware of its clever pacing, bravura editing,  rhythmic musical interludes, meticulosly written dialogue, and obvious care in its direction and performances;  and yet, because the film and its subject matter are so inextricably entwined, and because I find the subject matter so bleak and depressingly trivial, I ultimately dislike the whole experience.

That, for me, sums up "The Social Network,"a brilliantly made but cold film about the development of the Facebook phenomenon, and the callous degredation practiced on and suffered by everyone involved. Director David Fincher and Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin treat this material with a heavy hand, as though the fate of the world hung in the balance. And while the intricate script, with its transitions between sequences and periods of time, and the rapid-fire editing, are clean and expertly handled, it is all in the service of a topic that often seems as trite as--well, many Facebook entries.

It's a shame because I long for intelligent cinematic portrayals of intelligent, thinking people. 

"The Social Network" is single-minded in its portrayal of the workings of Mark Zuckerberg,  his inept social skills and cool, unsympathetic intelligence, his effect on his friends and business partners, rivals,  and would-be romantic attachments.   The film slavishly chronicles the rapid rise of the site, the intrigues and triumphs and depositions, and deftly flashes back and forth, drenched in technical jargon and edited to a palatable pace. 

Yet nowhere in this story is there a redeeming figure. Yes, there is an eleventh-hour appearance by a sympatheic legal intern.  And one major character displays enough emotion for the whole cast.  But I didn't enjoy spending two hours with calculating, privileged people, as they connive and hurt each other in the name of connecting humanity for the common good.  There was little humanity on display here. The filmmakers take a matter-of-fact tone, and an almost reverent awe in the machinations of Facebook, as though a seeming communications revolution justified the interpersonal emptiness of the world that created it. 

We are meant to believe that it was a deep sense of isolation and loneliness that caused a computer genius to lash out at a former girlfriend, hack into Harvard's computer system, then get high on his own cleverness, and unwittingly create an addictive popular pastime.  The filmmakers try to convince us that there is something profound and sad about this young man's inability to get into the most fashionable clubs, or connect with the "beautiful" people.  But make no mistake:  Zuckerberg is no Charles Foster Kane, whose intricate psychological puzzle was tragic and universal.  Zuckerberg, and his milieu, are merely trendy and unpleasant. 

Jesse Eisenberg plays founder Mark Zuckerberg with eerie consistency.  His character has been stripped of all background; he could have been computer-generated.  Eisenberg gamely performs as directed, and is skilled enough to occasionally suggest the simple yearnings that he is powerless to satisfy.  After a while, though, Eisenberg's furrow-browed, tight-lipped machine-gun delivery becomes a ready-made Mad Magazine parody.

Andrew Garfield is Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's best friend and, ultimately, his betrayed business partner.  Garfield is a wonderful screen presence and acts as the viewer's emotional connection to the film; but he portrays such a nice fellow ultimately shafted by Zuckerberg, that it seems improbable that these two would ever have been friends to begin with. The film, at least, does not make this clear.

Justin Timberlake adds some wicked energy as Napster founder Sean Parker, who is as sleazy in his charm as Zuckerberg is repellent in his lack thereof.  Instead of being fully formed, his character is an archetypal paranoid villain, a plot device.

Handsome Arie Hammer (with help from a digitally enhanced body double) portrays BOTH Winklevoss twins, Harvard big-shots and future rowing Olympians, who attempted to exploit Zuckerberg's talents to help with a social network of their own. Along with Saverin, the Winklevoss twins eventually sued Zuckerberg for their alleged share of the billion-dollar business that they felt cheated out of.

If it were anyone but flashy David Fincher, I would say that casting Hammer to play both twins was an interesting decision that required unique technical and digital solutions.  However, reagrdless of how accomplished the effect is, I think Fincher just wanted to add some Benjamin Button-style magic to an otherwise non-special-effects enterprise.  Nice-looking as he is, Hammer is often wooden here, and ironically indistinguishable from himself; in other words, he does not convince us that he embodies two unique human beings who happen to share the same DNA.

It's another annoying example of the use of technology simply because it's there.

My favorite scenes were those that used music in interesting ways: an extended conversation in a nightclub, in which Zuckerberg is tempted into a lifestyle of glamor;  and a rowing competition in England.  This latter is beautifully shot and edited, although the use of Norway's Edvard Grieg was a stirring but seemingly incongruous choice for a British competition won by Dutch sportsmen.

Overall I find "The Social Network" a harsh, and perhaps unfortunately, accurate, reflection of a closed world consumed by technology.  It also seems to revel in that world, its style seeking to keep the viewer in a state of exultation rather than cautionary reflection.  As a touchstone of an era, it may have its counterpart in "The Graduate" (1967). Whereas Benjamin Braddock struggled to create a future that was "different" from the status quo, and tried to understand the workings of his heart;  Zuckerberg and company, as shown in "The Social Network", want to hoard the status quo, and don't need the companionship of flesh-and-blood friends.

Having lived through decades of seismic social shifts, I have tried to keep up with, and keep open to, rapid movements in technology, and the cultural changes that motivate new generations.  
The original impulse behind Facebook, as portrayed (and approved by implication) in this film, seems to have been one of exclusion and humiliation, and of comparing people to each other in order to demean them.  After observing the suffocating world presented in "The Social Network", a world I would never choose to be a part of, nor support, I deleted my Facebook page.  The world did not end. We will not miss each other.


  1. I won't see this movie mainly because of my refusal to support any Aaron Sorkin project, mainly because he is a thief and a cheat (think he created The American President and The West Wing? Guess again! Both were the brainchild of William Richert, writer/director of A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and Winter Kills. His lawsuit against Sorkin and the WGA is still in progress..)

    Good review, though. A lot more objective than the vapid raves that have been circulating from the major critics. I find that film criticism is slowly turning into vapidity these days.

    Interesting side note: I reluctantly joined Facebook three years ago when a friend urged me to do so. The ironic part is that she ended up defriending me two weeks ago. I'm still on Facebook, mainly to keep in touch with the few friends I have on there left.

  2. Intriguing take. I don't think it revels in its bleak look at what Facebook represents, but it definitely nails the generation -- my generation, in fact. Many of us do want to belong, and at any cost. I guess I do admire Zuckerberg for knowing what makes people tick and being able to use his genius to...I guess exploit is the word. But then again, great filmmakers do the same thing, profit from exploiting people's emotions.

    I completely agree that it's serious, cold, and has few redeeming characters...but I really liked it. Is this our Inception talk all over again? :P

  3. I think true film artists (even in collaboration) can present their vision, and when it is strong enough, viewers cannot help but be moved... Maybe that's what you meant, Walter, by exploiting emotions, although I might not use those exact words.

    I was intrigued by your statements Bill...I was chilled by my instincts, as though there was something fundamentally dishonest, that I could not put my finger on,and it shaded the entire experience.

    I did my best to describe why I found the film such an unhappy experience for me...and it could be that my instincts told me that its vision of the world is unfair...I am sorry that it represents for you, Walter, an accurate picture of a generation..I felt it was unfair to this generation.

    It nails a segment of the population that was given everything it wanted, and wants everything else. These are the people who are fighting to retain their tax
    As a film, I thought this was better than "Inception" by several lengths....if only because it attempted to deal in real-life issues. So, Walter, I hope you and I are still on good terms...I respect your views very much.

    I think the picture will generate a lot of discussion...and as long as we can describe our honest perceptions in words, then we have scceeded as writers.
    Thank you for your great commentaries!

  4. We do disagree on this, don't we Tom.

    I think this film works because it doesn't flinch from the horrific nature of the protagonists and the worlds of priviledge in which they exist.

  5. By the way, any film that makes react in such a definite way as closing your facebook account must be considered a success from that quarter surely?

  6. I think the very existence of the film is a tacit approval, and glorification, of the protagonists and their world. I don't applaud the film for motivating my action to leave facebook. So much care and creative skill devoted to something so meaningless...which everyone involved seems to take so seriously...too bad!