David Fincher’s The Social Network has spent much of its time in print and online being compared to Citizen Kane (1941) but when I watched it I kept seeing its resemblance to a different great movie; Milos Foreman’s Amadeus (1984). Whereas Citizen Kane is about power and prestige, loss and innocence, “love on your terms” and most of all, the only footprint any man can ever leave – the one he leaves in the memories of those who live beyond him – The Social Network is about two things, talent and jealousy.
The movie tells the story of Facebook’s origins and its founder Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) murky history in regards to the people who played parts (of varying import depending on who you ask) in its founding. The movie identifies the inciting incident in Zuckerberg’s shark-like devotion to being the king of the internet as a break-up between himself and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the girl who, in the film’s opening scene, alerts him that girls won’t like him not because he’s into computers or is physically unimposing but because he’s an asshole. A few minutes earlier he had informed her that she didn’t need to study because, unlike Zuckerberg the Harvard undergrad, Erica goes to Boston University. He will then spend the rest of the movie trying to prove her wrong. Girls won’t like him because he’s an asshole, no one will.
A drunken episode after the break-up that results with Zuckerberg creating a website that allows users to rank Harvard co-eds in terms of physical desirability lands him with an academic probation (and introduces his panache for being smugly dismissive during hearings) but gains him the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer plays both twins in a terrific mixture of performance and special effects), and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). They are students who have an idea for a social network that they want Zuckerberg to create the code and design for. The Winklevosses, whom Zuckerberg refers to as the Winklevii, have been tapped into a prestigious finals club, the inclusion of which Zuckerberg is insanely jealous of. They also row crew for Harvard and will soon do so for America in the Olympics, the exact type of athlete that Erica was praising as appealing during their final date. Zuckerberg agrees to help them with their site but instead starts his own, The Facebook, in which anyone with a Harvard email address can post their photos and their thoughts online and, more appealing, check out the photos and thoughts of their schoolmates.
Helping Zuckerberg in this endeavor is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s friend and roommate, who is president of the Harvard Investors club and is acting as the CFO of the enterprise (that means investing $1000). Zuckerberg will end up being sued by both the twins and Narendra and by Saverin, who was phased out of the company as it got bigger, his role as business manager being taken over by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the smooth but paranoid founder of Napster whose on the lookout for the next big thing. The story is told through deposition for the dual lawsuits which Zuckerberg snarls and derides his way through the hearings. “If your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have a right to give it a try,” he tells a prosecutor. “You have part of my attention. You have the minimum amount.” Even if his annoyance is righteous (“If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”) it can hardly mask his contempt not just for the proceedings but for the gulf both intellectually and socially that stands between himself and his accusers.
What kept bringing my mind back to Amadeus was that this character, Mark Zuckerberg, was essentially both Mozart and Salieri at once. He is the one touched by God, the smartest man in the room, the one whose gifts came so easily to him. But yet, he is also the only one who could clearly see that no matter how brilliant he is or how much success he has, he’ll never fit in as one of the men of privilege he sees around him. He’d never be part of the elite, never join the ranks of those whose pathways to influence and power are already set for them. It was them he meant to block, to hinder, to harm. Zuckerberg is cursed with the ability to both wield the instrument and the clarity to understand it doesn’t matter. At one point Mark proclaims, “I don’t hate anybody. The Winklevii aren’t suing me for intellectual property theft. They’re suing me because, for the first time in their lives, things didn’t go exactly the way they were supposed to for them.” Oh, but how he does hate the Winklevii, and what pleasure he does derive from derailing, even momentarily, the way things are supposed to go for them. In the end, however, no one is more acutely aware than Zuckerberg how the $25 billion dollar empire he created with nothing but his brain can’t stop the Winklevoss twins from continuing to be muscle-bound physical specimens and more of an embodiment of the American Dream than he and his little start up will ever make him. He’s also aware, perhaps more than anything, that it won’t make Erica Albright like him, a ship that sailed long ago thanks to the very inability to relate that allowed him to create Facebook in the first place.
In this way, the movie because less about a the story of a website and more about a hideous jealousy of those who belong, about a hole that no amount of online popularity will ever fill. The irony is that Zuckerberg isn’t denied that belonging because he invented Facebook and didn’t share but because his unabashed hatred of those privileges, on the basis that he isn’t allowed to enjoy them, virtually guarantees that he’ll never be allowed to enjoy them. Does this make him pathetic? Sort of. He’s too talented to be truly pathetic but he’s pitiable because so much of what makes him a genius is linked to what makes him unpleasant. The key characters in the movie, then, become the Winklevoss twins, who work as both a symbol of the indulgences they possess and as a rebuke to them. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant script, has always been obsessed with entitlement and here he has a lot of fun making the Winklevii walking parodies of themselves, missing tricks because they cling to the meaningless standards of being “gentlemen of Harvard” and taking umbrage to not only what Zuckerberg is doing but how he is doing. “He’s giving us the middle finger in The Crimson!” one of them shouts, as if the mode of delivery is worse than the act. But, thanks to Hammer, the twins aren’t simply buffoons, in fact, they have what Zuckerberg simultaneously disdains and lusts after, likability. True, they aren’t near as clever as Zuckerberg and they were asking him to do the hard work that would make them ingenues but there’s a part of you that believes that’s the way it should be. There’s a reason they are so often shown rowing or doing other impossibly physical activities while Zuckerberg, poorly dressed, is behind a computer screen hunched over. They are so virile and have the look of a winner to such a degree that part of you wishes they were the ones as clever as Zuckerberg. That’s the part Zuckerberg is so jealous of, the part he can never win over. That natural desire to seek the approval of the privileged. That’s the one code Zuckerberg can’t rewrite, even in himself.
The movie is so effortless entertaining, zipping along under Sorkin’s script and Fincher’s snappy direction that makes a potentially thorny narrative easily and happily understandable. I haven’t a clue how close it mirrors the real origins of the site or the actual Mark Zuckerberg, just as I know I’m not seeing a truthful depiction of Mozart when I watch Amadeus. The movie provides its own out “When there’s emotional testimony, I assume that 85% of it is exaggeration,” a lawyer tells Zuckerberg. The other fifteen? “Perjury. Creation myths need a devil.” Zuckerberg makes a fascinating one.