I have to admit that when I first heard about David Fincher’s film The Social Network, my opinion was one of extreme skepticism. A movie about the creation of Facebook? Could that actually be interesting? For goodness’ sake, I’m only slightly interested in Facebook itself; I sometimes go months without posting a “status update” on my personal page. I assume you might be interested in what I have to say, but that you’re probably not interested in what I ate for lunch. And as for the creation of Facebook, well, I’m a programmer myself. A web developer even, though not of anything on near that scale of popularity (somehow I always wind up working in the sections of the web that are kept under lock and key). Some people might think this would make me more interested in the story of a major site’s creation, but the truth is, it’s quite the opposite. I know the process fairly well, and though I enjoy development, there are few things on this earth that are less suited for being a spectator sport. There’s a reason why whenever Hollywood shows a programming or “hacking” scene they always show a lot of flashy things that don’t actually happen in reality; it’s because the reality is boring to watch. It’s just thinking and typing, and much more of the former than the latter. Maybe some occasional drawing if you’re the type to map things out. That doesn’t really make for good cinema.
That meant the story had to survive entirely on the human element, the drama of the developing business. Though it was nominated for an Oscar, I still had a few doubts. I checked it out anyway; after all, if The Private Life of Henry VIII could turn out to be funny, maybe the story of Facebook could turn out to be engaging.
It’s not without some merits. I knew little of the drama or legal troubles behind the site before watching the film. Founder Mark Zuckerberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) is shown in the film as a young college student who gets in some trouble with his wanton disregard of other students’ privacy, and who then finds himself in a business arrangement with the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and sometimes Josh Pence). The twins, who come from old money, want him to create a social networking website for the school and their cronies. They provide the funds, he provides the programming. Zuckerberg takes the money, takes the idea, and creates his own independent project, with his friend Eduardo (Anthony Garfield) as business manager. Eventually he double-crosses Eduardo as well, cutting him out of the company.
I don’t know how much of this is dramatization and how much is fact, and for the purposes of a movie, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that even as a dramatization it’s more informative than entertaining. As with a lot of real-life conflicts, there are no heroes, no good guys to root for. Zuckerberg, as his girlfriend says in the opening, is an asshole. (A later character ends the movie with the memorable line “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” But I’m of the opinion that trying to be an asshole is something you can’t actually fail at.) The Winklevosses, while appearing justified in their belief that Zuckerberg stole their idea, also come across as if they feel the world owes them everything. Eduardo has a legitimate complaint about being cut out of the company he co-founded, but he’s also shown to be completely ineffectual at his job within the company.
A movie doesn’t have to have likeable protagonists, but it helps — especially when the characters are also largely uninteresting as people. It’s not that the actors are doing a poor job at any stage. It’s just that there’s no meat there. There’s theoretically plenty of drama in the story, but drama requires personalities to respond to, and these characters don’t provide them. I don’t know the actual people; perhaps they’re all flat characters in real life as well. But there’s scarcely anything in any of these people that sparked an interest or a human connection with me. Zuckerberg himself is depicted as being so detached as to be essentially a low-functioning sociopath, and that is intentional, but none of them would be considered fully functional human beings among a typical gathering of people. Aside from Justin Timberlake’s surprisingly good performance as the creator of Napster, these are people who are defined by their conflict with little else to flavor the performances. It ends up being a fairly tedious process to watch them hash it all out in court. It is difficult to care about the conflict when one doesn’t care about the people involved.
Still, it is somewhat informative. If nothing else, at least now I get the joke in those pistachio commercials.
Note: This is a “Rewind Review” of a film viewed during the blog’s hiatus. The film was watched on February 26, 2014. The review is based on my notes at the time and my thoughts reflecting back on the film without a second viewing.