And so we come to the conclusion of Movies By Bowes ™'s exhaustive, comprehensive Oscar coverage! Yes, this is only the third post, but come on, we all have better things to do. So, to recap: first, we took a look at the little indie that could (if the botulism-paralyzed, leather-skinned Hollywoodites get off their stupid asses and see it in time), Winter's Bone. Then, we took a look at the picture that won't win because there isn't enough room for Darren Aronofsky's (or, for that matter, Natalie Portman's) balls on the statue, Black Swan. Today, we look at the picture that's going to win everything, The Social Network.
It would be tempting to say The Social Network is the heir apparent simply because the retarded Southern Californian plastic surgery reptiles that make up a sickeningly massive majority of the Academy haven't seen Winter's Bone. And it's true, they haven't. It's also true that the hype surrounding The Social Network is a touch operatic: Citizen Kane isn't usually namedropped this much unless Peter Bogdanovich is trying to get laid. But there's no getting around it, The Social Network is a really fucking good movie.
Movies about really smart people are fairly rare, but ones in which smart people are portrayed convincingly are extremely so. Mark Zuckerberg, the prime mover behind the creation of Facebook, is an extremely smart person, and The Social Network is his story, but only up to a certain point. Jesse Eisenberg should be fucking knighted for his performance in this picture. He conveys a fierce, intimidating, magnificent intellect. He's wound so tight he looks like he's about to explode. He has a vaguely “holy shit these people on Earth are confusing dumbasses” look on his face the whole picture, like an alien who was staring at the hot girl with the three tits during his briefing about human culture instead of paying attention. And yet, even at the end when he's the world's youngest billionaire and all his friends are suing him, you can still relate to him. As much as you can relate to a genius nerd with Asperger's.
The catch is, the Zuckerberg portrayed in the movie apparently has very little to do with the real-life guy. The real Zuckerberg didn't have as clear-cut an inciting event inspiring him to create proto-Facebook as Jesse Eisenberg does in the movie (getting dumped by Rooney Mara). For one, the real Zuckerberg has had the same steady girlfriend since before the events portrayed in the movie, and they're still together. Whatever sparked Zuckerberg's quest to create a website that could theoretically connect every human being on earth was probably something more mundane, inexplicable, or less cinematic.
Enter Aaron Sorkin. He told New York magazine “I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth, I want it to be to good storytelling,” and went on to pose the rhetorical question: “What is the big deal about accuracy for accuracy's sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?” Now, you could go ahead and read that as Aaron Sorkin walking around his zipper down saying “I'll do whatever the fuck I want to because The West Wing, because Sports Night, because A Few Good Men, because Charlie Wilson's War, and because deez nuts in your mouth.” He could make that argument, and I'd let him, because come on dude he's Aaron Sorkin. But that's not what he's saying. He and David Fincher have both been weirdly cryptic about the kind of picture they made with The Social Network, which is mildly frustrating, but I think I have an idea why.
Here goes (and I swear I'm not just saying this because I still have Black Swan on the brain): The Social Network is not meant to be taken literally. I don't think it's intended by either Aaron Sorkin or David Fincher to be viewed as journalism. Their Zuckerberg, as embodied by Sir Jesse Eisenberg, is less the actual Zuckerberg than he is the Everynerd. The reason this picture is called The Social Network and not “Zuckerberg or Fuckerberg? How one nerd with Asperger's became the world's youngest billionaire while losing all his friends in the process” is that the picture is not really about Mark Zuckerberg, at least as he exists as an actual, literal, flesh-and-blood human being. The picture is actually about the evolution of the nature of social contact, the irony that the people who facilitate such contact are a lot more comfortable with ones and zeros and p's and q's, and secondarily about how the one thing that has been the same since the beginning of time is that innovation breeds envy, and if people can claim credit, they will, and tertiarily that if you make a billion dollars before the age of 25, someone is going to call bullshit and sue the fuck out of you.
I find David Fincher absolutely fascinating. He's a brilliant guy and a near-complete autodidact with technical gifts as a filmmaker that know few equals in the history of the medium, and a guy who uses those gifts to subvert. His middle finger is at near-constant extension when in the presence of authority (dating back to his leaving his job at Industrial Light and Magic at like 21 or something because Return of the Jedi “sucked shit through a straw”), and he lives for shit like getting Fox to give him $75 million dollars to make an experimental picture about the role mass media plays in the evolution/destruction of masculinity (that would be Fight Club). It is entirely possible that he was interested in the story of how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook and became a billionaire on its own merits, but I doubt it. I have two theories: the first is that the idea of taking a kind of run-of-the-mill story (a lot of nerds have made a lot of fucking money off the Internet, Zuckerberg was just one of the biggest) and using it as a pretense to explore the larger and more cerebral question of just what socialization means in the age of the Internet appealed to Fincher, who was like, “yeah, I can troll the suits into letting me make my movie and I can get a giant schadenfreude boner at the fact that they're paying me tens of millions of dollars to basically smoke a joint with the audience and shoot the shit about something mildly esoteric.” The other theory is that he saw the nine-millionth trailer that said “based on a true story” and just snapped: “Fuck you guys, I'm going to pick a 'true story' and make massive parts of it up, including all the most important shit in it.” Because all those fucking “based on the incredible true story” movies have one thing in common: the lack of credibility deriving from the fact that they're fictionalized whenever convenient. David Fincher's the kind of guy who would take that to the logical extension of, rather than doing it out of laziness or because he thinks giving Gandhi a wisecracking sidekick to keep him company during his hunger strike will play better with the 18 to 34s, fictionalizing the shit out of this story that happened really recently and almost entirely on the public record as a pure and blatant act of trolling.
Combine this with Sorkin caring more about telling a good story than about it being true, and I think we can safely conclude that the fictionalizations contained in The Social Network are for reasons other than laziness or adherence to any Hollywood narrative standards. What those reasons were, I can only speculate, but the results definitely universalize the story, and I think the purpose of doing that is that The Social Network is the ur-story of this past decade. The Internet has been a large part of my life since the early 90s, but I'm a nerd; the 00s were the point at which even the most civilian-y civilian in Civilianville had a computer and knew what the Internet was, even if s/he had only the foggiest notion of what it really was or what it implied about the changes in the way people communicate. The Internet itself has changed a great deal as well as it grows and becomes less a thing at the fringes of society than society itself. When I first got a computer and used that snazzy dial-up modem (the fastest one then offered!) to get on the World Wide Web, you had to know your way around, and communities were small, scattered and fragmented, but over time they've grown in size, come together, and become more universal in purpose. Facebook was probably the most ambitious and deliberate attempt to bring the Internet together, and it's doing pretty well so far, with half a billion users worldwide, or 7% of the world's population. It is, as the poet said, kind of a big deal, and the story of Facebook is only just beginning.
While the periodic changes to the site invariably provoke myriad status updates along the lines of “I miss Old Facebook! What was wrong with Old Facebook? I HATE NEW FACEBOOK! MAKE IT GO AWAY!” it is important to remember, as the movie points out, that Facebook was never intended to stay one thing forever; if it did, it would fail, as it needs to be what the given moment requires. If that means borrowing this idea from Twitter or that idea from somewhere else, so be it. The only mildly disquieting thing about Facebook is how often “New Facebook” resets privacy settings to “Please Hack Me,” but this is why you sign up for Facebook with your backup e-mail address, not your main one, and you post pictures of your dick or tits (or both, if you're really interesting) to your Tumblr. Well, unless Tumblr gets hacked. But we're not talking about Tumblr; the only way someone's going to make a movie about Tumblr is if the mumblecore dudes decide it's ironic enough, and that could take fucking decades. Back to Facebook: the thing to remember about Facebook is that you get out of it exactly what you put into it. If your friends are a bunch of retards, Facebook will be retarded. If your friends are a bunch of indie theater artists and filmmakers (like me), you're going to get a lot of show/screening/audition notices, people bitching about Charles Isherwood, and people going “Hey, are you free at 6am and feel like traveling 100 miles? Extras needed, no pay.” And, no matter who you are, lots of videos of cats.
So, at long last, we arrive back at The Social Network. As a movie, it's much the same way. You kind of get out of it what you put into it, in the sense that you'll see what you want to see in it. People who wanted to see the epoch-making story of our times saw that. People who wanted to see a tightly-paced picture about a smart wiseass who gets sued saw that. People who wanted to see a “typical Hollywood getting the facts wrong and ignoring minorities/women/et al” picture saw that. I saw a Rorschach blot, because I'm Neo and I see the source code. (Ed. Note: the line to kick the author in the balls forms to the left). It's a measure of the skill of the writer, director, and cast that the audience is left entirely on its own to make up its own mind about what it's seeing.
This begins with the opening scene, a fiction about how Rooney Mara is trying desperately to have a conversation with Sir Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg without glassing him in the face with her beer. He's talking way too fast, overintellectualizing everything, borderline robotic, and is totally blindsided by the fact that she breaks up with him (which is her whole point).
Sir Jesse gets pissed (in both senses of the word, angry and drunk) and stalks angrily across campus over the opening credits and some damn good Trent Reznor tunes (I have a very complicated relationship with the guy's music but when he's good I tip my cap) to his dorm room, where he proceeds to drink more and exact his revenge: saying mean and factually sketchy shit about his now-ex-girlfriend on his blog. Granted, this is about as obvious a way of pointing out the true spirit of the Internet as showing the guy fapping to hentai, but it's effective.
While posting mean shit about his ex, Sir Jesse comes up with the idea of a website where people can compare Harvard girls and decide which one's hotter. The site ends up being so popular that it crashes Harvard's network within hours, which leads to Sir Jesse being called in front of a disciplinary board, whose balls he busts epically (in a sign of things to come). He gets off with academic probation, but attracts the attention of a couple rich-kid twins, the gloriously named Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by one actor, Armie Hammer, and some snazzy, totally fucking invisible, almost casual CGI wizardry by Mr. Fincher), who with their third partner, played by Anthony Minghiella's kid Max, approach Sir Jesse to get him to program a dating site for them.
Sir Jesse, simultaneously seduced and annoyed by the fact that the rich kids are in a prestigious “final club” (some stupid Ivy League elitist evil white guy bullshit that the real Zuckerberg didn't really give a fuck about, but it does give Sir Jesse some evil white guys to hate), agrees to help them with their site, but he spends all his time thinking up the embryonic version of Facebook with his buddy, the also-gloriously-named Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). The possibility that the only reason this picture claims to be based on a true story is so they could use all the cool real names cannot be discounted.
At this point, we start flashing forward to two different lawsuits being brought against Sir Jesse. One is from the twins—who Sir Jesse, in his divinity, dubs the “Winklevii” at one point—and the other is from—O NOEZ!—Andrew Garfield. But they're best friends! How could that be? Well, it's quite simple, really. After “the facebook” becomes the talk of Harvard, something so popular it gets the borderline autistic Sir Jesse laid by Asian girls (Ed. Note: the author prefers Mediterreanean/Semitic Gina Gershon types—every man his own mildly racist sex fantasies—but has been given to understand that the Far East holds a fascination for many), Sir Jesse and Andrew Garfield expand to several other colleges, including Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, the last something upon which Andrew Garfield insists. Wouldn't you know it, that very expansion to Stanford is what brings “the facebook” to the attention of internet entrepreneur Sean Parker, played by none other than one Justin Timberlake.
A number of people couldn't get past the fact that it was Justin Timberlake playing the part. I think it was a brilliant choice. The way the Parker character sweeps into the movie and charms the living fuck out of everyone (except Andrew Garfield), you need someone who's a major major star, for the necessary charisma. Justin Timberlake is a very big star, and . . . fuck, he can act. He's probably going to get the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) before he's 35, and he's one well-orchestrated Oscar campaign away from only needing the Tony in a couple months, and he's the kind of guy who can simply decide to win one. This would be obnoxious if that video where he brought sexy back wasn't so awesome and if he wasn't out-of-the-galaxy amazing in The Social Network.
Timberlake fascinates Sir Jesse, whose one cool thing he's ever done is come up with the idea for “the facebook.” Timberlake, on the other hand, is little more than cool (though as Andrew Garfield points out with a surprising absence of bitchiness, he's got a whole mess of paranoid insecurities, drug problems, etc as well) and he leaves his first meeting with Sir Jesse and Andrew Garfield with the fateful suggestion: “Drop the 'the.' Just 'Facebook.' It's cleaner.” The divide starts there: Sir Jesse thinks the idea's awesome, Andrew Garfield's like “Who's this fuckface? What is he, on coke?” Funny you should ask, Andrew. Yes, yes he is on coke.
Over time, Timberlake uses his influence over Sir Jesse to gradually phase Andrew Garfield out, which he of course does not take well (hence, the massive lawsuit). The Winklevosses decide to sue as well, following getting their asses kicked in a boat race and their noses rubbed in it by Prince Albert of Monaco (Max Minghiella hilariously waves it off: “He's the prince of a country the size of Nantucket Island . . .”)
The lawsuits, brilliantly, are never shown to be entirely with or without merit. Sir Jesse, however, makes his position quite clear:
Gage (the Winklevosses' lawyer): Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?In other words, go home and get your fuckin shinebox. Despite his awesome putdowns, he doesn't actually mount much in the way of a defense, whether because he has none or can't be bothered. Eventually, Rashida Jones, one of his legal team, tells him that he really should just settle out of court, whether or not he's guilty, because either way a trial will get ugly, and shit like the bogus (but really funny) animal cruelty charge against Andrew Garfield that gets mentioned during his lawsuit will be all over the media. Shit like Timberlake getting caught with blow and underage interns (which he does, and fuck me does Timberlake kick ass in the scene where he gets arrested).
Sir Jesse: [stares out the window] No.
Gage: Do you think I deserve it?
Sir Jesse: [looks at the lawyer] What?
Gage: Do you think I deserve your full attention?
Sir Jesse: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.
Gage: Okay - no. You don't think I deserve your attention.
Sir Jesse: I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. (pause) Did I adequately answer your condescending question?
After Rashida Jones advises Sir Jesse to settle, he asks if he can hang around to use the computer in the law office before going home. He takes the opportunity to look up Rooney Mara's Facebook page. After hesitating a moment, he sends her a friend request. And then, blankly staring at the screen, hits F5 to refresh every few seconds as “Baby You're A Rich Man” fades up. By this point, it seriously doesn't matter how much of the movie was bullshit, that last shot, the loneliness, the knowledge that while shit sucks but it could be worse, that embarrassing need for validation (leavened by the knowledge of how dumb and meaningless the whole thing is), the irony of using the thing inspired by Rooney Mara's rejection of him to get back in touch with her . . . outta the park.
So yeah, The Social Network really is that good. It's so good that even though everyone portrayed in it universally says nearly the whole picture is complete bullshit, they still think it's a good movie. Zuckerberg is, understandably, not entirely pleased with the way he was portrayed (as good as Jesse Eisenberg is in the movie, watching video of the real Zuckerberg highlights one major difference just to start: Zuckerberg smiles a lot more) but the Zuckerberg in the movie is not a bad guy at all. He's a little cold, extremely ambitious, and has no tolerance for other people's bullshit (well, with the exception of Timberlake's; charisma's a powerful thing) . . . but the last two are good things, and the first is neutral. Fincher and Sorkin's attitude toward facts and the real people involved is a little cavalier, especially if you're one of the real people, but no one really comes off all that bad, even Timberlake with all the coke and chicks and carelessness (there's one amazingly observed moment, where, when holding two large drinks and the doorbell rings, Timberlake sets them down very carefully on an open laptop keyboard; this is not the act of someone who doesn't care about consequences, this is the act of someone who is unaware that they exist) . . . well, yeah, Timberlake doesn't come off great. But you can't make an omelet without pissing someone off. Or something.
Even if, after all my rationalizations and wild overreaching, The Social Network actually is just a Hollywood movie, it's a really, really good Hollywood movie. If we're stuck with one movie taking all the Oscars this year, it might as well be one this deliriously entertaining and meticulously crafted. It's worth getting to listen to Aaron Sorkin dialogue for two hours alone. One of the Winklevosses says, about wanting to kick Zuckerberg's ass, “I'm 6'5”, 220, and there are two of me.” Fuck it, the movie'd be worth it for that line. But there are all of these as well. And all kinds of great David Fincher visual snap, like shooting the big boat race the Winklevosses lose with this weird digital effect that made everything look really tiny and silly. And, really, would a movie about the Internet really be about the Internet if it didn't have some wildly entertaining stuff that was probably bullshit?