The other day I watched The Social Network as part of research for a script I was working on. I thought the film was pretty good overall, and that it presents a depressingly perceptive image of the world we live in.
The film purports to tell the story of how Facebook got started, with Harvard computer science student Mark Zuckerberg turning a drunken tantrum about breaking up with his girlfriend into a viral website for rating girls’ ‘hotness’, which through various influences and turns became the social network we know and endure today. Along the way, Mark alienates or betrays every decent person around him – his girlfriend, Erika, his initial backers, the Winklevoss twins, and finally his best friend and co-founder Eduardo – while building a multimillion-dollar company seemingly overnight. The movie is framed as being flashbacks during testimony related to the lawsuits being brought against him by the latter two parties.
Like I say, the film is very good throughout; the performances are uniformly excellent (I was especially impressed by Arnie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins), and the story, while a little tough to follow at first due to the odd structure – it would have helped to distinguish the main story from the framing device if Zuckerberg post-Facebook was in any way visually or behaviorally distinct from Zuckerberg pre-Facebook – is decently told (To be clear, I have no idea what the true story is and am basing this solely on the film as a film).
For me, there is one glaring problem with the film, and it is Zuckerberg himself. You see, there’s a part near the end where one character tells him, “You’re not an asshole.” My immediate response was, “Yeah, he really is.” And that’s the problem.
Not that you can’t have a film centered around a rotten human being, but the film itself can’t pretend he’s anything else. This one seemed, in its last moments, to be attempting to do that, and it did not work at all. Zuckerberg is simply too much of a prick to remain sympathetic. Pitiable, yes, but not sympathetic.
Let me try to explain: Zuckerberg in this film (and, as far as I know, in real life) is an asocial genius nerd who can create brilliant code and come up with revolutionary ideas, but has no idea how to interact with people. Now, I am an asocial nerd who has trouble interacting with people. So are a lot of my friends. But I had no sympathy for Zuckerberg because he was also incredibly arrogant, self-centered, and, above all, duplicitous. He wasn’t confused or intimidated by normal human behavior; he was contemptuous of it and seemed to think that his achievements meant that he was above such concerns and that he was entitled to the appreciation and respect of others for it (when he’s called before a disciplining committee for crashing the Harvard network with his ‘Facemash’ site, he boldly states that he thinks he deserves praise for showing the weaknesses in the network).
Now, contrast this with, say Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist (speaking only of the film for comparison purposes). He too was an eccentric loner who had no idea how to interact with normal people, and who could often be very unpleasant. But Wiseau remained sympathetic despite his bad behavior because he was fundamentally the underdog. He’s completely untalented, but earnestly determined, and despite how much of an ass he is we still feel for him because we know he’s destined to be humiliated in the end. Zuckerberg effortlessly trounces everyone in his chosen field and seems to think this justifies any and all breaches of etiquette and morality, meaning that we – or at least I – want him to get taken down a peg and be made to see what a jerk he is.
Also, The Disaster Artist showed Wiseau partially recognizing his bad behavior; it showed him faintly desperate and confused when it seemed like he might lose his only friend, and it even ended with him asking Greg why he puts up with him. Tommy showed vulnerability and a modicum of self-awareness.
Now, Zuckerberg does show some vulnerability, mostly revolving around Erica and his inability to get over her, but it comes across less as an actual recognition that there is something wrong with him than frustrated entitlement: as if he doesn’t get why she doesn’t want to be with him and is still blaming her.
Finally, and most importantly, Tommy actually cared about Greg. He was controlling and selfish, but ultimately in his confused way he did appreciate his best friend’s place in his life. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care about Eduardo as anything but a source of revenue and stabs him in the back as soon as he doesn’t need him anymore.
Put it this way; as an asocial nerd, I feel that Zuckerberg, as depicted in this film, violated the ‘rules’ of being such a person. He’s not just a jerk from a normal person’s perspective, but from an eccentric loner’s perspective. Between his duplicity and his arrogant sense of entitlement, I simply couldn’t sympathize with him. At best, he’s a pathetic figure whose own warped personality dooms to a deserved unhappiness. At worst, he’s a terrible person who damages every life that comes his way and expects to be rewarded for it.
That’s the problem with the film; the central character is completely unsympathetic and the film doesn’t seem aware of just how unlikable he is. We might feel some pity for him as he gropes helplessly at a world of normal human affection that he has cut himself off from, we can’t really sympathize with him. Or at least I couldn’t.
It might also be in part because the end result of all this backstabbing, dishonesty, and arrogance is…Facebook. This may just be a personal reaction, but I don’t consider Facebook to be an especially noble or impressive contribution to the human race. Like the rest of social media, it’s a shallow and mixed blessing at best. Basically, when Zuckerberg preens himself on having been the genius who invented Facebook and therefore is above reproach, it comes across as slightly pathetic.
On that note, I found The Social Network most interesting as a picture of our times; hedonistic, self-absorbed, and shallow, with the best people on screen either desperately trying to cling to some semblance of a standard in a world that is constantly ignoring them or else groping in the dark sincerely trying to figure out what the right thing is with nothing and no one to guide them. It’s a sad image, and Zuckerberg seems right at home in it, though not as much so as Sean Parker, inventor of Napster and even more pathetically hateful than Zuckerberg.
My favorite moments were either involving the Winklevoss twins, whom I found to be genuinely likable characters in their frustrated decency. I liked when one of them actually appeals to a code of gentlemanly conduct in how they should respond to Zuckerberg’s theft (I also like how Zuckerberg tries to justify his stealing their idea by sneering at their ‘privilege’ as if that were relevant), or the times when Zuckerberg got his comeuppance, like when Eduardo reaches the end of his patience and, finding Zuckerberg is trying to tune him out, grabs his laptop and smashes it on the ground.
(By the way, at the very end, the film tries to pull the ‘unreliable narrator’ card by suggesting that anything or everything we’ve seen might have been lies or exaggeration. Yeah, you don’t get to do that movie. That’s not interesting or thought-provoking; it’s a cheap way of covering your behind. And if I were to take that seriously, the follow-up question would be “then what was the point of the past two hours”? You’re telling the story; have the guts to own what you say).
In the end, I found The Social Network to be a good film, but also kind of depressing. It’s a film that, to my mind, really shows how twisted our world is, in which narcissistic amoral geniuses like Zuckerberg and Parker rule and decent people like Eduardo and the Winklevosses get kicked around at their pleasure, while popular opinion flocks to their side because they offer shallow, hedonistic thrills. Decency, honor, loyalty, and even basic honesty have no place in this world; only money and fashion. Welcome to the Facebook generation.