MOVIE REVIEW: A well-connected ‘Network’

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg: The dump that launched 500 million profiles.

As of this point, I do not have a Facebook account. Nor, despite way too many prods from way too many people, do I really care to.

Not that I live a TMI life, but I don’t want people knowing more about me than I care to let them know (although if you read this blog, you know that a good chunk of my life, to some extent, is a pretty open book). Much worse, I’ve heard and read way too much about the site’s Byzantine privacy settings structure — and, worse, Mark Zuckerberg’s seeming disdain for others’ privacy matters.

Besides, the same people who are noodging me now and saying “You’ve gotta get on Facebook!” are the very same ones who said “You’ve gotta get on MySpace!” three years ago. And in a year or two it’ll be Zork.com or something else some other socially dysfunctional genius concocts to facilitate social interaction in the name of generating hits and satisfying advertisers.

Of course, there was one time a friend posted a link to one of my music posts from here on Facebook, and I amassed what is still my all-time one-day record for page views. So, if at least to build a readership for the blog, I still might one day put up a profile. But I’m certainly not in a rush.

But the founding of the social phenomenon of our times is, indeed, a fascinating story — the inspiration, the formation, the ego-tripping, the wildfire speed at which it eventually spread from Harvard to the world, the friendships left crushed in its wake, the money and the power — and I’m interested in reading Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book “The Accidental Billionaires,” which formed the basis for the most talked-about film of the year so far: “The Social Network.”

As someone who’s always leery of movies based on true events — after all, you never know what and how much the creators are embellishing — I left with a feeling of not knowing whether I have a feel for the real Zuckerberg after seeing writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher’s film version, as translated on screen by Jesse Eisenberg.

But I do know that whatever the real story, the one on the screen was very well presented. To keep one’s interest in a two-hour film that’s essentially about a socially inept guy, a lot of keyboard tapping and a hearing in a law office, it had better be. It’s pretty much as good as the massive buildup.

Even if you didn’t know anything going in about Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing,” you’d know he’s from a television background right away. He wastes no time establishing the characters’ personalities, and his experience writing for TV helps him wade through the minutiae that come with the worlds of computer coding and litigation.

Again, I’m not sure whether the real Zuckerberg is the shy, articulate, occasionally testy yet altruistic one we’ve seen in public of late, with the PR machine going full speed in the background (i.e. his announcement of his $100 million donation to the Newark school system on “Oprah”); the kid we see on the big screen, who actually had business cards that read “I’m CEO, bitch”; or something in the middle. (And keep in mind that he was only 19 at the start of the story, and is just 26 now and has a much better awareness of the world; I sure as hell cringe sometimes at the kid I was at 19, too. And 26, also, for that matter.)

Also, unlike the movie version of Zuckerberg, who seems pathetic in some scenes, especially at the end, the real Zuckerberg not only has friends, but has a longtime girlfriend — Priscilla Chang, who he met while still at Harvard — and by whatever accounts we’ve read, they’re a happy couple.

But as Sorkin paints him and Eisenberg portrays him, the Zuckerberg established in the opening five minutes is sharply defined as a real asshole — brilliant, computer coder extraordinaire, full of himself, socially inept, mouth racing to keep up with his three-steps-ahead mind, desperately desiring to climb the social ladder at Harvard, condescending as all hell with a touch of misogyny. We see him on full tilt in a Cambridge bar, having a beer with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara, who’s getting plenty of hype already for her upcoming role in the Fincher-directed adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”). Or, should I say, the girlfriend who’s about to dump his brilliant, arrogant, insensitive ass.

Having been put in his place (by a BU girl — gasp!), Mark does what every young kid does in this situation: runs back to his dorm room, blogs the dirt about his bitch of an ex-girlfriend, gets drunk, hacks into Harvard’s system, pulls all the headshots he can from campus house facebook sites, whips up the coding like that and unveils Facemash, a site where students can compare two girls’ headshots and choose for themselves. Then he strategically emails the link to a few well-placed students. It’s an instant hit that crashes the university’s system at 4 a.m. and leads to a disciplinary hearing where, after his arrogance is placed on full display again, he gets six months’ academic probation.

From there, it’s a story told in flashbacks from a law office in Palo Alto, where Mark, being sued for hundreds of millions, is being cross-examined by attorneys for his onetime best/only friend, Facebook co-founder and original business manager, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who originally bankrolled Zuckerberg but was eventually forced out of the company; and a trio of Harvard students — twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who claimed Mark stole their idea after they asked him to do the coding for a site they wanted to launch called The Harvard Connection.

Instead, Mark creates The Facebook, it spreads wildly to other colleges around the country, then across the pond, then to the public at large. And in the next big step, Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) seeks out Mark, who’s enraptured, and Eduardo, who is not pleased; Sean sees Facebook as a billion-dollar enterprise and, behind Eduardo’s back, lines up deep-pocketed venture capitalists to bankroll the company far beyond what either Mark and Eduardo ever envisioned. He also gets Mark to move out to Palo Alto, in the midst of Stanford and Silicon Valley. (And, in a subtle but profound suggestion, he tells Mark to drop the “The” from Facebook.)

Again, the devil is in the details of how Sorkin draws the characters and how well the actors interpret these drawings. As played by Garfield, the Brazilian-born Saverin is depicted as a good and well-meaning best friend who supports Mark wholeheartedly but, as a novice businessman, errs too far on the side of caution, and is clearly hurt by his friend’s betrayal. The Winklevii, as Mark derisively calls them and Sorkin draws them, are the classic elite, ultra-vain, ultra-rich, super-spoiled blonde Biffs of so many caricatures, world-class rowers who don’t crawl for anyone — and, when they can’t get their way with Harvard president Larry Summers, can call daddy’s in-house counsel to sue the shit out of the little Zuckerberg. Hammer does a fine job of shading the identical twins’ roles just enough to let their individual personalities stand out.

As for the top bills: It’s obvious Eisenberg was cast because he’s pretty close to a ringer for Zuckerberg, but his performance goes far beyond that. While his Mark comes off as tunnel-vision-focused at best, a world-class jerk at worst, with a verbal patter much faster than the real-life Mark I’ve seen in video clips, we also see some shadings in his character that make you think there are glints of humanity starting to surface toward the end, as he realizes the breadth and scope of not only his creation, but his responsibility.

The barely recognizable Timberlake is proving to be a versatile actor who can handle both comedy (his memorable “Saturday Night Live” appearances) and drama. His Parker (like Zuckerberg, apparently a very fictitious version of the real thing) is brash, slick, fearless, passionate, vain and over the top. It’s hard to pull off a caricature of a role without appearing to be one, and Timberlake does a stellar job of it. He’s ready to make music his secondary career.

Also ready for her close-up is Rooney; her Erica puts up with no bullshit as the scorned ex-girlfriend whose influence on Mark lingers long after, but she flashes her anger with refinement and much class. (Maybe it’s a family trait — she’s descended from the families known for running two of the National Football League’s classiest operations: the Maras of the New York Giants and the Rooneys of the Pittsburgh Steelers.)

And while Sorkin draws the lines, Fincher colors them in extremely well. His pacing of the film is precisely measured — not lingering on any one scene too long but not catering to the ADHD Generation, either. Likewise, there’s a firm balance between the law office scenes and the flashbacks. The upshot is that the film never feels like a two-hour feature.

There’s also a balance between darkness and light. Maybe there’s an overly simplistic delineation between the darkness of the Harvard scenes and the general sunniness of Palo Alto life, but overall, the darkness is apropos — the dimly lit dorm rooms, the nighttime fraternity parties, the nightclub scenes. And in the plethora of dark and dimly lit settings, especially in the Harvard scenes, the effect of the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross can’t be underestimated, highlighting the drama where acting can’t do the trick, especially in the scenes with much computer use.

Again, I have my qualms with “real life” films — and especially in this case, where the principals are not only very much alive, but very high-profile … and still very young. To some degree, we already know the outcome: Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire, he has the notoriety and the girl, to boot. Everyone else around him, by accident or by lawsuit, is pretty filthy rich, too. And most of you have been affected by his creation to one degree or another. And once this film blows over, it will still be business as usual in Palo Alto, for better and worse. But taken with enough salt to rust out a Connecticut car in the winter, “The Social Network” can be enjoyed not as a biopic, but as a well-told, well-crafted story with character. And characters.

UPDATE 10/4: A corollary to my reservations about “real life” films where Hollywood embellishes greatly: I found some interesting reading this morning in a couple of posts I found through Huffington about how the filmmaking establishment got the Facebook story wrong — and the whole new media landscape in general. The Wrap (Sharon Waxman’s site) focuses on the post-film backlash from Silicon Valley folks, while HuffPo new media blogger Jeff Jarvis talks about not only the film’s fictionalization, but its failure to understand — or explain — why Facebook became so damn popular. And both articles discuss what seems to be a generational divide — old-media types like Sorkin (who’s my age, 49) who seem to have a disdain for new-media types.

For the record, I have no disdain for new media or its importance. I came from an adulthood working in newspapers, which have done a pretty damn good job of marginalizing themselves without the help of the Internet — they not only were slow to embrace the future, but worse: They allowed themselves to be publicly sold, on a stock market where Wall Street scumbags determined newspapers had to crank out ridiculous and unreasonable profit margins, like 25-30 percent. That’s where a lot of the bean counting, budget slashing, cannibalizing and employee bloodletting in the industry came from, and it began long before the economy started to tank. My qualms with Facebook, as mentioned up top, have much to do with Zuckerberg’s apparent disregard for privacy. Again, as mentioned at the end, the film is a well-told story, but take it with as much salt as possible and not as gospel truth. Which I doubt many will, anyway.

2 Responses to “MOVIE REVIEW: A well-connected ‘Network’”

  1. Dale Stewart Says:

    Wish I could write as good as you, Fran. I appreciate your honest point of view, but I am hopelessly devoted to facebook. I never liked Myspace.

    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=630132787&ref=ts

  2. franoramaworld Says:

    Hey Dale.

    To tell you, I don’t like MySpace much myself. It’s gone straight to hell since Rupert Murdoch bought it — lots more ads to bombard you before you even get to the home page, lots more adware trying to glean your viewing habits and slowing down your system immensely, not the best selection of music for making playlists, advertising interrupting your playlists, and now new and desperate attempts to keep the relatively few members they still have. In other words, a good thing gone bad because of greed. Which Facebook, to its credit, never did.

    I only use it now to occasionally play online poker (not for money) and to let people know about my blog postings. I might eventually give in to the Facebook thing, but I’m not ready yet.

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