So far there’s no evidence that Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg has seen The Social Network, the controversial movie that suggests he gained 500 million “friends” by betraying the only real friends he had. But Zuckerberg, who at 26 is the world’s youngest billionaire, has already dismissed the movie as “fiction.” That’s what he said on Oprah last week, as he announced a US$100-million donation to schools in Newark, N.J. The timing of his gesture was suspect. So was his decision to let the cameras into his suburban home, where the man Oprah calls “private” and “shy” is seen kissing his long-time girlfriend. Talk about damage control.
In The Social Network, director David Fincher (Fight Club) paints a damning portrait right from the opening scene, which shows Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) being ditched by a girlfriend (Rooney Mara)—“Dating you is like dating a StairMaster,” she declares, proposing they just be friends. His response: “I don’t like friends.”
Based on The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich’s 2009 bestseller, The Social Network depicts Zuckerberg as a cold-blooded, motor-mouthed visionary, driven by his resentment of Harvard’s frat-boy elites. Fincher has called it “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.” Sharply scripted by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), it treats talk as action, with dense volleys of smart, machine-gun dialogue. The story traces Facebook’s birth to a drunken night in Zuckerberg’s dorm room, as the freshly dumped 19-year-old hacks Harvard databases to launch Facemash, a prank site inviting users to rate coeds for hotness. The narrative is framed by flash-forward scenes in a deposition room where two sets of plaintiffs are suing Zuckerberg—ex-best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who got squeezed out of the company; and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, blueblood Olympic rowers who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea.
In a Maclean’s interview last week, Sorkin seemed to be doing his own form of damage control, claiming that his “Rashomon-like script” presents multiple viewpoints without taking sides—and that the character he feels closest to is Zuckerberg. “I identify with him,” said Sorkin. “I’ve felt like I’ve had my nose pressed up against the glass of some cool party I haven’t been invited to. I’ve felt the world has reflected back to me that I’m a loser.” The screenwriter even empathizes with Zuckerberg’s defence of his intellectual property. “When I did The West Wing, there were people who said, ‘He stole that from me.’ ”
Although Sorkin insists The Social Network does not pass judgment, most people seeing it would conclude that its boy genius is, at best, an insensitive jerk, if not a Machiavellian freak. “Mark spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an anti-hero,” Sorkin concedes, “but the final five minutes being a tragic hero. When we see that, we embrace him.” In weeks of touring the movie to college campuses, he added, the universal reaction is that viewers want to “give him a hug.” One critic said she wanted “to egg him then help him clean it up.”
Sorkin says the filmmakers tried hard to get Facebook to participate in the film. Now he says he’s grateful the company refused: “There would have been a sense that this was a Facebook production, and that I was Mark’s poodle.” As for Zuckerberg’s claim that the movie is fiction, Sorkin allows that he took some dramatic licence but the script was heavily researched and vetted “within an inch of its life” by libel lawyers. “I don’t think any of us would want the things we did when we were 19 to be made into a movie,” concludes Sorkin, adding he handed Mark the ultimate defence with a line from one of his lawyers: “Creation myths need a devil.”
The movie’s most satanic character, however, turns out to be Sean Parker, the Napster guru who dazzles Zuckerberg to become his new partner. Justin Timberlake portrays Parker as a snaky, cocaine-fuelled, club-crawling hustler. Next to him, Mark is just a misguided geek—a silicon Tin Man with a hard drive in place of a heart.