The Social Network (Fincher, 2010)

Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher are not two creators I would have instinctively paired, but upon reflection, watching The Social Network, and more reflection, I do see a connection. Each has a body of work permeated with deep melancholy born of a dark, cynical view of human nature.

Look closely at Sorkin’s seminal television series, Sports Night, and you can see in Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) the same obsessive insecurity around women that results in the relationally destructive combination of drive and self-loathing that fuels Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg). Watch a few episodes of The West Wing, particularly early ones, and you’ll in Sorkin avatar Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) the same erudite resentment at the easy entitlement of his WASP colleagues that Zuckerman shows towards Harvard icons Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Check out Fincher’s Zodiac and you see obsessive drive for illusory control over one’s environment leading to a self-destructive downward spiral of increasingly anti-social behavior. Films such as Fight Club, The Game, and Seven, show a fascination with the process of moral and social deterioration, how giving license to isolated areas of venality or vice allow those traits to break free of their initial constraints and come to define and control the greater whole.

The Sorkin-Fincher pairing is a fortuitous one in The Social Network in that the partnership appears to act as a check on some of the excesses that can mediate the considerable talents of each individually. I’m not sure that the film is an easy one to call entertaining, but it is certainly interesting and thought provoking. One huge factor it has going for it is that it isn’t so much interested in telling its story as it is on reflecting on it–thinking about what the things that happened mean. Given a film in which 90% of the action is comprised of talk–people typing on computer screens and giving legal depositions–Sorkin’s knack for writing intelligent dialog keeps the film moving and, more importantly, gives each character his or her due.

The latter point is important because these are not likable people, and movies tend to present all unlikable people as being stupid. Conversely, Sorkin often tends to present virtuous people as inherently more intelligent–and vice versa–at times creating a liberal, arrogant tone that is simultaneously defensive and self-congratulatory. Fincher has always struck me more as a popularizer than a debater, better at conveying the emotional truth or tone of an idea than its sound-bite logic. (The scene between Tyler Durden and the Asian grocer in Fight Club is a good example–Fincher’s film’s always have scenes that lose something of their meaning or impact in summary.) Similarly, the intelligence of Sorkin’s writing, combined with the delivery of some quality actors, can take what might otherwise appear to be facile, reductive associations–Zuckerberg’s success is fueled by but never sufficient to appease his longing for acceptance into various exclusive social networks–and make them appear to be deeper than they are.

Oddly enough, the thing I liked most about The Social Network is something that normally puts me off in most commercial films: nobody is likable. There is not a single character here that one can unequivocally side with. But Sorkin, freed of the need to stack the deck in favor of the right is able to show the little glimmers of rightness from each perspective.  The tragedy then is not that the wrong person/side comes out on top but that these intellectually brilliant people can’t find a way of being self-critical long enough to see the shards of truth in positions that are overall inferior–shards that could, if respected rather than dismissed, destroyed, or bulldozed, might have actually complemented rather than conflicted with their own. To cite just one example, it is easy enough to see how Napster guru Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a wonderful performance) and Zukcerman were right in their vision of how big Facebook could be and that, in ignoring Eduardo Saverin, they made more money for him. But it’s just as easy to see the truth in Saverin’s contention that he was Zuckerman’s only read friend and that the cost of succeeding in your own way is often failure in some other quarter.

There is a petty, hypocritical nastiness about these characters that clearly bothers Sorkin, and nowhere is it better evidenced than in a brilliant exchange where Parker, having needlessly rubbed salt in Saverin’s open wound with an arrogant put down instinctively flinches in cowardly fear when Saverin raises his fists. The sudden revelation of the inner coward driving the happy-go-lucky bully bothers Zuckerman, who sees in it a mirror for his own dealings with Saverin, ex-girlfriend Erica, and indeed the universe. That there is a clear thread of social criticism going on is explicit when a legal assistant opines that Zuckerman is not an “asshole” just trying hard to be one. Ultimately, the question of why this generation’s highest aspiration is to be rich enough and powerful enough that they are shielded from the consequences of giving vent to their worst impulses is one that the film posits through the case study of Zuckerman rather than answers.  Yet for all that, the film struck me as more than just one generation scolding the next. There is empathy here. Empathy with the deep unhappiness of people who have gotten what they have been told will make them happy and yet found that it hasn’t, with people who have given up things–privacy, constancy, honor, intimacy–that they have been drilled to value cheaply but whose loss is felt in recesses where the wallet can’t reach.

Ulitmately there is empathy with those who live in and are driven by fear, because such motives are familiar to us even if the sources and natures of those fears differ wildly. In one of the film’s more interesting vignettes, Parker shares the story of how the founder of Victoria’s Secret sold the business for “only” a few million dollars only to see its valuation mushroom. This story oddly illustrates how the greatest fear of Zuckerman is not that the thing he created will crash before he cashes in, not that he might somehow get nothing, but rather than he might somehow live in constant regret that he was bested in a financial exchange. This film is not a “poor little rich boy” parable, nor is it, ultimately, a “be careful what you wish for because you might get it” cautionary tale. It more like: “Be careful what you set your heart on, because that it is what you will spend your life pursuing, and it will be that pursuit, rather than the result of it, that may ultimately come to shape and define you.”

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