It has been four years since Facebook was made available to all. At least one out of every 14 of us is a user. And almost none of us can remember life before it. The Social Network is the definitive film about the greatest revolution of our times but it does not ride on the back of the phenomenon alone– it charts its own path to success. Aaron Sorkin has written a script so powerful, you are sucked in deep from the defining first scene. Within a couple of minutes, as Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) nervously fiddles with his beer and is dumped by girlfriend Erica after a bafflingly awkward conversation- the scene sets up the whole movie. We already know Mark- what he wants, what he lacks and what will now drive him.
Mark is not rich, he is not popular but he is ambitious and he is in Harvard. Out of this mash up of resentment and rejection comes a product that will make him the world’s youngest billionaire. But what is clearly more important to him is that “Facebook is cool,” a line he keeps repeating much to the chagrin of co-founder and only friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who wants advertisers as soon as he can get them. More accurately perhaps, Facebook deals in ‘cool’- self-publishing, amassing friends and a simulated social life for the socially challenged. Mark’s product is a function of his disaffected arrogance- the lonely boy aspiring to join elite clubs invents what is denied to him.
The image of him as an unwitting anti- hero (reminiscent of Othello) created and validated by class struggle is easily palatable. The film plays out as a series of flashbacks threaded by two parallel lawsuits against Mark. One of them is by the alpha-male Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) who accuse him of having stolen the idea from them. The other has been filed by his best friend, Saverin after he is severed from the company in favour of the founder of Napster and Mark’s new muse- Sean Parker. All of the litigators are elite but dim- members of clubs Mark wanted to be a part of. They have all smarting at having been outsmarted by Mark- like he puts it, “They are suing me because for once things didn’t turn out the way they wanted them to.”
The other role for Mark is that of the misunderstood tragic hero- a King Lear like figure, driven to betrayal, betraying and desolation. In an iconic last scene as he sits alone clicking the refresh button compulsively to check if his ex- girlfriend Erica has accepted his friend request on Facebook, this role reaches its magnificent potential. These larger than life interpretations of Mark’s character that allude to literary icons are largely projections of the film. Mark is a prodigy and awe-inspiring for his focused ability to act on his instincts. These projections help us indulge guiltlessly in his inspirational saga. But in reality a figure like Mark is too much of a product of our times to be explained away through Shakespearean characters and morality.
Mark’s decision to exclude Saverin is a business decision. Saverin is complacent, petty and simply not a visionary. His nineteen thousand dollar investment and many hours of dorm room leisure hardly take away from his social advantages enough to brand him a victim. And his reluctance to back Mark at critical junctures can be construed as betrayal as much as Mark’s decision to reduce his share holdings. Thing is, that in the times we live in, a character who sabotages an idea like Facebook to adhere to some elusive concept of loyalty to a friend would be an anti-hero. Mark is not overwhelmed by envy and oppression. He lives in a world very different from Othello’s. He is too self-assured to obsess about barriers of class. He reacts to them with irritation and impatience, rather than torment. Similarly, the last scene does not match Citizen Kane’s (a film constantly being compared with The Social Network) absolute tragedy. Instead it reflects wistfulness and restlessness borne out of the infinite possibilities of other worlds that are potentially available to this generation.
IF RUTHLESS AMBITION PLAGUES THIS GENERATION, THEN TOOLS LIKE FACEBOOK ARE QUICK ANTIDOTES
The film etches every character in complex shades of grey but betrays its sympathy for Mark in the end through the character of an attorney who says to him, “You are not an asshole. You’re only trying hard to be one.” Mark does not need this sympathy. Nor does the generation for which he is used as a metaphor. For all those who see the film as a subversive critique of meaningless interconnectivity that lets you pretend you are not alone, it might help to consider that every generation has built its tools of survival against the calamities of the day. If alienation, isolation and ruthless ambition are the plague of this generation then tools like facebook are as quick and snazzy as antidotes can be. The rest of it is nostalgia that allows older people to believe that prices were lower and people less lonely in their time.
The best thing about the film is that like all great works of art, it lets us all take away from it what we will. And if all you are seeking is a cinematic experience worth your ticket price- The Social Network delivers straight away. Fincher keeps his frames tight and pacey. The lead performances are superlative and the plot treated like a thriller keeps you hooked. But most of all it is the breathless, brilliant dialogue that fires the roller coaster- proving beyond doubt that Facebook might be genius but cinema is magic.
Originally published in Tehelka.