The Social Network: Capturing a generation glued to computers

Posted on 07 October 2010 by HansKlopek

Wow, my first post in a long time. Really, where to begin? First, I’d like to humbly apologize for my absence from the site for these past months, but truthfully, there is nothing that has come out in theaters in the past nine or ten months that really felt significant or inspiring enough for me to write about. Nope, not even Inception.

That and I now live in a place where the nearest quality movie theater is 30 miles away and generally only shows the big releases. That usually means no low-budget, arthouse fare for me unless I make the trip back to Louisville.

But the fall and winter months usually give me more reasons to visit the multiplex, so I hope to post a few more articles over the coming months with thoughts about this year’s set of potential awards contenders, one of the more significant of which, The Social Network, made its debut in theaters over the weekend.

Let me echo Shep’s sentiments and say that the almost unprecedented critical hype surrounding this movie seriously had me pumped. It was hard to find a bad word said about this movie in the weeks leading up to its release. I mean, with Aaron Sorkin on the script and David Fincher at the helm, how could the movie miss?

And it didn’t. In many ways, I am surprised by the ridiculous amount of praise this movie is getting, and in another way, it doesn’t surprise me at all. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, I would periodically peruse just to look at any new reviews or blurbs that had been posted about the film. In one, a critic wrote something akin to “the film captures the spirit of a generation the way that The Graduate, All the President’s Men and Network did for previous ones.”

That is almost outrageously high praise, but it gave me an interesting framework within which to view the film. Out of that set of movies, Network (which is firmly planted on my list of ten greatest movies ever made) feels like an appropriate comparison. Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, which followed the plight of a mad broadcaster (Peter Finch) and the almost satanically greedy executives, led by a ferocious Faye Dunaway, trying to capitalize on his fame, captured the spirit of a generation that had left the front yard and plopped themselves down in front of the tube. When television became a mainstay in American homes in the 1950s, there was an air of wonder and discovery about it. By the 1970s, T.V. had just become another part of the culture, a business in which professional survival depended and still depends on the ability to spot and exploit the next best thing.

Beyond being an apt and appropriately scathing social satire, the film presented compelling characters who never fit clearly underneath easy labels of good and bad. There really wasn’t a hero in that film, and even though Dunaway and Finch both won lead actor awards at the Oscars, I really don’t think there was a lead role. Every character commits an act that compromises their integrity in the eyes of audience, and you are left with a set of people that you never particularly like or root for, but are fascinated by and sympathize with simply because they seem like real people making real mistakes. The film captured the essence of its cultural moment while still telling a riveting story with compelling characters.

The Social Network has similar qualities. Can you remember the last film you saw that dealt seriously with computers?  I can’t, and I think that was one of the reasons I was excited about seeing the film. As a culture, I think we’ve come to think of computers and the technological capabilities they provide us with as common necessities, things that are always waiting for us on our desks at work and at home and enable our communication with one another. Facebook, iTunes, Twitter, these are all things we use on a day to day basis and never think about.

They are also things that have only cropped up in the past ten or so years. The success of their inventions has given birth to a new generation of entrepreneur, someone whose drive is to create the latest social networking behemoth or file-sharing system and put their name in lights. As Fincher put it, it used to be that in order to build an empire, you had to own a railroad or mine for gold in the desert. Now all you need is a DSL connection and a case of Red Bull.

What The Social Network captures so beautifully is the spirit of a generation that decided to stay in its dorm room and program rather than go to class. That, rather than join the workforce, wanted to sidestep the workforce altogether and play by their own rules. That now sits in college libraries for hours perusing their Facebook profiles and listening to iTunes. That sends friend requests rather than physically interact. It’s a generation that, I’m happy to report, I am a member.

And that is one of the things that makes The Social Network so powerful for me; just like the baby boomers felt like The Graduate belonged to them, I feel like this movie belongs to me. I recognized the characters, the philosophies, the behavior. There is something timeless about the story’s themes, but something about the story itself is very specific to this moment in our culture. When you reduce the film down to its barest essentials, it really is all about communication and the different ways in which communication has changed in the past five years or so. So much of what’s on display in The Social Network will seem eerily familiar to many audience members; the way a fight starts when a girl finds out her boyfriend’s Facebook relationship status reads ‘single’;  the way a man breaks up with his girlfriend and then thinks of sending her a friend request as a way of reestablishing communication; the way one of the film’s central conflicts plays  out via emails and text messages. I don’t feel like Sorkin or Fincher are contemptuous of this generation, but they do see the cracks in its reliance on technology as a viable mode of communication. In watching the relationships in the film crumble, Sorkin and Fincher’s scathing commentary of Facebook and online social networking reveals itself.

And yet, ironically, this is an extraordinarily enjoyable film to watch. When I say ‘enjoyable,’ I don’t mean that it makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over. I mean that it is extremely well made, expertly written and compellingly acted. No one in this movie is easy to root for, and you never sense that one point of view is supposed to prevail. Part of the joy of this movie is the way it juggles so many different perspectives into a coherent story. Though you may be uncertain in the end about who was right and who was wrong, each character is clearly defined in a way that makes them completely human. You get characters that are painted with equal shades of light and dark.

The story itself follows Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard computer whiz who launched Facebook out of his dorm room in 2004. We watch as he builds the program and the business from the ground up. Starting out with a small loan from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); enlisting his roommates as programmers; feuding with Harvard elites Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer both times) who say he stole the Facebook idea from them; being seduced by Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) into moving the company to California and cutting him in on the company’s shares; falling out with Saverin after cutting him in for only a tiny share in the company; and completely bungling every social encounter he has.

Indeed, the largest irony (or at least the ones that critics have the most fun pointing out) of the Facebook story is that it was started by a man with nonexistent people skills. The real Zuckerberg (who, at 23, became the world’s youngest billionaire) and Facebook itself refused to cooperate with the film, making it a little hard to determine how much of Eisenberg’s portrayal is authentic and how much is exaggeration. I suppose we will never know, but if you take the performance simply on its own terms, Eisenberg is a revelation.

I’ve been a pretty big Eisenberg fan for a long time, and he does things here that I’ve never seen him do before. The way he holds his face, the way his eyes dart around as he enters a room, the sly way he moves about the Harvard grounds. Zuckerberg scurries through the movie like a fox, manipulating both his friends and his enemies, ignoring any hope of a social life, aspiring to larger ambitions.

He comes from privilege just like those around him, but he has been unable to transform that privilege into social acceptability. The film opens with a scene between Zuckerberg and his fictional girlfriend (Rooney Mara) where she tells him “you’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you are a nerd, but it will be because you’re an asshole.” She is right, at least according to the movie. Zuckerberg isn’t like the lovable loners we have seen in other films; he works from a place of total self interest. Simultaneously, he behaves in a withdrawn, disconnected way toward those closest to him. Eisenberg captures all of this complexity in a performance that reveals him as more than just the quirky indie kid we have known in his previous work. Here, he shows he has the stuff of a real movie star.

Much, I’m sure, will be written in the coming months about the film’s historical veracity. As I watched the credits roll, some troubling questions entered my mind: was Zuckerberg really this much of an asshole? Was Sean Parker really the great manipulator we see in the film? Was Eduardo Saverin this much of a pushover? As it moves closer to the Oscars, where it is sure to be the front runner for the top prize, I’m sure the film will have these questions leveled against it time and time again by critics.

If you consider the film on its own merits though, it is close to flawless. There are few films in the past 20 years that have captured the spirit of the modern age the way this film does. In the middle of a big club scene during the film, Sean Parker calls Facebook a “once in a generation invention.” I felt the same way about The Social Network. It’s a film that belongs to this generation, whether we like it or not.

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