First of all, let’s get one thing straight. I have no interest in how truthful the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is. Certainly the usual yammering pseudo-new media places like The Daily Beast can get their panties in a twist about whether the portrayal of Zuckerberg matches the person they know – although it is hard not to be skeptical of people who claim they know somebody based on doing a magazine profile of them. A fiction film, even if based on a real person, has to be true to the narrative before being true to any encyclopedia entry. As such, David Fincher’s The Social Network is a compulsively watchable portrait of a single minded man who perhaps was the only person who could have done something as amazing as Facebook.
Media reports talk about how Facebook was launched by Zuckerberg essentially as a way to get back at girls who jilted him. This is a seductive logic, but watching the film, Fincher and Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Zuckerberg) are too smart to settle for something so blunt. The movie is bookended by scenes involving women who are trying to understand him, but it almost feels perfunctory – that Fincher threw it in there for narrative purposes more than for a psychological insight. In fact, even up to the very last frame, that question, WHY did Zuckerberg do this – remains largely a mystery – and the film benefits from not even attempting to answer the question – at least not in any sort of pop psychology sort of way.
Does his sex life motivate him in this pursuit? Well, as mentioned earlier, a failed date is suggested as a possibility, but it’s not like he uses his eventual fame to become a lothario. Was it money? That is more complicated. Zuckerberg, when the thing starts, has none of his own – and he uses his friend Eduardo to fund the hardware they need – Eduardo is listed as CFO and co-founder. But his dreams and connections involve angel investors in New York – it takes Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a very good performance) to show him the possibilities VC’s and Silicon Valley have to offer. But Zuckerberg is still renting a house and seems to live like a grad student. The money does not seem to drive him. Was he a Robin Hood? He might have gotten some ideas from a couple of boat rowing legacy douchebags – but he wasn’t exactly sticking it to the man, as just another guy with a startup.
What is interesting in the final analysis is that Zuckerberg – for the preemptive defenses launched by his toadies in publications – does not come off too badly. He is obsessive, brilliant, driven, not very good with people – but what genius or prodigy is? Eisenberg plays him with a tunnel vision and almost professorial contempt for those who don’t see things with his clarity. This does not make him an ideal drinking buddy – but to develop the definitive social media network, accept no substitutes. Sean Parker, another bright guy – comes off worse, as a shallow prick who shares enthusiasm for Zuckerberg’s fire, but really brings connections more than ideas. Timberlake does a terrific job playing him as almost pitifully shallow – Zuckerberg’s admiration for him makes sense, but you see where they are different. Fincher populates the film with the dark colors and look that is distinctive of his style, and it is an interesting atmosphere to pair with Sorkin’s dialogue, which conveys the ideas of very smart people, ten times smarter than average movie characters. That a movie without any real action about a computer programmer could be such an engaging film is quite amazing.