Make no mistake about it, The Social Network is a great film. It has a wonderful script, compelling characters, and an intriguing story. The performance by Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is worth revisiting a few times over. However, there is something missing that prevents it from entering that pantheon of classic films like The Godfather and Citizen Kane to which many critics have compared it.
Unless you’re currently living under a rock, then you’re on Facebook. Hell, you might want to check and see if you’ve got access to Facebook under that rock after all. As one of Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) lawyers says when he tells her that he’s checking in on how things are going in Bosnia, “Bosnia? They don’t have roads in Bosnia, but they have Facebook.” Though the origins of the website that allows you to tell others what you are currently doing or to look at pictures of your nieces and nephews might seem as boring as reading thousands of lines of computer code, in the hands of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, it becomes nothing less than a modern day mythology. The film traces the development of Facebook by cutting between the two lawsuits that Zuckerberg faced as the website began to grow. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) sue Zuckerberg for intellectual property theft, while Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) sues him for being screwed out of the company. The brilliance of this narrative structure is that Sorkin and Fincher use the Winklevoss lawsuit to cover the professional side of the site’s creation, while Eduardo’s law suit reveals the personal toll it took on Zuckerberg and any friends he may have had. From a revenge website to a billion-dollar business, the story of the creation of Facebook reveals just as much about the world in which we now live as it does the friends and foes involved in its development.
The Social Network does everything right. The acting, by literally everyone involved, is pitch-perfect, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince me there’s a poor performance in the lot. This script is full of rapid, witty dialogue epitomized by the opening conversation between Zuckerberg and then girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). I began to wonder how the film would be able to keep this up until I remembered that Sorkin wrote it. Though there’s rarely a quiet moment in the film, it’s never exhausting. The cinematography throws us between the conversants and never moves us to a more safe place: we are caught in the middle of verbal crossfire for over two hours. Yet despite its strengths, there seems to be something missing from the film that would elevate it from a great film to one of the greats. A friend, who I keep up with on Facebook, suggested that we won’t be talking about The Social Network in 30 years. However, I think we will, but not for the reasons we still discuss Citizen Kane or The Godfather, for example. Those films are timeless, The Social Network is timely, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It captures the essence of our wired generation and all its highs (Facebook in Bosnia) and lows (we can instantaneously humiliate someone in front of millions of people).
But the more I think about it, the more I feel like comparisons to The Godfather or Citizen Kane are actually good entry points into a discussion of The Social Network and what makes a great film. If you think about the greats, they’re often populated with larger than life characters like Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone, Scarlett O’Hara, etc. These characters overcome impossible odds or make monumental sacrifices on their way to fame, fortune, power, or recovery. Though Zuckerberg is a compelling character, he’s not like most lead characters in great films…he’s far too petty. Part of this is not Zuckerberg’s fault. There’s just not much at stake here, despite the potential billions of dollars which Zuckerberg doesn’t even care about. The Winklevoss twins come from money, Saverin made $350,000 during break, and Zuckerberg could create any number of computer programs and strike it rich. But perhaps this is the point…more on that in a moment. Unlike its classic cinematic predecessors, The Social Network also lacks those artistic moments that often make a film one of the greats. There are no scenes like the opening of Citizen Kane or the christening scene at the conclusion of The Godfather, even though the editing throughout The Social Network is fine.
Whether or not the film’s portrayal of these real life people are factually true is irrelevant. As characters in a film they are completely believable, fully realized, consistent and therefore present deeper, larger truths. The common theme behind Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, the Winklevoss’ desire to take it from him, and Sean Parker’s (Napster founder played by Justin Timberlake) attempts to weasel his way in is a desire for notoriety, fame, and social impact. However, we might argue that all of these are symptoms of a deeper longing…a desire to be in community, to be in relationship with another person/other people. The truth behind The Social Network is that we are social beings and that we crave networks, be they digital or real. Parker creates Napster to get a girl, and Zuckerberg creates Facebook to get back at one. People join and “live” on Facebook for both reasons.
The Social Network embodies the generation from which it emerges better than most of its cinematic peers. This is a generation of know-it-all’s and do-it-all’s who can know and do it all because of the networked culture in which they live. As such, it seems that there is a strong dichotomy between independence and interdependence. That one person can land a billion dollars by getting back at a scorned lover is as much a sign of the times as it is the person. In a way, Zuckerberg bumbles his way to billionairehood, but though the film doesn’t make of it what it should, he doesn’t do it alone. He needed co-workers like Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) to be wired in, high on cocaine or Mountain Dew, writing thousands of lines of computer code. The Winklevoss twins needed Zuckerberg and offered him the very thing that he craved, but he spurned them. Zuckerberg’s nose-thumbing simultaneously leads to the development of Facebook and further complexifies this character. And make no mistake about it, the old ways of doing business, of running to the university president or hiding behind a harvard.edu email address when things don’t go your way, are long gone. Yes Winklevoss twins, it’s just that easy…go out and come up with a new idea.
One of the final strengths of The Social Network is that it never forgets from whence it comes. I don’t want to give away what is a brilliant ending, but it comes back full circle to that conversation between Zuckerberg and Erica. The conclusion warns us that while we may be part of or participate in a network of over 500 million users, we can still be and feel brutally alone.
The Social Network (120 mins) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and language and is in theaters everywhere.
This review originally appeared at Pop Theology and is reprinted with permission.
Ryan Parker is the creator, editor, and main contributor to poptheology.com. A fourth-year PhD student in Religion and the Arts at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, his focus is on film and religion, particularly contemporary religious cinema and the ways in which film affects religious consciousness. He is currently working on a dissertation on Sherwood Pictures and the New Christian Cinema.