Somewhere in the middle of “The Social Network,” Napster music file-sharing Web site co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) tells Mark Zuckerberg the Parable of Victoria’s Secret. Roy Raymond, the founder of the popular lingerie mail-order company and retail chain sold his venture for several million bucks in 1982. Ten years later, long after his new company had gone bankrupt, his Victoria’s Secret’s sales were topping $1 billion and its stock value had risen 500 percent. A year later, Raymond jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. “The waters of the Bay are icy cold,” he warns a rapt Zuckerberg.
That is the most chilling moment of this biopic about the inception and birth of Facebook, Zuckerberg’s social networking empire that today serves 400 million people a month. It’s the night in 2004 that determined whether the young hacker turned entrepreneur would be a failed genius or a living legend.
One mark is a genius is that he or she listens when another genius is talking on the other end of the line. Zuckerberg, only 20 that year, listened and later sealed a venture partnership deal with a hedge fund investor, and the rest is history. That Zuckerberg is a genius cannot be disputed; the only question is which type. As portrayed in the film and the book, he has the gift of creating or seizing upon (some say stealing) revolutionary ideas, refining them and — guided by a separate genius for timing — translating them into a viable business enterprise. He’s closer to Henry Ford and Bill Gates than to Einstein.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires” and written for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, the movie claims to be fiction. This is not a definitive bio; there is still plenty of time to write that. This is first time that the world gets to take a close look at Zuckerberg, and the character, already twice removed from the business celebrity, is given still another mass of flesh, blood and soul by actor Jesse Eisenberg and director David Fincher.
The hacker and his early enemies
The opening scene at The Thirsty Scholar Pub not far from Harvard University, where we find Zuckerberg on a date with his crush, sets the tone and the cultural level of the movie. Intellectually well matched, he and Erica Albright coast from topic to topic like two ordinary teens, except that they talk about the ratio of Chinese geniuses to the population, Tibetan philosophy, financial stock futures, intellectual property rights and their “concentrations” (college majors). A picture of Zuckerberg emerges: somewhat arrogant, presumptuous and, bad for a suitor, analytical. He breaks down Erica’s statements for their hidden meaning, wearing her down. “Being with you is like dating a Stairmaster,’’ she says, referring to the treadmill. Then she dumps him.
To get back at her, he hacks the university’s computer system serving the university’s dormitories, sets up an online popularity contest that is humiliating to Erica. In two hours, his unauthorized post gets 22,000 hits, giving him his first glimpse of the Internet’s potential as a social networking platform. Suddenly, it’s a new cyberspace ball game wherein, beyond simple person-to-person communication, groups, networks and even entire companies could be connected in myriad ways. This was not a new idea since socializing prototypes were already in place. The difference was the staggering scope and the boundless promise of new technologies, applications and platforms. And above all, those precious brand names, first FaceMash, later TheFacebook and finally, Facebook.
The story is built around Zuckerberg and the people who helped bring his vision to reality or tried to block it. First, his first chief financial officer and co-financier Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Then the Winklevoss twins – actor Armie Hammer playing them both in a partly digitized role. And there’s Parker. Eduardo, whose Mediterranean looks contrast with the Anglo-Saxons dominating the campus, is not from a “family of means,” and neither is Zuckerberg. The Abercrombie & Fitch-like twins are privileged. They happen to stumble upon a concept similar to Zuckerberg’s, except that theirs retain an exclusionary format. (It would later become ConnectU.com.)
The story of “The Social Network” moves with a simplicity and ease that are signs of great writing and directing skills. It flows like a courtroom drama, except that it takes place at lawyers’ offices in a legal ritual called depositions, an occasion that calls for flashbacks. These are the interrogations before the main trial begins, where a stenographer records everything the witnesses say.
Two cases are in progress, filed after Facebook’s impressive debut. The Winklevosses, and their partner Divya Narendra, are suing Zuckerberg for reneging on an agreement to write a software code for the future HavardConnection.com, and for the alleged theft of their idea. Meanwhile, a distraught Eduardo seeks to have his name restored as Facebook’s co-founder along with his rightful share of stocks.
New set of myths?
You know you’ve really arrived if the media are constantly spinning myths around you, and Zuckerberg gets the full treatment. One can argue that Mezrich, Sorkin and Fincher are creating their own set of myths, but that is for biographers to judge. If the real Zuckerberg had been worried sick about the damage it would inflict on his image, he didn’t have to be, as he comes out looking quite good in this movie.
His bright mind is a given. He could be checking text messages on his cell-phone while figuring out the solution to a professor’s algorithmic problem, correctly it turns out. Is he a loner? He’s got a few select friends and he doesn’t mind partying when not busy. Is he dysfunctional? Far from it; it’s more like, the people around him are the dysfunctional ones. He’s expansive, he connects, and he’s a great organizer, from the “hackathons” where computer hackers win Facebook privileges for proving their skills, to the corporate hierarchy of his startup.
Socially handicapped? Well, yes, though not for a lack of communication skills but an excess of them. With his sharp mind and tongue — (“If your clients have chosen to stand on my shoulders, then they should at least stop telling lies,” he tells the counsel of the Winklevosses) — he can make the smartest prosecutors slink back into their seats in silence, with grudging admiration. But crucially, he is an astute judge of people and ideas, as with Parker.
This movie’s unique achievement is its depiction of the moral ambiguity around Zuckerberg’s character. As a legal drama, this movie is after all a story about justice, crime and misdemeanor. In the key scenes, Zuckerberg goes under the skeptical gaze of a journalist. He seems capable of stealing somebody’s idea but can argue with sophistry that he hadn’t. He can blur the edges between guilt and innocence, fraud and integrity. We’ll never know if he had a hand in bringing in as evidence an irrelevant episode of possible animal cruelty, a chicken used for fraternity initiation, against his accuser Eduardo, who freaks out at the mention. Or if he had a hand in the drug bust that jeopardizes the image of Facebook and brings down Parker. But whether he was a schemer or not, he finds himself in the end deserted by his two closest friends in his adult life.
As Zuckerberg, Eisenberg brings out his sense of urgency and impatience, as well as his youthful fears and a weakness for idol worship. He has a fresh face that recalls the busts of Roman nobles, projecting toughness, detachment and even condescension. Noteworthy is a lightning appearance by Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), delivering a perfect snapshot of the former Cabinet member as a brilliant mind and a wise man. During an audience, the Winklevoss twins seek to recruit the chief as an ally in putting down Zuckerberg, quoting Harvard’s code of conduct against cheating. “Anne,” Summers tells an aide, “punch me in the face,” then tells them off in a manner most presidential to beat the crap.
Played with full depth and presence by Garfield, Eduardo is the film’s tragic hero, a mass of uncertainties and consumed by jealousy. The Facebook co-founder is a jangle of nerves, first mystified by all the sex he could have just by being popular and ending up bitter as his shares at Facebook are diluted, from 30% to 0.03%. Above all, he couldn’t understand the hold of Parker on Zuckerberg, or grasp the big changes at Facebook. Of all the key figures in the brief history of cyber nerds, he may be the most challenged, not even having a clue on how to change his relationship status in Facebook. He is, as Zuckerberg says, getting left behind. Betrayed and disillusioned, Eduardo tells Zuckenberg in his deposition, “I was your only friend.”
Timberlake as the fictive Parker adds a different beat to the movie: California techno rhythm over the staid vocal harmonizing on the East Coast. Himself a visionary, Parker’s genius is dulled by his decadence, his love for interns and drugs, but he is the prophet that Zuckerberg adopts as his own. Timberlake, in the Japanese restaurant scene, delightfully peppers his lines with the flicking of fingers and the limping of the wrist, coming out as an effete artiste and charmer, and one wonders why those happy traits were not kept throughout.
“The Social Network” is a collaboration of beautiful minds, orchestrated by Fincher. From the visual concept to the last defining images and an unsentimental soundtrack, he has the production under control down to the last detail. He shot the first 40 minutes of the movie in perpetual nighttime; it looks like dusk or pre-dawn even when it’s supposed to be daytime. The atmosphere is one of warm comfort and anticipation, as though a great idea is being hatched in darkness. When the action moves to the West Coast, only then do we see sunshine and bright colors, and finally the birth of Facebook — 1,000,049 members and counting. It’s as if Zuckerberg were born to exist here, fated to be very rich, very famous and very all alone.