There are so many skillful aspects of The Social Network that are utterly wasted on this poorly directed misogynistic piece of “history”. The film opens on a feat of good writing, perhaps the only truly well-scripted and directed scene in the film: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played by the excellent Jesse Eisenberg) is out on a date with his girlfriend and they are engaged in an exciting match of verbal sparring. Their conversation is fast-paced and tangential and keeping up with it is a fun game. Here Aaron Sorkin is amazing: he captures the syntax and diction of smart people the way David Auburn did so masterfully in Proof. And even director David Fincher manages to give this stationary scene a real feeling of immediacy and momentum.
Unfortunately, what is behind this scene is the revelation that Zuckerberg is a real conceited and condescending asshole that Fincher decides to misguidedly idolise because his existing celebrity status somehow merits lionization even before he achieved his great success: the facebook. The film glorifies the entitled Harvard cohort, and treats the audience as though we all just wish we were Harvard students.
It is at its best and most interesting when we see some of the slow and subtle developments that lead to today’s full-fledged social networking website phenomenon. It starts with facemash – a website where Harvard students can rate the hotness of their classmates – and proceeds with every little step from the epiphany that giving people a “relationship status” would seal the deal of the website to the decision to remove the “the” in the name “the facebook”. It is even very well acted, in particular by Jesse Eisenberg who has mastered the detached intellectual niche, despite playing a poser version in The Squid in the Whale: he nails it here and we completely believe in his intelligence and his inflated ego.
The trouble with the movie is two-fold: first, it tries to make petty interactions between college kids into a weighty thriller, and second, that it is rampant with despicable misogyny not just of the characters themselves but in the way the director shows them which I simply can’t overlook. Aaron Sorkin’s decision to tell the story in multiple time periods – the characters retell the story of facebook’s creation during various lawsuits they are involved with – is reasonable but there is no differentiation between each character’s version of the story. They all contribute to the same puzzle with very little contradictions or distinct viewpoints.
The film takes itself far too seriously. The camera angles, the pacing, and the ridiculous conviction with which the lines are delivered belong in a film where the stakes are really high: like, say, in the White House on The West Wing. Though I’m inclined to blame David Fincher’s direction here more than Aaron Sorkin’s words. What makes some of the scenes laughable is the way the actors are shot and the way they deliver what might otherwise be harmless dialogue: somehow we are supposed to believe that the quarrels of a couple of twenty-year-olds are incredibly compelling and weighty material. Granted, the twins and Zuckerberg’s best friend, Eduardo, are severely mistreated by Zuckerberg, and deserve some compensation. But when making deals with such an antisocial prick as Zuckerberg, is it really that surprising?
Every step of the way, these childish and despicable characters are lionised and glorified. It would be one thing if the movie were intended to be shot from their perspective: because they definitely saw themselves as larger-than-life figures. The trouble is that it’s shot from an outsider perspective, looking in, yet we are supposed to believe the world the characters’ have created for themselves: that they really are the centre of the universe.
That being said, perhaps the weakest writing point was the decision to hang the entire creation of facebook as Zuckerberg’s attempt to get back the girl who dumped him and show off to the finals clubs that overlooked him. Though probably what makes it all seem most ridiculous is the inclusion of the vapid twins and their friend who behave as though they live in Gossip Girl when, in fact, they’re just a couple of college kids with a mediocre business plan.
The second most troubling part of the film is the pervasive misogyny. It paints Zuckerberg’s creation of facebook as an attempt to make voyeurism more accessible. But worse than that is the total absence of female characters. Women show up now and then, but they usually show up as arm candy, a convenient accessory to give our boys’ blow jobs and feed their egos so that they know that they really are damn “cool” and a success. Yes, the boys deliberately choose to surround themselves with bimbos, but it seems that David Fincher’s direction endorses this decision. There are only two women with a brain, the girlfriend briefly at the beginning, and a lawyer at the end, who, despite being painted in a reasonably positive light (notwithstanding the lawyer’s claim that Zuckerberg “isn’t an asshole” which is clearly is), play a very unsubstantial role. The film is a boys’ club and by trying to make this boys’ club an exciting and exhilarating place to inhabit, the film glorifies the characters’ misogyny.
I suppose that there is some legitimacy to this. What is facebook if not a vehicle to encourage women to grab one another’s breasts and become exhibitionists in an attempt to gain the attention of their male contemporaries? If this was the intent, it certainly succeeded. But it’s really depressing. Because the movie returns us to a view of women from the 1950s that seems more appropriate in Mad Men than as a reality in contemporary society. Is this really what facebook has become? And can we really watch this movie with pleasure given the messages it so painfully pedals? Although Mad Men is filled with despicably misogynstic characters, as well, they are so well developed that their misogyny, though unforgivable, has context. It’s very possible to make an excellent movie about unlikable people, but glorifying them needlessly, as in The Social Network, is really uncalled for.
But I am hesitant to accept that the real story behind facebook is as extremely misogynistic as the movie paints it. Misogyny is something that seems to come effortlessly to David Fincher, whose past films such as Fight Club glorify exclusive misogynstic societies. Fight Club made my skin crawl, and to be fair, so did The Social Network.
The Social Network is held together by cheap tricks. The score plays throughout nearly the entire film, fast-paced instrumentals, which are almost entirely responsible for any momentum or feeling of suspense that exists in the film. It’s a really lame crutch and makes even Cameron Crowe’s music-laden films, albeit well-chosen music, seem totally not manipulative. Many of the fast-paced cuts are designed to make us feel like what we are watching is inherently cool, but I hardly find someone sitting in their room writing computer code while drunk a display of extreme intelligence that only Harvard students could demonstrate. Heck, when the rowing team starts making comments about the physics behind the sport, I felt the dialogue belonged amongst nerdy engineers at UofT, rather than the average arts student at Harvard who likely would have none of that knowledge.
The characters are incredibly conceited and self-important and the movie seems to think that that’s totally OK because they go to Harvard. Worse, it wants its audience to believe that the characters are as important and lofty as they see themselves as being. This is no social satire; it glorifies human foibles without even trying to hide the foibles. In the end, even if these characters are believably narcissistic, it’s impossible to take them seriously, let alone as seriously as they take themselves and the movie endorses. And so what we’re left with is the portrait of a few believably despicable college kids, who yes, created the almost essential to social networking, facebook. But in the end, who really cares if they screwed each other over or how?
Kudos to Aaron Sorkin for his realistic portrayal of a harder edged “revenge of the nerds” movie, filled with traitorous, vindictive, and venomous behaviour on the part of Zuckerberg. But if the message of the movie is that, to get filthy rich, you have to be despicable, Fincher somehow condones this. There’s a throwaway line at the end of the movie, when one of the female lawyers tells Zuckerberg that “you’re not an asshole, you’re just trying so hard to be one”. But everything we’ve seen him do proves him to be an asshole, and now we’re supposed to overlook that because he’s rich and successful and let people he knew to be jerks handle his business since he claims not to care for money? There is enough nuance in the movie to generate multiple interpretations but one thing is certain: Zuckerberg, and even his friends, are misogynists through and through, but Fincher expects us to kind of like them anyway. The film condones the frat parties and bad male behaviour as boys being boys and bimbos being bimbos: these scenes are shot to bring us into the action and want to be there rather than to watch and criticize their behaviour.