It ought to come as little surprise that The Social Network opens with a bad date which culminates in the ending of a relationship, since the protagonists in David Fincher’s films seldom seem to be having a good time in the amour stakes. If they are not recently divorced (Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, Panic Room‘s Meg Altman) then their marital relationships are showing signs of undergoing severe strain (David Mills in Seven, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac); if they are indeed ‘getting some’ at all then they are either not cognizant of the fact (Fight Club‘s unnamed protagonist), fatally unable to complete their Oedipal trajectory by dint of ageing backwards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or, most unfortunately of all, subject to impregnation by a xenomorphic alien creature (Alien 3).
It is worth focusing on the opening scene for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates how surprisingly well the combination of writer and director – both distinctive artistic voices in their own right – are well matched here and enhance each others’ strong suits rather than compromise them. The Aaron Sorkin-penned brashly-inarticulate dialogue sits perfectly with David Fincher’s famously frenetic visual style, though the real standout in this first scene is perhaps the rapid cross-cutting of co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, a breathless velocity which sets the pace for what will become a whirlwind trip through the time between Facebook’s inception and its rapid spread across the globe.
The second function of the scene is succinctly to introduce us to the character of Mark Zuckerberg. What we can immediately glean is that he is a spiteful, sharp-tongued yet socially awkward high-achiever whose apparent main concern is not the enjoyment of life and study on the campuses at Harvard, but a zealous desire to gain entry into the freemason-like social sphere of its final clubs which he believes will be the making of him. If this is more than enough for his appalled girlfriend Erica to call time on their relationship and seize the opportunity to jump ship, the scene for the viewer foregrounds the question of the film’s main character’s curious motivations, which in two flash-forward time frames will be repeatedly called into question.
This initial scene also facilitates the first plot point: the drunken, spurned Zuckerberg is spurred into setting up the ‘Facemash’ website which will quickly gain him enough notoriety to bring him to the attention of the blue-blooded Winklevoss twins, whose proposed Ivy League dating site plants the seed for the idea which he will make his own. But so too does it confirm the film’s existence as a work of fiction, given that the date we are witness to could never have occurred in reality since the character of Erica has no real-life counterpart. If the factual accuracy of The Accidental Billionaires – Ben Mezrich’s book upon which the film’s screenplay is based – is questionable then evidently so must be Fincher and Sorkin’s account.
This is no sleight against the film. If the prospect of a narrative based around two injunctions brought against the maker of a website hardly sounds enticing, then the fictive world which is rendered is anything but. As Zuckerberg drunkenly codes his initial site, the film cuts between him and scenes of final club sophomores partying with local nubiles specially shipped-in for their entertainment, the scene more closely resembling the glossy abandon of an alcohol advertisement than anything approaching reality. The worlds of Fincher’s films often have a sense of the unreal about them, and that this time his story does not centre on serial killers, paranoiacs or sado-masochistic basement brawlers does not mean that it has any greater degree of fidelity to the real world.
In many ways, The Social Network is an interesting companion-piece to the director’s previous works, most obviously Zodiac, another film ostensibly based on ‘facts’ but introducing a large degree of conjecture about events which may remain unknowable. But that film functioned in a different time, one in which information dissemination was slowed by technology – the scene where the police admit not to having a fax machine springs most readily to mind – and time passed laboriously with no progress. By contrast, The Social Network plays out in an age of instantaneous worldwide communication and global viral memes. If the protagonist of Fight Club is astonished to discover how quickly his titular phenomenon has spread, it comes as little surprise to Zuckerberg.
That the film’s events take place in the very-recent world of near-instantaneous communications technology is what lends the film its feeling of suspense, and the sense that the events taking place are metonymic of the zeitgeist is underlined by the key difference between the ‘mirror identical’ Winklevoss twins (other than their handedness): their attitude towards pursuing the individual who they feel has stolen their idea. While Tyler Winklevoss is keen to be seen to behave according to the more old-fashioned, gentlemanly mores of Harvard social convention, Cameron Winklevoss seems to be more aware of the fact that the more time they allow Zuckerberg’s TheFacebook to gain the ascendancy, the further they set back their chances of pursuing him for theft.
Zuckerberg’s eventual ‘triumph’ over the Winklevoss twins in getting his Thefacebook out first and into social network hegemony is representative of a strange changing of the guard; the blue-blood Ivy League social groups which he so wanted to penetrate at the start of the film no-longer have relevance for him, as he moves his operation first to universities across the globe, and then to millions of public users. Facebook expands out from the cloistered intelligentsia to the wider proletariat, representing a triumph of bourgeois-capitalism over an antiquated quasi-feudal oligarchy. Ironically, the most humiliating evidence of the twins’ defeat comes at alongside a more literal defeat at that most bourgeois of occasions, the Henley Royal Regatta.
If The Social Network is about a character driven by his inability either to enter into the societal circles he wishes to inhabit or hold down a relationship, then it is not for long a sexless world which he and his co-founder Eduardo Saverin inhabit. Indeed, a key plot point is Zuckerberg adding the crucial element to Thefacebook: the ‘relationship status’ section. As membership of their site spreads across campus, so too does their own fame, and the former losers become unlikely lotharios. The real seduction, though, occurs later on when Zuckerberg meets Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder whose suave charm lures him away from Saverin and the stuffiness of New England academia and out to the more laidback, pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of California’s Silicon Valley. It feels analogous to similar events in Annie Hall, Parker very much the Tony-Lacey-like underhand villain, and Saverin’s evident distaste for West Coast hedonism the equal of Alvy Singer’s.
The film defies easy categorization. The pacing suggests a kind of thriller, though the subject matter makes this seem absurd. As a character study it is hardly a tragedy, nor is Zuckerberg’s story anywhere near a clear-cut one of rags-to-riches or of triumph against adversity. At its best it is actually closest to farce – the seriousness of the settings of the deposition hearings hilariously bearing witness to the petty squabbling and juvenile prankery of young adults – even to the point where a lawyer threatens to use one character’s supposed treatment of a live chicken to blacken his character. If Zuckerberg and Saverin are largely played straight, it is the exaggerated, cartoonish secondary characters which linger in the memory longest – the pathetic seriousness brought to the Winklevoss twins by Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake’s irresistibly debonair Sean Parker.
Ultimately, the sheer surface excitement of the story disguises the complexities of the film underneath; its three time-frames – the linear narrative of the main story and the two separate deposition hearings seen in flashforward – fit together so cohesively that their temporal relationship to each other is never muddied. What, though, is the message we are to take from the film? The deliberately deadpan ending makes clear that, in spite of his financial success and popular fame, Mark Zuckerberg has alienated himself from those who sought to get close to him, and even from this experience he has ultimately learned nothing. His response? Look up an old flame and click ‘add as friend’. What we do know is that he’ll be in for a long wait.