Friday, October 1, 2010

Jeremiah likes "The Social Network" -- Reflections on "The Social Network" (2010)

250 million "friends" and not a friend to be found...

How many friends can a person have?

According to The Social Network -- the Oscar-worthy new film from David Fincher -- the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has exactly zero friends. According to Facebook (as of this paragraph), Mr. Zuckerberg, whom you can't "friend," is currently liked by 799,345 people. For a site that currently connects over 250 million people worldwide, somehow that still doesn't seem like many. How can a man, whose ingenuity and programming skills have brought together so many, still seem so alone?

The Social Network works to understand Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and the script, written by West Wing genius Aaron Sorkin, does that. Like the masterpiece Citizen Kane, The Social Network dives into the past of its subject and shows us the steps he took to greatness. We learn of the humble origins, the people crossed and double-crossed, and all the controversy surrounding what has become, over the last six years, the most popular site on the Internet. In the process, Sorkin and Fincher reflect the self-imposed isolation of our modern culture and despair over where our society is headed.

The society they seem to envision is one in which people are separated, on their own, connected via computers. Throughout the film, characters talk at, not with, each other. Most of its principal characters talk endlessly, yet are incapable of communicating.

We see this best in the opening scene: Mark is on a date with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), talking to her about what seems to be a million things at once. He opens with facts about the ratio of geniuses in China, then belabors the possibility of being accepted into one of Harvard's prestigious clubs before moving on to discussing the advantages of being on the rowing team. His rapid fire delivery alienates her, and as she tries to jump into the conversation, he shuts her out by changing direction again. This leads her to dump him, a moment that defines the movie to the very end. She realizes that they will never be able to connect emotionally because Mark seems so incapable of feeling anything emotionally.

This conversation sets a pattern for all of the relationships Mark has throughout the film, especially that of his friendship with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Eduardo is a sweetheart of a guy, who is willing to pony up the cash to help Mark get his "Facebook" project off the ground. He is the voice of reason, but like Erica, can't get Mark to listen. As a result, after he is burned, he sues Mark for what he considers his fair share for the creation of the website.

Mark is a modern hero for our times: insular, frustrating, consumed by his own vision. It doesn't seem to matter than he burns every bridge he crosses, from Erica to Eduardo to the Winklevoss brothers (Armie Hammer in a subtle dual role). He has a goal to connect as many people as he can, regardless of the cost to his own personal connections.

It's no surprise then that he finds an ally in Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who also wasn't afraid to alienate an entire industry with the execution of his ideas. Sean, much to Eduardo's disgust, entices Mark to come to California and worms his way into the profits while pushing Eduardo out.

Despite all the money and fame Facebook brings, though, it can't re-build burned bridges, and Mark Zuckerberg has to face the reality that he is indeed an island in a connected world.

As the final shot -- picture-perfect -- rolls, it's hard not to think about the hours spent in front of a computer screen, reading and waiting for people to accept your "friend" requests. There's something sad and pathetic about it, yet this is the world we live in now, where we often find our validation in the number of "friends" we have on-line. The Social Network questions these connections, doesn't provide any straightforward answers, and leaves at the center of it all a character we can identify with, yet struggle with at the same time.