By Armond White
The Social Network glamorizes a new paradigm: How the Internet’s basic disconnect characterizes contemporary public discourse. Director David Fincher’s lustrous video images make instant, stylish mythology out of the way Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg re-popularized the Internet by founding the Facebook in 2003. This brainy, insular 19-year-old pinpointed the Internet as a personal, rather than formal, means of communication and thus became the nation’s youngest billionaire. TV’s Aaron Sorkin concocted a script that pretends to assess Zuckerberg’s sea-change, but it’s Fincher’s mythmaking (his usual yellow-green color scheme, more burnished than ever) that uncannily combines moral confusion, social decline and empire building—although leaving out such crucial details as where the money comes from and the moral consequences of all that glorified disconnection.
The scene where pre-billions Zuckerberg takes revenge on the girlfriend he’s neglected by leaping to his computer and then writing and transmitting a blog that defames her physical person, intelligence and family heritage comes across as a frighteningly casual presentation of the self-righteous hostility that has become Internet etiquette. It derives from Zuckerberg’s viciousness and nearly autistic social detachment—an immaturity that infects the Internet but here is looked at uncritically. Fincher’s indifference and Sorkin’s calm about Zuckerman’s malediction is an early indication of the film’s failure. The Social Network glibly accepts Zuckerberg’s selfishness as entertaining and nerd-cool—even when Zuckerberg allegedly betrays his Harvard university colleagues, cheating them out of a fortune.
If it is true that The Social Network defines the decade, as an ad blurb states, then that’s just an accident of its shortcomings. We need to look deeper: It inadvertently defines an era when subterfuge and reprehensible behavior are accepted as a social norm—especially if it proves lucrative. No wonder mainstream media minions have flipped for The Social Network; they recognize the fiat of technological privilege.
Hollywood and the journalism industries—both cowed by the Internet breathing down their necks—have perfected a method to curtail individual response to movies, thereby dictating widespread enthusiasm for this shallowly complicated film. To Fincher and Sorkin, Zuckerberg represents a new cultural avatar who (like other snarky Internet avengers) must be worshipped, not held to account. They inflate Zuckerberg’s story as a “creation myth” (as one lawyer calls him), the better to concede victory to a tycoon of new technology rather than apply normal social or professional standards to his hostile relations with people. The Social Network sucks up to successful, wealthy young powerbrokers.
As played by pale-skinned, curly-headed Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg may be the most obnoxious movie protagonist Noah Baumbach didn’t write; his lack of family and cultural background (apparently Jewish but only explicitly a smart, fast-talking Harvard dork) makes him Everyphenom, the exemplar of a brilliant new generation we must learn to admire and excuse. Power-worship keeps Sorkin from making a What Makes Sammy Run? inquiry or Paddy Chayefsky jeremiad. Rather, he slickly exploits ethnic narcissism, yet never penetrates feelings of inferiority or competitiveness that made Eisenberg so moving in Holy Rollers, last spring’s extraordinarily soulful and chagrinned tale of a Hasidic youth’s worldly aspiration.
Ignoring any possible spiritual investigation, Sorkin crisscrosses two separate lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg: one by the WASP Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), classmates who first engaged his Internet ingenuity to build them a dating website; and the other by dormmate Eduardo Savarin, who financed Zuckerberg’s early experiments but was frozen out of eventual profits. Then a third party—Napster cutthroat Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)—enters the fray, driving Zuckerberg’s egomania. Timberlake’s soft-voiced shark briefly hones the film’s craven focus: “Revenge is not a dish served cold; it’s served immediately and relentlessly.” But Fincher and Sorkin go back to sentimentalizing Zuckerberg-as-victim: Their shared backgrounds in TV advertising and prime-time diversion are evident in trial scenes that play Zuckerberg’s superciliousness against his opponents’ hurt desperation and in glossy high-life scenes that distract from Zuckerberg’s self-interest, trading audience prurience and envy for insight.
Particularly egregious is a Royal Regatta sequence meant to ridicule the Winklevoss lifestyle. Fincher shoots it just like a Nike commercial break. He’s an affectless director who disregards the emotional impact of every scene and situation: Zuckerberg’s dating faux pas are staged as coldly as his contempt for legal procedure. And in each scene, Sorkin’s approach to Zuckerberg’s conduct is unctuous with fake significance, letting the protagonist’s eminence excuse his reprehensible misbehavior. It’s disingenuous for Sorkin to prioritize Zuckerman saying, “For the first time in the Winklevoss’ lives things didn’t work out for them,” for really that applies to his own privilege.
Not Soul Man, Harvard Man nor The Paper Chase—all movies that “got Harvard” to varying instructive degrees—The Social Network is simply Hollywood’s way, post-Obama, of sanctioning Harvard’s “masters of the universe” mystique. It’s an attempt at glorifying a contemporary aristocracy-cum-plutocracy through flattery of Zuckerberg and his ilk. Ironically, these are the same shameless tycoons Oliver Stone takes out with sniper precision in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (a title that also fits this Facebook legend).
Like one of those fake-smart, middle-brow TV shows, the speciousness of The Social Network is disguised by topicality. It’s really a movie excusing Hollywood ruthlessness. That’s why it evades Zuckerberg’s background timidity and the mess that the Internet has made of cultural discourse. In interviews, Sorkin brags about the multiple narrative and Fincher has even invoked Citizen Kane—both are grandstanding excuses for Zuckerberg’s repeated masturbatory request for friendship—a mawkish George Clooney ending. Here’s the truth: Kane was not about a brat’s betrayal, but about a sensitive braggart’s psychological and philosophical shift inward. The Social Network is more like Hollywood’s classic film industry self-romance The Bad and the Beautiful. Yet that Kane-lite film never excused its bad-boy protagonist’s sins and ended magnanimously by converging his three injured parties’ points of view into one beautifully clarifying narrative. It admitted our cultural compromises; this is TV-trite. In The Social Network, creepiness is heroized.
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