I don’t know how you could possibly make a movie where the plot is centered on computer code. At least not a good or entertaining one. But the producers of “The Social Network” managed it. Did they ever. It’s one of the best films I have seen in a long time.
I don’t get to the movies much, though I like movies. I’m certainly not in the business of writing movie reviews, but I’m doing this blog and no one’s been interested in a lawyer’s strike yet so here goes. Spoilers to follow, so if you haven’t seen it I suggest you do so before reading further.
I’m so tired of Harvard, and I think a lot of people are. All the glib we’re so smart stuff has become a colossal bore. Yet TSN is largely set there, and turns the tedious cliches surrounding that American institution into the backdrop of a deep and serious but nevertheless charming story about character and, well, life.
Mark Zuckerberg is a smart boy. He goes to Harvard, naturally. Physically he’s the epitome of the small, annoying, grasping computer crazed middle class Jewish kid who gets into Harvard because of his brains but doesn’t fit in in any other way. The movie opens with him and his girlfriend – Erica – conversing at a table in a crowded bar. He is as annoying as she is very sweet. As she invites him to pleasant and affectionate conversation over and over he is inappropriately combative, hinting at a smoldering drive tinged with anger. Although for the most part she gives as good as she gets as she repeatedly tries to steer the conversation back to something more normal, Zuckerberg ultimately raises the ante and turns to insults.
Finally she’s had enough and breaks it off with him. Her parting words are something like: “Mark, you think girls won’t like you because you’re an annoying little geek, but that’s not true. Girls won’t like you – and I mean this from the bottom of my heart – because you’re an asshole.”
Now seriously, that’s a good line, and it poses a recurring issue in the film: is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?
It’s a recurring issue, but the movie is about a lot more than that. Just like it’s about a lot more than being a computer whiz.
So then we meet his roommates, his friends, we get a look at the Harvard campus, we see how facile he is with a computer, how smart he is. That’s the tedious part, but it has to be in there. It’s an important part of the story.
His best friend is Eduardo Severin, and it is he and Zuckerberg that come up with the algorithms that become the basis of the facebook. And of course, we know a lot of that part of the story, because everyone knows what Facebook is, but we don’t know all of it.
Zuckerberg is approached by two twin brothers who are obviously part of the Harvard elite. Which is saying something because Harvard, whatever else it is – and that’s probably not much at this point – is a very elite place across the board. But these two guys have a father with a net worth in nine figures. They’re tall and handsome. They’re on the crew team.
And basically they have the idea for facebook, but they need some computer geek like Zuckerberg to pull it off for them. They contact him because he made a splash on campus for some other cyber-misconduct, thinking that he must be the guy who could do it. They meet once. Zuckerberg agrees to do it right away. He never sees the two brothers again.
As he bobs and weaves in an effort to avoid any further dealings with the twins, Zuckerberg works furiously on the idea. It becomes an obsession, and while there are a few peripheral characters involved the most important relationship we see developing and deepening during this time is with his best friend, Eduardo.
Eduardo’s middle class, too, meaning that between him and Zuckerberg there isn’t much money. But Eduardo can get some, and he’s a business major, so Zuckerberg handles the computer stuff and Eduardo handles the shoe-string financing.
As the business begins to show great promise, the two begin to differ. Eduardo wants to build a viable business, but Zuckerberg essentially wants to take over the world with something unimaginably huge. In other words, Eduardo – a loyal, steady and responsible guy who gets pushed around by his girlfriend – is moving in the direction of mediocrity. Zuckerberg is driven to be brilliant.
Enter Sean Parker. Parker was the creator of Napster, an earlier internet company that, well, pirated music, became hugely successful and well known, and then folded in a hail of lawsuits and injunctions. Zuckerberg knew the story, admired Parker’s pluck, wanted to meet him and did.
We get transported from the stodgy confines of Harvard out to the west coast. It’s refreshing. Parker has all this energy and knows how to have a good time, and more importantly has no interest in mediocrity. He wants to stir things up, to make trouble, to do something great, to “piss people off”. And he has done that before. And Zuckerberg wants to do substantially that with facebook. So in this wide-ranging restaurant meeting where libations flow freely Parker, a big personality, puts on his show and the bond is formed between him and Zuckerberg.
Much to Eduardo’s displeasure. He doesn’t like Parker at all.
Meanwhile, back at Harvard, the twins are pissed off and are talking to Daddy’s in house counsel and wavering back and forth about whether to sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea. On the one hand, it’s beneath them to sue the little dweeb. On the other hand, this is America! So they sue. We know that because the film also flashes forward intermittently to the depositions in some plush lawyer’s office. Eduardo, being American, sues as well.
Lots of people wind up suing Zuckerberg. And, you know, he deserves it. He’s being a real asshole. He distances himself from his friend Eduardo as he makes his bed with Parker, who then gets Zuckerberg an important, substantial and timely infusion of cash to push facebook over the top. As Parker and Eduardo continue to clash, Zuckerberg warns Eduardo not to get “left behind”. This is friendly counsel and insult at the same time.
And so we come to the crux of the story, what the movie is really about. When you are focused on accomplishing something great and have a genuine chance to do it, you also become enmeshed in conflict. And these conflicts stem from classical, well known sources. People are flawed. Eduardo has high character but in certain ways he’s weak. Where Eduardo is weak, Sean Parker is strong, but Parker has low character which can’t help but bite you in the butt sometimes. The twins are the foils, the spoiled, smug and self-entitled Brahmins Zuckerberg wants to unthrone, at least in his corner of the universe.
Then there’s the inner conflict: is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole? Will he turn on his friend? Will he self-destruct under the worse influences of Parker? Will he be just and fair – or ruthless – as facebook succeeds and he gains more money and power?
These questions are resolved in the movie the way they usually are resolved in real life: ambiguously. And this is one of script writer Aaron Sorkin’s real talents: seeing both sides of the conflict on their own terms. His ability in that regard is almost his trademark at this point. Think of “A Few Good Men” and the many episodes of West Wing, highly political dramas which Sorkin also wrote, where he was routinely able to make the best arguments from both the liberal and conservative viewpoints.
So the lawsuit gets settled. Zuckerberg screws over his friend Eduardo, but not too much; he gets fleas from Parker, but manages to clean them off.
In the end, though, it’s Erica that Zuckerberg wants. The hint is that this is what the whole thing was about, at bottom. Does he get her? We don’t know. In declaring him an asshole she is arguably at least half right. Thus as many great movies do it ends where it began, having spent the story showing the complexity of the seemingly simple question it is asking. This is a film that respects itself and its audience.
If you had to encapsulate in one question what this move was about, then, it would be this: Does the power of love overcome the love of power? To raise that question in such a thoughtful, subtle and truly tender way, in the context of a very fresh 21st century story about computer programs and elite pomposity and class distinctions and ego clashes and friendship and loyalty and ambition – the very stuff of humanity and its drama from time immemorial – is a stunning achievement in movie making and story telling. The character development, the plot, the cinematography, the acting, the casting is all just about perfect. Justin Timberlake as Parker is a little weak, although even he does a surprisingly good job.
From the standpoint of richly rewarding entertainment you could hardly spend two hours more profitably than by seeing this movie.
Update: Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote a review in The New Republic. In accusing Sorkin of missing the point, he misses the point.
Update 2: In a surprising twist, the twins are trying to undo the settlement they made in the lawsuit between them and Zuckerberg in 2008. Apparently $65 million was not enough, with Goldman Sachs showering the company with hundreds of millions. These people are insane. They need something else to do. Facebook is not, in any rational universe, worth that kind of money, or anything even resembling that kind of money. The whole thing is becoming a parable for our time: a high tech but ultimately hollow “product” that in the end is little more than a combination of electronic ones and zeroes that doesn’t feed anyone, house anyone, clothe anyone, transport anyone (physically), super-hyped to staggering valuations in the international casino economy. The only really interesting things to say about Facebook were all said in the movie – which really wasn’t about Facebook. In other words, it’s not even interesting enough to fill a two hour film, and yet it’s somehow worth $50 billion? The whole thing is going to crash and burn before anyone puts $65 million in their pocket. The twins would come out on top of this in the end if they cashed their chips and went home; angling to get their hands on a new and bigger chunk is a huge mistake.