Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network

The Social Network (Sony)

The DVD/Blu-ray release of the week is without a doubt the much-lauded The Social Network, the favorite leading into the Oscar season. Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is not really about Facebook but the people who created it and how relationships unraveled on its trajectory to becoming a national (and eventually global) phenomenon and multi-million (now multi-billion) dollar business. There’s been more written about this film than anything other American release this year (or so it appears from my unscientific survey) and Time magazine’s decision to name Zuckerberg the Man of the Year has only added to the attention. And I’m still fascinated by the film and Fincher’s exacting direction, jumping between the two separate depositions that he weaves through the flashback narrative, not so much muddying the record as revealing through the complexity of the story and the characters. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but there’s still plenty in the film worth talking about.

The Social Network presents Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a self-involved nerd genius in Harvard who wants social acceptance but hasn’t a clue as to how to social interaction really works, either on a date—the opening scene of the film, where he literally drives away his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by deriding her inability to keep up with his ping-ponging monologue and responding to her comments as if they were attacks upon his identity—or with his friends. The irony inherent in the film is that this young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum, and that this seriously uncool outcast designed an online community the thrived because it was cool.

Is this an accurate portrait of Zuckerberg and the real-life drama around the Facebook story? Where does Mark Zuckerberg (the real-life face of Facebook) end and “Mark Zuckerberg” (the fictionalized representation created by Fincher, Sorkin and Eisenberg) begin? You can get caught up in the “truth” of the details, the portrayals of characters and friendships and personalities, the accusations of theft and betrayal, but The Social Netwok is not a documentary or a biopic and while the deposition scenes are drawn right out of the public record, the research is largely from accounts favorable to Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s original partner and college buddy, played in the film with good-natured loyalty by Andrew Garfield. (Zuckerberg reportedly passed on talking with Sorkin and Fincher as they developed the film.) Which is not to say it makes Saverin out to be a hero; for all his hard work to turn Facebook into a profitable venture, this portrait shows him fail to grasp the potential of the project and reject the potential that Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake as a glibly charming Internet superstar) sees in the business.

Sorkin writes with a love of words and conversation and is at his best shaping dialogue for smart people juggling multiple ideas and projects, often within the same sentence. The joys of his TV shows The West Wing and Sports Night are largely in the wit and energy of verbal sparring between folks turning communication into a sport played at the highest levels. What makes his writing in The Social Network so fascinating is the way he illustrates communication failure with the same technique. The dialogues are dense and compelling, but just as often are soliloquies tossed out by Zuckerberg to an audience he really doesn’t care to engage with and Fincher directs them at a driving pace, not racing through them as much as unleashing them in a torrent, poured out by someone whose mouth runs to catch up with his mind and has no patience with those who can’t keep up.

Giving the minimal amount of his attention to the deposition.

Eisenberg’s incarnation of Zuckerberg, guided by Sorkin’s harsh, confrontational dialogue and shaped into a hard, brittle person by Fincher’s direction, never apologizes for his behavior (when he says he’s sorry to his girlfriend in the first scene, he’s apologizing that she didn’t understand what he meant, not that his words and anger insulted her) and never says thank you. He’s a jerk, not the lovable, misunderstood nerd, as much as he wants to think he is, and Eisenberg brings a defiant arrogance to his portrayal, driven by pique and jealousy and a desperate need for acceptance (but only on his own terms) while clamping down on the emotions to project only a bitter, cold front to the world. But communication—and the failures in communication—is at the core of his behavior. It’s not so much that Zuckerberg and Saverin disagree over what the site should be about, it’s that they carry on following their own concepts without ever sitting down and hashing out a plan, perhaps because Zuckerberg finds it easier to let Saverin go about wasting his time chasing small-time advertisers while he follows his own impulses. Given this kind of communications breakdown, is it any surprise that Saverin resorts to freezing their corporate funds to get Zuckerberg’s attention? And looking at it from the other side, is it any wonder that the emotionally defensive and reflexively vindictive Zuckerberg saw this not as a desperate measure but a betrayal?

Much has been written about the technical aspects of The Social Network, where special effects have applied so seamlessly that you’d never know they were digital effects (I’m afraid the use to so sophisticated that it will be overlooked come Oscar time). I’d just like to note the contrast between the smoothly, handsomely elegant Harvard walk under the opening credits, a naturalistic sequence of long takes that were actually created from stitching together shorter shots with digital enhancements (the unreal made real), with the regatta sequence, an event shot on location but distorted with shallow —- of focus and post-production tinkering until it looked more like a miniature effect than a human-sized event (the real made unreal). I don’t really have a thesis here, but it fits right in with a movie where the gap between the genuine experience and the virtual experience—and the different behavioral modes associated with each—is at the heart of the matter.

Zuckerberg finds his social model in Sean Parker: not the best role model

There are plenty of pop psychology motivations seeded through the film (he created the site initially to impress a girl/to impress the exclusive Harvard clubs/to take revenge on the rich/popular/athletic students/to prove he could do it/to design an exclusive club that he could thrive in) but they explain the protagonist about as much as Rosebud does in Citizen Kane. Does Zuckerberg just want to be loved? Get invited to the clubs that snub him? Prove his superiority to everyone who has snubbed him all these years? This is a story of hubris and ambition, of friendship and jealousy, of class and cultural cache, of success as status and revenge. Is he an asshole, as he’s called out in the first scene, or just trying hard to be one? And does it matter? It’s not so much that he’s an enigma as that he lives his life without culpability, displaying his pettiest impulses without blanching and turning transgressions of conduct into points of pride, and he creates a virtual community where everyone can do the same with only the fear of being defriended as a check. Welcome to the virtual world.

David Fincher is one of the most exacting filmmakers in the world today and the supplements on the DVD and Blu-ray release offer a glimpse into his process. He takes the viewer through the film via a reflective commentary track (“I like the first scene of the movie to inform the audience how much they have to pay attention and this was one of them,” he says, talking not of his direction but Sorkin’s original screenplay) and behind the scenes in the superbly produced feature-length documentary “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?,” which offers a wealth of script reads, rehearsal scenes, production meetings and footage from the set in addition to the generous collection of interviews with the cast and crew. The story of Fincher doing 99 takes of the opening scene, the conversation between Zuckerberg and Erica that splinters into a break-up, is well known. The actors fill in the details, noting that it was one of the first scenes shot in the production and talking about how Fincher worked through each take, exploring with them to fine tune the scene until it defined their characters and the film. Their only question: why not do just one more to round it out to 100?

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and cast members Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer also chime in on a second commentary track (edited together from what appears to be three separate recording sessions). There are separate featurettes focused on the photography (“Jeff Cronenweth and David Fincher on the Visuals,” 7 minutes), editing and sound (“Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter and Ren Klyce on Post,” 17 minutes) and music (“Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and David Fincher on the Score,” 19 minutes) plus a short piece on the “Swarmatron” (an electronic instrument used by Reznor) and multi-angle featurettes that break down to key scenes. It’s as intelligent and illuminative a collection of supplements as you’ll find on DVD/Blu-ray.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

2 thoughts on “Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network”

  1. Wow, the best review I have seen!!! The others reviewers just didn’t wrote an opinion about the Mark Zuckerberg chracter himself or only wrote how arrogant, austictic, annoying, creepy, etc. he was. And also didn’t know it was an interpretation of a screenwritter and a bookwritter… of a friend of zuckerberg that was angry about zuckerberg.

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