On Tuesday, I got my copy of the 2-disc special edition DVD for “The Social Network.” In the past several days, I have watched the film twice, and then twice again, with the separate commentary tracks for David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. I plan on diving into the special features disc at some point next week, perhaps while somewhere in my 9-hour flight over the Atlantic to Russia (my blog updating could get quite sporadic this next semester, btw; with the opportunities I’ll have in St. Petersburg, blogging unfortunately won’t be high on my priority list, but I’ll try). The upshot of all of this being, of course, that I think it’s time to go back and revisit the Oscar frontrunner. There are some issues that I didn’t discuss with my review back in October, and now seems as an appropriate time as ever to take another look. By this point, we know it’s awards season gold; but what about the movie itself? It’s important to not lose sight, amid all the lights and noise, of what the film actually is.
And what is “The Social Network?” It’s a more complicated picture than a lot of reviews (mine included) would have you believe. Sure, it’s a sterling example of film craft: a throbbing, haunting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, sleek and moody cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth and an exceptional acting ensemble all brought together masterfully by Fincher’s perfectionist style. It plays incredibly well on your home theater system or even a laptop, and is one of the most re-watchable films in years (did I mention I’ve seen it four times in the past three days?), thanks to writer Aaron Sorkin finally displaying in a film screenplay the same wit and intelligence that have defined his television efforts. It’s an insightful and often scathing examination of the quick-fame dot-com era. But, that’s the kind of praise you hear thrown out in contextless TV spots, attributed to some entertainment “critic” who works for “Rise and Shine, Des Moines!” on a local NBC affiliate. I want to talk about some of the film’s broader implications, and some of the problems posed by its murky balance of fact and fiction.
Zuckerberg vs. the Volcano
First off, let’s talk about truthiness. It’s a slippery slope, that “based on a true story” label (though it is interesting to note that Fincher never actually uses that phrase or any variation in the film, as so many inferior movies do). We regularly accept the manipulation of true events for the sake of making a narrative smoother or crafting a broader theme – but “The Social Network” begs the question of whether we should. Is it fair to portray a real, living person in fairly libelous, albeit complex, terms? The Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” is not the real Mark Zuckerberg – while the basic milestones of his life and other details may be accurate, as far as I can tell the film’s particular characterization of Zuckerberg’s personality was extensively constructed to fit the social-alienation tale Sorkin had cooked up. Why did this film have to be about him? That is, if you’re already going to change fairly critical details – like, say the fact that the real Zuckerberg has had a steady girlfriend the entire way through the events shown in the film – why not change his name? Change the school? Change the name of the company? Everyone would know you’re talking about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg anyway – is it in fact irresponsible to make the connection explicit and imply that you’re making some sort of documentary of true events?
Because here’s the thing: people are stupid. That is not to say that you, dear reader, are stupid. Take your average individual and explain to them the blurring of reality in “The Social Network,” that the film represents a fictional representation of history, and they’ll get it. But as a culture? People are stupid. The ability to delineate finer points of intellectual debate is not one of our media’s strong suits, not when headlines like “MARK ZUCKERBERG REJECTS HIS PORTRAYAL IN THE SOCIAL NETWORK” are available. We hurtle to extremes, to quick conclusions and instant gratification. It is perhaps the great irony of this discussion that Zuckerberg probably understands that better than most, but there you are. In any case, I can’t help but wonder: knowing this state of affairs, do filmmakers have a greater responsibility than in times past to protect and respect their subjects, should they choose to focus on real-life figures?
I’d like to also talk about the women of “The Social Network.” I still do not believe this is a misogynist film. But it is a film that depicts misogynists in an ambiguously sympathetic light, and that’s where you can see the filmmakers have run into some trouble. Fincher’s history with his female characters is rather complicated; his films are often boys’ club pieces (cough”Fight Club”cough), and his serial killer obsession in particular (“Se7en,” “Zodiac”) would be extremely problematic if that mode of representation was more consistent in his oeuvre. But Jodie Foster’s heroic role in “Panic Room” and the altogether benign, positive characters of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” perhaps display some self-consciousness of his tendencies. Meanwhile, I think any accusations of misogyny against Sorkin are fairly ludicrous. Felicity Huffman on “Sports Night,” Allison Janney, Stockard Channing and Janel Maloney on “The West Wing,” Amanda Peet on “Studio 60;” you at least have to concede that the man has a pretty good history of well-developed, empowered female characters.
But in “The Social Network,” the average female character is most likely to be found in some state of half-nudity and/or drug-addled haze. While there is clearly an attempt to counteract the Silicon Valley Sluts with the brief but memorable roles played by Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones, it’s not a problem that can be totally dismissed. And if this were meant to be a completely objective film, there’d be some major issues here. But this is no documentary, and we must consider exactly whose viewpoint Fincher is attempting to convey. Let’s take the memorable post-credits sequence, juxtaposing Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous hacking/coding binge with scenes from what I would call a “wild frat party,” but that would evoke the buffoonery of “Animal House” more than the decadence of Sodom and Gomorrah. Is this upper-class hedonist jamboree even real? Yes and no. I do not doubt that the prestigious Harvard final clubs really do throw such absurdly indulgent fêtes, but Fincher is trying to tell us something more: that this insultingly over-sexed, loose objectification of women is the ideal for guys like Mark. That party, those women, are a part of the dream of the young and power-hungry, a dream that Sean Parker will show Mark how to live when he slithers into the film later. Note that not even the saintly Eduardo can totally deny this impulse: his smirking, embarrassed disbelief that he has “groupies” shows that he shares the power-orgy fantasy with Mark on some level.
In other words, the film confronts us with the fact that a generation of billionaires is emerging who retain entirely adolescent attitudes towards women (of course, after seeing “Inside Job,” I’m pretty thoroughly convinced arrested development has always been a problem for the economic leaders of this nation). Feminists had a right to be outraged by the depiction of women in “The Social Network;” I believe Fincher and Sorkin wanted viewers to be outraged. But the media got angry at the wrong people. The filmmakers were attacked for endorsing the objectionable perspective of their characters, when their film was meant to hammer cultural depictions of women that indulge in the same misogyny without any hint of Fincher’s criticism or cynicism.
A Singular Man
The problem, it seems, is that it is impossible to simply present an audience with a complex characterization, and expect broader discussion to maintain that level of nuance. The Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” is a creative genius, possessing keen insight into social trends while remaining personally inept and tactless, lonely and isolated yet incredibly confident in his own intelligence, a power-hungry big-picture dreamer with the canny, detail-oriented perception of a pragmatist, a young man angry at the established order of wealth and influence for refusing to accept him into their club but who retaliates by pettily trying to create his own realm of exclusivity, brutally honest, manipulative, desperate, searching. But such a description isn’t snappy. It wouldn’t fit on a one-sheet. But you can’t simplify him. Punk? Genius? Traitor? Billionaire? What about all of the above, and more? As a culture, Americans despise ambiguity; we want to know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about someone or something, and so we shoehorn them into glib characterizations and rush to find some sort of all-encompassing conclusion when none exists.
“The Social Network” inherited its protagonist’s subtlety and intricacy. So let’s keep the debate going. What issues raised in Fincher’s film would you like to talk more about?