Over the past couple of decades, the film industry seems to have become seriously enamored of a certain type of movie: namely, the fact-based historical drama or biopic. You can understand the instinct; ‘based on a true story’ has always been a reliable draw for audiences, and human history is full of wild and compelling stories that deserve to be retold on the big screen. But recently, Hollywood has gone distinctly overboard, setting out to dramatize and monetize every halfway interesting bit of recent history—and I mean very, very recent, to the point that it often feels barely removed from the current news cycle. Remember the Chilean mining disaster in 2010, when those guys were trapped underground for months and then finally rescued? Within five years, there was a movie about it, nicely inspirational but fairly straightforward and predictable. Barely one year after that youth soccer team was rescued from the flooded cave in Thailand, there was a similarly formulaic Thai movie about it, and Ron Howard is currently gearing up to make the American version. It’s not that such movies can’t be good, or even great—think of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), an all-time classic made only a few years after the incident it dramatizes. More recently, Bombshell (2019), about journalists fighting back against the culture of sexism at Fox News, was highly relevant in the MeToo era, well received by critics, and nominated for many awards. And yet, when I saw the trailer, a part of me rolled my eyes—another ‘historical’ drama made barely three years after the fact; portraying famous people who are not only still alive, but still in the middle of the same careers shown in the movie; commenting on a social movement that’s still very much ongoing and unresolved… It was clearly a compelling story, but why so soon? Again, I understand the impulse, both creatively and financially: these are interesting stories, largely pre-written, and Hollywood wants to cash in while they’re still in the public consciousness. But I find it slightly annoying, to say the least. (I give it two years, tops, before the big Oscar-bait dramas about the Mueller investigation start showing up.)
And I doubt I was the only one who reacted similarly when The Social Network came out in 2010, a mere six years removed from its story about the founding of the now-ubiquitous social media platform Facebook. Oh great, I thought, we’re already doing the ‘rousing origin story’ thing about Facebook, an innovation that’s not even particularly impressive or consequential, etc., etc… But I turned out to be wrong in pretty much every respect. This is, and always will be, one of the defining films of the 21st century. It’s masterfully executed across the board—about as close to perfectly made as a movie can be—but also emotionally resonant to a surprising degree, and still endlessly thought-provoking. That last point is especially remarkable; the story of Facebook has seen some significant developments in the past ten years, and it would seem impossible for any pre-2016 movie about it, in particular, not to feel quite dated today. And yet The Social Network is, if anything, even more interesting now than it was in 2010, owing both to its impressive prescience about many issues that have only grown more urgent, and to its keen understanding of the timeless struggles and themes at the core of the story.
In retrospect, it should have been no surprise that the movie turned out so well, given the director, David Fincher, and the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. Both are masters of their respective crafts, and The Social Network is arguably the best work either man has ever done. Which is saying something; Sorkin, for his part, has been a prolific and exalted writer for over 30 years. He wrote the stage play A Few Good Men (1989) and its 1992 film adaptation, as well as witty, wordy movies like The American President (1995), Moneyball (2008), and Steve Jobs (2015). He’s been even more of a doggedly high-performing workhorse in TV, creating The West Wing (1999-2006) and writing practically every episode of its first four seasons, and playing a similar creator/chief writer role for the entire runs of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) and The Newsroom (2012-2014). And that’s not even the full extent of his remarkable career.
The setting and subject matter has varied, but Sorkin’s writing has always been peerlessly distinctive, defined by fast-paced, densely layered, and endlessly inventive conversation between intelligent, hyper-articulate characters. As David Denby writes, “His adrenaline-pumped men and women anticipate one another’s best shots; they fill out or overturn one another’s half-finished sentences, answering what’s implied rather than simply what’s said.”[i] His dialogue can’t exactly be called realistic—real people simply don’t speak so quickly, in such cleverly coherent sentences, and with such command of relevant facts and references—but coming from skilled performers, it’s so exhilarating to listen to that this hardly matters. It’s a joy to hear language so skillfully deployed, and anyway, true realism has never been Sorkin’s goal; he harnesses the full potential of the spoken word as a narrative tool, expressing far more about the characters, the themes, and the subjects informing the story than he ever could if the dialogue were more strictly naturalistic. And at the same time, he’s adept at striking a fine balance between cleverness and accessibility. As rich as the dialogue in The Social Network is, it consists mostly of words that are not only understandable, but common in everyday usage—the artistry lies in how they’re arranged. Indeed, some of the most riveting lines, the resounding punctuation marks that finish off elaborate verbal exchanges with a flourish, are plain and direct, the kinds of sentences any normal person might say: “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” “Oops.” “Go home, Sean.” On two different occasions, it’s a simple, heavily loaded “No.”
This whole screenplay finds Sorkin in peak form. He’s one of the few working screenwriters who can create the gripping energy of a thriller through words alone—a talent perfectly suited to a story centered on esoteric, largely abstract concepts like computer programming, complex business dealings, and the rarefied social structures of elite American universities. And it’s not just a series of great scenes; Sorkin reworks the facts into a classical narrative of ambition (more on that later), while also making deft use of an intricate, multi-layered structure. The script jumps between Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts creating Facebook in 2004, and two separate legal depositions a few years later, one with the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra suing him for intellectual property theft, and one with his former business partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin, suing him for being unfairly cut out of the company. That could have been a mess, but the three storylines are so intuitively intertwined that it’s never confusing; instead, we can appreciate the way the depositions often function like incisive running commentary on the main story, sometimes to the point that there seems to be a sort of meta-dialogue between the different settings—all contributing to the movie’s emotional and thematic depth, and its relentless sense of narrative momentum.
This is clearly exemplified in the celebrated opening scene. In broad strokes, it’s straightforward: two college students sit in a bar and talk, then argue, and finally break up. But so much is being communicated, between the characters and from them to us, both above and below the surface. The dialogue (which begins even before the opening logo fades out) is captivating in the typical Sorkin way: plentiful and dazzling, zipping around in unexpected directions, with a rapid, rhythmic quality to it that inexorably draws us in. But it’s also tightly focused; tangents and turns of phrase that seem like little more than fun verbal flourishes turn out to have narrative and thematic significance by the end. It seamlessly conveys a great deal of exposition about the physical setting, the social context, and the characters—all crucial to understanding the story to come. Even as they navigate the rapid-fire dialogue, Rooney Mara establishes Erica as a normal, good-natured young woman, and Jesse Eisenberg gives a sense of Mark’s formidable intelligence, cringey social ineptitude, and obsessive desire to belong to the in-crowd; she keeps trying to introduce some levity into the scene, to make it more like a normal conversation, while his every attempt to repair the damage only succeeds in driving her further away. The progressive deterioration of the relationship is clearly perceptible beneath the surface, even as the dialogue rarely engages with it directly.
And then there’s David Fincher’s direction, which is less noticeable but equally crucial to the scene’s success. He shoots it in a straightforward manner: static tripod shots, no particularly unusual framing, and a color palette that’s richly evocative without drawing attention to itself. This keeps our focus on the faces of the characters and what they’re saying, as it should—that’s where the action is in this scene, and it’s so fast-paced that even a minor distraction would be hard for the audience to handle. At the same time, though, Fincher assembles these simple images with immaculate precision, deftly directing our perception of the scene. He includes wide shots only very briefly: at the beginning, middle, and end, just enough to clarify where we are and what’s happening. Otherwise, Mark and Erica are never together in the frame, which emphasizes the widening gulf between them, and Fincher mostly keeps them at medium distance, cutting to close-ups only for the most important and consequential lines, nudging us pay special attention to them. Fincher’s carefully considered filmmaking does just as much as Sorkin’s carefully considered words to make this straightforward scene thrilling to watch—and to make the themes, subtext and unspoken implications apparent and compelling.
The qualities on display here and throughout The Social Network—the careful camerawork, the subtly vibrant colors, the meticulous attention to details of all kinds—are characteristic of Fincher’s unique and impressive career. He’s a self-taught filmmaker, to the extent that anyone can be; raised in Denver, Oregon, and Northern California, he never went to film school, or college of any kind. He started out at age seventeen as a camera operator, and worked his way up through the special effects department (including on Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom!) to music videos (for Aerosmith, George Michael, and Madonna, among others), and finally to his own features, beginning with Alien 3 (1992, largely as a director-for-hire) and Seven (1995), which is generally regarded as the first true Fincher film. He’s an all-time great craftsman of cinema, nearly unparalleled in his ability to bring his own idiosyncratic style to the screen. As we’ve mentioned, he has an old-school affinity for static, precisely framed shots, and a finely-honed ability to construct dynamic sequences almost entirely from such simple images.[ii] He uses CGI quite extensively, but usually in ways so subtle and seamless that you barely notice it, or else quickly forget about it as it blends into the texture of the movie: fastidiously recreating 1970s San Francisco in Zodiac (2007), aging and de-aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), or, in The Social Network, contriving to have both Winklevoss twins effectively played by one actor, Armie Hammer—along with Josh Pence in a thankless but essential role as a body double. And as partial as Fincher is to static frames, he also makes wickedly effective use of the moving camera, matching it with the movements of the actors so precisely that it creates a subconsciously hypnotic effect, drawing you in to an almost uncomfortable degree; as the brilliant Nerdwriter1 puts it, he “hijacks your eyes.”[iii] Given all this, it’s not surprising that Fincher is a legendary (and occasionally infamous) perfectionist, frequently demanding multiple dozens of takes to get exactly what he wants from the camera and the actors. (That opening scene in the bar took a mind-boggling ninety-nine takes before Fincher was satisfied.) His formidable talent enhances The Social Network at every turn, as it would pretty much any story he might choose to film.
This particular story, however, is an especially good fit for Fincher’s style, just as it is for Sorkin’s. As many critics have noted, Fincher has a creative affinity for outcasts and rebels, as well as a fascination with the darker, more sinister aspects of human nature. But while a distinctive aesthetic is a great strength for any artist, it can also be, if not exactly a weakness, then something of a stumbling block. Fincher’s technical prowess, combined with disturbing subject matter and a misanthropic worldview that can sometimes equate bleakness and shock value with profundity, results in movies that get under your skin in a way few others do. That’s very impressive, but it’s entirely possible to find yourself admiring Fincher’s craft without finding the movie particularly enjoyable. As objectively good as Seven, Zodiac, and his English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are, I don’t have much desire to watch any of them again. And it’s not always clear-cut one way or the other; you could make an equal case for Fight Club (1999) as a juvenile manifesto of straight white male grievance, or as a biting satire of that same idea. (I like Fight Club a lot, just not in the same way I did when I was seventeen.)
Sorkin, meanwhile, has some weaknesses of his own. Women in his screenplays, smart and articulate as they are, often end up dependent on approval, guidance, or validation from the men in their life to fully grow and develop as characters. (This was a notable issue in his 2017 directorial debut, Molly’s Game, though by no means a crippling one.) And he can be slightly overindulgent with his dialogue; occasionally, he’ll let himself get a bit too clever, draw out a witty exchange one quip too far—so that it all suddenly feels too cute by a few degrees, if that makes any sense. Take this exchange from The Newsroom (it’s not the best example, but Sorkin has written a lot, and for some reason, this is the one I remember). News anchor Will McAvoy is talking with his boss, Charlie Skinner, about how movements on the far left and right influence the moderate political establishments…
WILL: Bob Bennett, the most conservative member of the Senate, is going to lose is primary race to a guy named Mike Lee, because Lee found room to the right of Bennett.
CHARLIE: You wouldn’t think that was possible.
WILL: Back in 1968, when Randy Davis and Hayden and their guys organized the SDS, it was specifically to end the Vietnam War—but that movement got eaten by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.
CHARLIE: Hoffman and Rubin were a lot more charismatic.
WILL: Yeah, but it was impossible to define what the Yippies were protesting; they were about giving the finger to anyone over 30, generically hating the American establishment, dropping out and getting high.
WILL: That’s how the progressive movement would be painted for the next 40 years: people passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.
CHARLIE: I was there; that damn near worked.
WILL: No it didn’t; the Pentagon’s a really big building, you can’t levitate it.
CHARLIE: How is there room to the right of Bob Bennett?
…And it so on from there. It’s objectively good writing, and of course everyone’s tastes are different, but for me, that last rejoinder by Will is a bit too much—a joke that doesn’t really add anything else to the dialogue, registering instead as cleverness for its own sake.
To be clear, these are all very minor quibbles. Both men are still undisputed masters of their respective crafts, among the best in the world at what they do. Sorkin has never written a bad script, and Fincher has never made a bad movie. But The Social Network is a rare, remarkable instance of two great artists making each other even better through collaboration. Their aesthetics are quite different, but that turns out to be a good thing, because each ends up modulating the other’s worst instincts. This is still a Fincher film, so it’s still dark, ominous and cynical, but no one will be getting stabbed to death in lurid detail or finding their wife’s head in a box. Women are not a major presence in the story, but Erica, at least, cuts against some of Sorkin’s vexing tendencies. And while there’s plenty of classic Sorkin back-and-forth here (Responding to skepticism about the potential value of Facebook: “Sir, I honestly don’t think you’re in any position to make that call!” “I was the U.S. Treasury Secretary. I’m in some position to make that call.”), Fincher will never make a movie with dialogue could be dismissed as ‘too cute.’ With his exacting style, Fincher adds all sorts of subtle cinematic touches that deepen the movie’s impact, and extracts the sharpest possible performance of the dialogue from his talented cast. With his great command of the medium, he handles the tricky narrative structure with confidence; the work by him and his longtime editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, is just as important as Sorkin’s in ensuring that the story flows smoothly and with such terrific momentum. Meanwhile, Sorkin gives Fincher the best script he’s ever had to work with, and reveals in him comedic chops that, for all his impish tendencies, he hasn’t really shown before—none of his other films are likely to feature a comic stage-fall, or a character proclaiming, “I’m 6’5”, 220 and there’s two of me!” The creative partnership makes both Fincher and Sorkin better, and the result is the best work either of them has ever done.
And yet, as impeccably crafted as The Social Network is, that alone doesn’t explain why it resonates so deeply, why it feels so richly emblematic of its time and place. That’s a tricky question, because, as many people have pointed out, it’s not exactly an accurate retelling of the rise of Facebook. But it seems clear that that’s not what Fincher and Sorkin are after; instead, they use the facts as a jumping-off point to construct a more familiar narrative about ambition, about the meteoric rise and the ultimate emptiness of success, in the same (general) mold of Citizen Kane and many other venerated, classically American stories. The real-life figures are recast as fictional characters who fit, to varying degrees, into archetypes typical of these sorts of stories. Mark has elements of the eccentric, socially inept genius, the scrappy outsider aspiring to the inner circles of entrenched wealth and power, and the striving capitalist corrupted by an addiction to ever-increasing dominance. Eduardo is the loyal friend who gets left behind, and the loyal partner, crucial to the early success and eventually sacrificed in the name of further advancement. Dustin Moskovitz, a major player in the actual founding of Facebook, is the easygoing comic relief. The movie version of Sean Parker is the smooth-talking huckster eager for a piece of the action, and the wild-card, hard-partying bad boy nursing a grudge against the ‘respectable’ society that rejected him. The Winklevosses, on the other hand, are classic emissaries of the entitled elite: effortlessly self-confident and complacent, haughty and condescending in ways they may not even be fully aware of. And Erica is akin to Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud—an idealized, tragically lost symbol of wholesome fulfillment that fuels the drive for success, and that no amount of wealth or power can ever replace.
You can understand why the real-life people in question might be angry about this; as articulate as the characters are and as gripping as their story is, most of them are not, in the end, portrayed in a particularly flattering light. The movie doesn’t actually show any text claiming to be ‘based on a true story,’ and Fincher and Sorkin probably could have avoided most of the controversy simply by changing the relevant names, positioning it unequivocally as fiction. That they didn’t do so is no surprise; it’s typical of Sorkin to freely interweave fiction with the historical record, and typical of Fincher to not give a rat’s ass about the bruised egos of a bunch of super-rich public figures. And creatively, it was the right decision; the movie’s departures from strict accuracy all contribute to the emotional impact and thematic import of the story, while the fact that it’s clearly taking place our own world makes the impact that much greater, and the insights that much more thought-provoking.
The real Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was keen to point out to anyone who’d listen that he had no interest in joining Harvard’s elite ‘final clubs,’ and had already met his future wife when he created Facebook. So okay, that opening scene in the bar never happened, and maybe he wasn’t driven by rejection from the opposite sex, or obsession with gaining access to an exclusive social group and jealous resentment of a friend who did. But the story of Facebook’s founding is infinitely more interesting as an exploration of these timeless, universally relatable human emotions—struggles are central to both the addictive appeal and the sinister ramifications of Facebook and other social media: the longing for social and romantic status, the primal need to be desired, to feel we belong, and to prove wrong those who dismissed and rejected us. No, people probably weren’t actually passing notes in a Harvard computer science class in 2004, but that scene vividly and concisely conveys the anguish of being ostracized in the world of college, where social status is so desperately important. No, parties at the Phoenix club are probably not the orgies of entitled debauchery that we see in the movie, and maybe the Winklevoss twins aren’t really so arrogant and attached to outdated social codes, but their portrayal says a lot about the persistent role of class in American society—the inborn self-assurance and materially better lives enjoyed by those at the top, and the way they instinctively look down on outsiders and resist any challenge to, or intrusion upon, their privileged position. The Winklevosses have a pretty convincing case for intellectual property theft, but we also nod along with Mark’s assertion that they’re really suing him “because for once in their lives, things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to for them.”
Maybe the real Eduardo Saverin wasn’t so innocent and naïve, or so blameless in his dishonorable discharge from Facebook. But as portrayed here, his character arc offers a time-honored tale of friendship and betrayal, and a compelling exploration of what modern capitalism does to people—the ruthlessness and ruined relationships that even the glittering successes always seem to leave in their wake. In an intriguing wrinkle, Mark and Sean both seem to have genuinely better business instincts than Eduardo, and yet the movie’s most memorably heartbreaking line comes from him, a poignant distillation of the emotional cost of success in an enterprise meant to improve social life: “I was your only friend. You had one friend.”
Sean Parker, for his part, is probably the character furthest removed from his real-life counterpart,[iv] but he’s central to the movie’s exploration of issues that have only grown thornier and more relevant in the years since its release. Sean embodies the maxim that what drives the true ‘winners’ of contemporary American capitalism is not financial success, but a savage, deeply personal, and ultimately destructive version of all-out competition. His primary drive is not to make money—he, like most everyone else in the movie, is already rich, and will only get richer—but to screw over the business world that, as he sees it, screwed him. And this, far more than the girls and the parties, is what draws Mark to Sean, because it’s driving Mark, too; even when he gains the capacity to live large like Sean, he chooses not to, just as he doesn’t use his newfound resources and stature to force his way into the traditional aristocracy, but to tear it down and make it irrelevant. Meanwhile, for all of Sean’s ridiculousness, he’s shown to be shrewdly perceptive about people, and the ways the internet will affect their lives. (His paranoid declaration about the death of online privacy—“Whatever it is that’s gonna trip you up, you’ve done already”—is almost eerily prescient today.) His combination of paranoia and exuberant wonder at the age we’re living in is crucial one of The Social Network’s great strengths: although it begins long after the digital infrastructure has been established, and doesn’t actually show much of Facebook the website, the movie captures better than just about any other what a radical development the internet has been in society—the ways it has amplified, transformed, and confused so many timeless aspects of the human experience, from privacy to social structures to the consumption of information, and everything in between.[v]
No, the founding of Facebook probably didn’t happen this way. But The Social Network is the kind of sharp, insightful fiction that will be as valuable to future historians, and anyone else who wants to better understand this moment, as a hundred primary sources. And in the meantime, it’s still a remarkable achievement: a gripping thriller, with emotional depth and stakes that feel like life or death, about some college kids making a website.
© Harrison Swan, 2020
[i] This long, in-depth review is wonderfully informative about many aspects of the movie, not just Sorkin’s writing: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/influencing-people
[ii] Tony Zhou, of the great YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, breaks down this and other aspects of Fincher’s exceptional craft in this illuminating video essay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPAloq5MCUA
[iv] The real Parker was a pretty good sport about it, praising the movie overall and remarking that, while the portrayal of him was inaccurate, “it’s hard to complain about being played by a sex symbol.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Parker)
[v] I wasn’t able to work their words directly into this article, but I also found these reviews very incisive and helpful.
From Ty Burr at the Boston Globe: http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/09/30/the_social_network_pokes_into_facebook_founders_tangled_web/?page=full
From Manohla Dargis at the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/movies/24nyffsocial.html?ref=movies
And from Sean Fennessy and Chris Ryan at Grantland: http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/david-fincher-career-arc-gone-girl-zodiac-social-network-dragon-tattoo-benjamin-button-genre/