Summary: my Facebook friends’ status updates hold more surprises in any five minutes than this film can muster in 2 hours.
As I was waiting for my friends to arrive at the movie theater for the 7:00 showing of The Social Network, the newly released film chronicling the early years of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as the co-founder of Facebook, I accidentally got the zipper pull on my sweatshirt stuck in the mesh of the bench I was sitting on. I found this out when I stood up, felt the pull and heard a metallic *pop*.
That was the last unexpected thing that happened within my field of vision for the next two and a half hours.
This film centers around a pair of lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg, played with great subtlety and nuance by Jesse Eisenberg, for copyright infringement, intellectual property theft, and an extremely vaguely described allegation by Facebook co-founder and former Chief Financial Officer Eduardo Saverin that he was cheated out of his share of rights to the site. Guess what–Zuckerberg turns out to act like sort of an asshole, both in real life and in the movie. If you follow social media or business news, you probably knew about his reputation for dick moves in real life. In the movie, you’re notified of Zuckerberg’s assholishness in the opening scene when he launches into a horribly dickish tirade to his girlfriend about elitism, his desire to get accepted into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, and his struggle with distinguishing himself from his Harvard classmates despite scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT. (The girlfriend is surprised here: “Does that mean you didn’t get anything wrong?” she asks. It’s hard to believe, incidentally, that the movie version of Zuckerberg wouldn’t have informed his girlfriend of his perfect score long before this point–as in, during the opening minutes of their first date.)
The rest of the movie is a confirmation of what the first five minutes establish: That Mark Zuckerberg–the film version of him, at least–is indeed an asshole, and that his behavior is the result of a deep need to be accepted, admired, and respected. At the risk of tossing in a spoiler, every time Zuckerberg is presented with a choice between doing the right thing and making a dick move, he chooses the dick move. Every. Single. Time. By the end of the film, Zuckerberg isn’t a more complex, more nuanced, or more tragic asshole; he’s just the exact same asshole who would brag about his perfect SAT score to his girlfriend, except with more money this time.
But don’t worry, because there are many other things to learn from this film! It turns out that nerds are people, too! And that nerds with ambitions toward world domination want the same thing that ambitious non-nerds want: Respect, power, and girls! I know–surprising, right? The Social Network is just filled with surprises exactly like this!
That the film refuses to surprise us, either with its characters or with the narrative itself, is fairly disappointing. There is, after all, a nice social critique to be made of the fact that Zuckerberg and his archrivals, the more privileged, wealthier, and better connected Winklevoss twins, orient to peers and authority figures with approximately the same degree of entitlement. It’s just that the Winklevosses wear their entitlement as if it were the skin they were born in, whereas Zuckerberg–mousy, awkward, unconnected Zuckerberg–has to constantly insist, in word and deed, upon his right to have everything he wants handed directly to him. That Zuckerberg ends up looking like the asshole while the Winklevosses end up looking like some combination of self-righteous, misguided and spoiled–well, that’s arguably at least partially the fault of a culture that uses class, education, and physical appearance to distinguish between confidence and arrogance.
Alas, this is a critique left unexplored in The Social Network, which instead spends its time showing off its witty dialogue, era-appropriate technologies, and superb acting. (This is a point mentioned by many other reviewers, but one worth noting here: The acting, by everyone in film, is so good it is simply astonishing.)
A lengthy early scene features Zuckerberg running through the streets of Cambridge, MA, and across the Harvard campus. It’s actually more of a jog than a run, and it’s really not clear why he’s running. Maybe he’s cold and wants to get indoors as quickly as possible; maybe he has a lot of homework to do; maybe he has a new programming idea he wants to try. At one point, as he’s passing a busker playing a violin, Zuckerberg slows to a walk and you think, okay, now something’s going to happen!
But nothing happens. He walks past the violinist, then picks up his pace until he’s running again. When he gets to his dorm he’s not exhausted, he’s not agitated, he’s not excited; he’s not really anything at all. He’s just…done running.
Which makes you wonder: Why in the world did I watch that whole thing? And why, for godsake why, did the filmmakers spend so much time and money putting that together, no matter how lovely and well filmed it is?
The Social Network is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language. Also, women are treated as nameless receptacles for dicks.