Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is 26 years old today.
Jesse Eisenberg, the talented young actor (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) who plays him in David Fincher’s ceaselessly entertaining and exhilarating examination of Zuckerberg and the eventful creation of his remarkable website, is 27 years old – about seven months Zuckerberg’s senior, and presumably at least a few billion dollars less well-off.
This comparison puts into perspective just how youthful an individual the film fleshes out, with considerable artistic licence on the part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), and helps explain some of his curious conduct as the story progresses. It also gives us the raison d’être of the film: just who is this kid, the youngest self-made billionaire in history, and just who does he think he is?
The film ostensibly charts the life of Zuckerberg from his enthusiastic initial creation of Facebook, at just 19, in Harvard to the spectacular subsequent falling-out with his best friend in school (Andrew Garfield), when a litany of accusations and lawsuits over alleged theft of intellectual property – and betrayals of personal and professional nature – have surfaced.
Is Zuckerberg a petty a**hole as his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) tells him, for his sake, when she initiates their break-up in the film’s enthralling opening? Or can he be forgiven for being awkward, a brilliant tech nerd without the people skills to navigate modern civilised society?
In a film dripping with sarcasm and chock-full of wicked wit, one is drawn to Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg because he seems a flawed hero fit for any Greek tragedy – he is not mean-spirited by nature or in any conventional sense, but his intellectualism causes him to be condescending and dismissive – and thus seem to live by his own moral code.
He is, we are led to believe, simply an emotionally immature genius. The delicious irony at play here is the likelihood that the man, or rather man-child, behind Facebook is himself not all that adept at social interaction. In fact, he is frequently anti-social.
The film delights in how he easily alienates and offends people. This is a boy with a chip or two on his shoulder, a beautiful mind with an imperial complex – the Geek Who Would Be King, if you wish. We are provoked to wonder if drive and petulance are frequently allied with genius, and if innovation finds inspiration in failed relationships with others, especially women?
The indignation that is felt by Zuckerberg’s rivals and adversaries is the stuff of great comedy here; one of the privileged – and physically imposing – Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) who are convinced that Zuckerberg stole their business idea threatens physical hurt in an angry, typically Hollywood outburst: “I'm six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me!”
The way the audience gets swept up in the triumphs of Zuckerberg and his associates is a testament to Sorkin’s sharp script, Fincher’s direction, as well as the uniform excellence of the cast. In this increasingly Internet-driven and connected world, the tech heroes are becoming the rock stars of the corporate world.
In a sense, the supporting character of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, a fine casting choice), who really did help Zuckerberg prime Facebook for its rapid expansion with his grand ideas and great contacts with power investors, could have been considered one of the first of this tech generation’s rock gods.
In the film, he is seen as the extreme of what Zuckerberg could become, one who tries to instil a ruthless streak in him. Although the film is concerned with the meteoric rise of Zuckerberg, and the phenomenon of his vision that the entire college social experience could be encapsulated into one website – and change the world on a staggering scale – it is ultimately a story of geniuses and the havoc this particular one wrought.
This film is particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of unequivocal genius and the constant incidence of personal strife in Zuckerberg’s young and incredible life.
As I said before, the film never fails to entertain. It is a deeply involving feature and the triumphs of our protagonist, whose uncertainty, self-doubt and social awkwardness are qualities most can relate to, become our triumphs – he isn’t all that appealing, yet he gets our cheers and whoops.
Another idea that the film leads to: does genius absolve shoddy behaviour? The answer: maybe yes, at least in the corporate world of revenues and stock prices.
In many ways, The Social Network is a surprising movie. Who knew that the story of Facebook could have been told so vividly, or that it could so richly satisfy our wish-fulfilment fantasies?
Who, also, knew Eisenberg, who’s many a time played the guileless outsider, could imbue his nebbish screen persona with the supercilious edge and venom required here.
Sure, the events of the film may not all be true – how many Facebook profiles tell the whole truth, after all – and perhaps the real Zuckerberg has motivations and flaws that differ from what’s portrayed. But that matters little in the final analysis.
This is not a documentary, the way I Love You Phillip Morris isn’t one, either. Fincher’s film is about the human cost of ridiculous success and perhaps the inherent difficulties of genius. Just as we celebrate heroes, it is sometimes sadistic fun to watch them fail.
The Zuckerberg in this film may have ended up rich beyond wildest dreams, and he may not even be interested in wealth per se, but, as you will see, there are some black marks he may never completely scrub clean. That what makes him, true to life or not, so compelling.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.