Jesse Eisenberg plays Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in 'The Social Network.'

Retro Ethics Fuel 'The Social Network'

Dennis Harvey October 1, 2010

Concepts of privacy and intellectual property are two things that the Internet has shaken and irrevocably changed, not without some protests and pain. Both figure highly in The Social Network, the founding-of-Facebook dramatization that arrives today as probably the year’s most critically lauded mainstream feature by far. But this film directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin (working from Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction tome The Accidental Billionaires) is in the end primarily about such utterly retro concepts as interpersonal loyalty and ethics. In Chekhov or Tolstoy’s day, this story might have ended in a duel; in the cyber age, it ends with bruised feelings assuaged by the litigious exchange of settlement moneys.

It is Sorkin and Fincher’s genius stroke to tell their tale on two parallel trajectories, one confined to a corporate conference room where lawyers representing various sides try to determine just who did what to whom, the other actually showing how things got to this high-stakes pass with former friends and collaborators suing each other.

In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was a Harvard freshman with a chip on his shoulder, brilliant but also socially insecure and off-putting, such that the girl he’s miraculously managed to have more than one date with (Rooney Mara, just cast as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake) dumps him with the verdict that he’s going to be very rich and successful some day, and will be wrong to think girls don’t like him because he’s a nerd—they won’t like him because he’s an asshole.

Nevertheless, Mark has friends or, well, a friend: Econ major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, concurrently in Never Let Me Go). When Mark has a bright, potentially marketable idea—not his first—Eduardo is happy to provide some seed money and sign on as cofounder.

The trouble is, Mark’s idea may not be entirely his own. A clever hacking stunt he pulled gathering together hitherto isolated student contact info crashes the university’s server, yet grabs the attention of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), twin rowing-team bluebloods who along with friend Divya (Max Minghella) have a website idea they need a programmer for. Clearly Mark has the skills, and he agrees to the task.

However, 42 days and a lot of evasive fibs later, Mark has produced zero work on the Winklevoss’s Harvard-exclusive social networking site. However, he has created and launched with Eduardo “The Facebook”—his own improved, more expansive spin on ideas suspiciously close to the ones he’d been hired to implement. While these golden jocks fume and mull options over this perceived theft, Mark’s baby is going nationwide—then international. En route he’s seduced by the flattersome reflected dazzle of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) a major playa who’s already founded Napster, seen it crash/burn and walked away with positively 007-like nonchalance.

Sean may be paranoid and have a police record, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one. That opportunity would be the chance to insinuate himself with Mark while edging CFO Eduardo out before Facebook (it’s Sean’s idea to drop the “The”) becomes worth gazillions. The wedge this Mephistophelean figure drives between Mark and his “only friend” turns into the film’s dramatic crux. A question lurks in its darker corners: When so much human interaction has gone virtual, might some people never quite grasp—or need to grasp—what betrayal means in the real, off-line world?

Sprawling from Cambridge to Palo Alto to London—albeit frequently settling in that Boston law office for prickly interactions so fascinating one never thinks of the dread term “courtroom drama” —The Social Network isn’t exactly a thriller, nor does it seem particularly hurried.

Yet the two-hour movie, superbly crafted and acted, was almost over before I first thought to look at my watch. Is it a wholly accurate account of intrigue behind the early days of a website that, at least for now, is a bigger part of more lives than any other? The real Mark Zuckerberg, for one, would probably disagree. (Eisenberg’s absorbing performance is at times like an undergraduate Gollum—not evil, exactly, but blindsided by arrogance, self-interest and covetousness in ways unhealthy for anyone getting too close.) At 26 he is, as an end title notes, the world’s youngest billionaire. Still, he wants to be liked. And what is Facebook itself if not one way of speaking to that near-universal yearning.