This movie comes with a lot of baggage. It is one of the few movies about real people covering events of only a few years ago, and while the people involved are still very much alive—and only at the beginning of their careers. There is a lot of additional hoopla around whether the story this film tells is accurate, and a lot of hot gas being expelled over the significance of the film, and of Facebook, and social networking, and what it all means. But here we’re going to confine our discussion of the film itself as a work, and leave speculation as to how accurate it all is and the deeper cosmic significance of it all to others.
We open with Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg talking to his then-girlfriend at Harvard. He is obsessed with getting into the big “final clubs,” and offends her when he says if he gets in she’ll get to go to events with him and meet a lot of people she wouldn’t be able to meet otherwise. He just keeps going on, digging himself in deeper and eventually offering a completely unemotional “apology,” until she breaks up with him, telling him he’ll go through life thinking girls break up with him because he’s a geek, but it won’t be—it’ll be because he’s an asshole. This is by way of announcing that whether or not Zuckerberg is an asshole will be the key question of the film.
So he goes back to his dorm and starts blogging about what a bitch his ex is, then creates a site where Harvard students can rate two local college women against each other. For this, he hacks the “facebook” sites of those colleges and steals all the face photos. The site starts spreading around campus, to the point where it crashes Harvard’s servers—at four in the morning. Interestingly, as this is going on, we see a bunch of young women, dolled up for the night, arriving by bus to a party at one of the final clubs. They come in and are soon making out with each other and stripping atop tables… showing the club atmosphere as a place where young women are commoditized by the male members and had better be prepared to put out if they want to gain the status of dating a member. Meanwhile the women who see the hotness rating site are generally pretty mortified and feel awful they would be treated that way. Which rings a little false in retrospect. Not because it’s not an ugly thing to do, but because you’d think they would be used to it by now.
This gets Zuckerberg academic suspension, but also attracts the attention of the Winklevoss twins, who have an idea for an exclusive social site unique to Harvard. Zuckerberg says he’ll work on it, then promptly takes the idea to his friend Eduardo [played by Andrew Garfield, excellent in Never Let Me Go and soon to be the next Spider-Man] and tells him the idea as though it’s his own, asking Eduardo to put up some money. He continues putting off the Winklevoss’ as he builds the site on his own. Eventually he puts it up, with his own name on every page, and Eduardo listed as the CFO. The Winklevoss’ are furious, but won’t take action, because they are “Harvard men.”
The site gets bigger and bigger, and Zuckerberg starts spreading it to other schools. He resists putting ads on it, and the film makes clear that Zuckerberg was never motivated by money. It turns Zuckerberg into a star on campus. Two young women screw Eduardo and Zuckerberg in a restroom over it, and one of those turns into Eduardo’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, in California, Sean Parker of Napster sees Facebook and recognizes an opportunity. He arranges a dinner with Eduardo and Zuckerberg, throwing arrogant “charm” everywhere, acting like he’s the king of the Internet, ignoring Eduardo and focusing exclusively on Zuckerberg, who eats up his attention like candy. Soon Zuckerberg has relocated to California and Parker is taking an ever-larger role while Eduardo is out trying to drum up advertising. It soon becomes clear from all the snide remarks Parker is making about Eduardo, and Zuckerberg’s blind worship of Parker, that Eduardo is on the way out.
SPOILERS > > >
So eventually the Winklevoss’ decide to sue—their legal discussions, as well as Eduardo’s, are sprinkled throughout the film. At the end of the film, Parker directs Zuckerberg toward some financiers. They get Eduardo to sign some papers in good faith, offering him a certain number of stock options. A short time later, they revalue the stock so that he essentially gets nothing. At the end of the film, it’s the end of the day of legal depositions, and an assistant tells Zuckerberg that his lawyers are somewhere negotiating his settlements. Surprised that he won’t go to court, she tells him that he could not be put before a jury, because basically he is so unlikable. Among the last lines of the film, she tells him “You’re not an asshole… you’re just trying so hard to be.” He then goes to Facebook and sends her a friend request. The final shot has him constantly hitting Refresh to see if she accepted him yet.
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For a few days after I saw it I was asking my friends what they thought it was ABOUT, to see if I was missing some larger significance that describes the transformative effect social networking has had on society, but no, it’s really just about this one guy and what a jerk he is. I mean, Zodiac was about the killer, sure, but it was mostly about how we can’t really “know” anything by just piecing together evidence, and what does “knowing” something mean, anyway? Here, I think you could spin out some theory about how it all signifies our need to be accepted, or something, but really it’s just about one big irony: There’s this guy desperate for social connection, who makes a site that facilitates social connection, and in the process loses what little social connection he had. Depending on your view of online social networking, you might also say that this guy who is so haughty and damaged he wouldn’t KNOW real friendship or true social connection if he experienced it, who then creates a platform for millions to experience faux friendship and fake social connection. I've watched a few interviews with the real Zuckerberg afterward [his unfailingly dead-eyed stare prepares me to believe there's more than a kernel of truth to some of these allegations], and he keeps repeating the company-approved soundbite about how it's all this gloriously altruistic mission to foster social connection. Which may lead you, depending on your age, to ask yourself "But is THAT really social connection?"
So in retrospect what I come away from this film with is that Zuckerberg is a smart but insecure guy who has developed incredible bitterness for those who would consider themselves smarter or more important—or even equal—to him. Many of his most hateful moments in the film have to do with his verbally beating down someone by reminding them, or going out of his way to prove to them, his superior intelligence. In second place to that are moments where he avoids taking responsibility for his actions by lowering his eyes to his laptop, changing the subject, or simply ignoring the charge. The bottom line seems to be that he just has this Olympian self-regard and sees other humans as mere pawns and worker ants there to facilitate his greatness. But because of his greatness, he owes nothing to others, and even if he has stolen an idea from them, they should be HAPPY he even took notice of it. In this regard the film [somehow] makes a strength of not giving us any backstory on Zuckerberg or offering the slightest hint of how he became this way. We can all slot in the common clichés ourselves, so why dwell on it? It’s easy to see that he doesn’t have a lot of friends, and it’s very easy to see WHY he doesn’t have a lot of friends. One line that seems a little too over-the-top to work [and yet works] comes near the end when Eduardo, having just had the details of how he had been screwed out of his money aired, turns to Zuckerberg and says “I was your ONLY friend…” By now he has begun to seem a somewhat sad figure, as we realize all that he has given up just to prove that he is really, really smart.
Soon after this came out there was an interesting article in the New York Times saying that they polled audiences coming out of the film, and noticed an intriguing split: Those over 30 saw Zuckerberg as a sad figure who drove away his real friends in pursuit of a misguided but monetarily successful effort. Those under 30 saw Zuckerberg as a genius, and didn't really care that he may have stolen his idea, because you do what you have to in order to succeed. I'll leave it to you to infer what that may or may not indicate.
But ultimately I have to say I was kind of hoping for a movie about the phenomenon of social networking and what it means and how we as a society came to this place where it would take off so massively. But this isn't that movie. Which is fine. I guess we'll have to wait until we're a little bit further along and can get some distance before we assess what the change has really been and what long-term effects it has created. It's a really good, well-made interpersonal drama. But let's not pretend that this film is more significant than it is, or makes a more sweeping social statement than it does.
Yes, you definitely should.