A Friend Is Born: 'The Social Network' examines the founding myth of Facebook

The key to enjoying  “The Social Network,” David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s big-screen version of the founding of the Web site Facebook, is to acknowledge that the film, at its core, is not really about the founding of Facebook.

Drawing inspiration from the book proposal for The Accidental Billionaire—written by Ben Mezrich, who admitted that many events described in his book have been embellished, compressed and otherwise altered—the film is another exaggerated version of the founding, more storytelling than reporting. The main characters in the film are based on actual people who were instrumental in the founding of Facebook, not to mention others who wish they were. This much is certain: in a dorm room at Harvard University, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created a Web site that’s now worth billions of dollars, and in the process, he made some enemies.


Sorkin’s script creates a character named Zuckerberg; it is only this embellished version of the real man that can be described here. The Zuckerberg of the film is a Harvard student desperate to enter the elite clubs of an elite college; a guy longing for attention from a girl, for acceptance, for fame; a computer programmer who straddles and sometimes crosses the fine line between being motivated and obsessed. And, more often than not, a jerk. The real-life Zuckerberg has denied any such motivations.

Near the start of the film, in a series of wide shots of the campus at night, Zuckerberg walks quickly, head down, passing by more leisurely paced students on his way to his dorm room after being dumped by his girlfriend. Throughout, the camera’s shallow depth of field reinforces this separation between Zuckerberg and what surrounds him, reflecting his character’s ability to tune out others and turn inward, as quickly as the camera can refocus. Eisenberg’s performance is outstanding, particularly in his ability to portray Zuckerberg’s awkwardness and arrogance while maintaining a sense of vulnerability.

At Fincher’s Harvard, the muted colors and dimly lit dorms provide a stark contrast to the bright, industrial offices of Facebook later in the film. Much of the action—the parties of the upper-crust and middle crust, the hazing for the tony Harvard clubs, the planning for Facebook—takes place at night. At times Zuckerberg’s room seems more like a lair than a dorm.

The film alternates, in thriller-like fashion, the narrative of Facebook’s early days with scenes from two depositions that were part of two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg, one by Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a co-founder of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s former best friend, who provided the startup funds and served as CFO of the site until he was pushed out of the company. Saverin’s character garners the most sympathy in the film, as his betrayal by Zuckerberg seems vicious and deliberate. The second lawsuit was filed by Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss, identical twins and fellow Harvard students who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea for an exclusive social networking site. Both brothers are played by Armie Hammer, with the perfect balance of self-righteousness and charm, and the help of different hairstyles.

The scenes from one deposition in which Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a young, sympathetic lawyer, discusses the case with Zuckerberg seem forced, serving only as an awkward vehicle both for plot exposition and for what is perhaps the film’s most famous line, which Sorkin is said to have heard from a Facebook executive after reading a draft of the script: “Every creation myth needs a devil.” Despite uttering these words, Delpy is the least compelling of the few female characters in the film, all of whom are one-dimensional and seem to exist solely as muses or admirers of the lead male characters.

Overall, the film moves at an unusually rapid pace for one consisting largely of characters sitting in front of computers or talking around a table. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Sorkin’s writing. Even as characters become bored, angry, drunk and indignant, Sorkin’s writing renders them capable of the kind of sharp one-liners and rapid-fire banter that could make Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict jealous.

The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also helps to propel or suspend the action throughout, and its electronic sounds seem to capture the world in which Zuckerberg lives. This world, at least in the film, is one in that isolates Zuckerberg from the individuals whose opinions he valued most at the start of the film.

Sex, jealousy and revenge fuel much of the actions taken by both Zuckerberg and the Winkelvoss brothers. The most important question for college students, Zuckerberg says, is: “Are you having sex or aren’t you?” In the film he is inspired to add the relationship function on Facebook as a way to answer that question for others who may be interested. The addition of this final touch convinces him the site is ready to go live.

The more important questions posed by the film relate to identity and friendship. The character of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of the Web site Napster who provided advice to Zuckerberg during Facebook’s early days, contributes to Zuckerberg’s inflated ego and immediately grasps Facebook’s potential power. He describes the site as  “the true digitization of your life.”

Is such a thing even possible? If so, is it desirable? The increasing popularity of Web sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter allow an individual to present to others a very specific version of oneself and to connect with others in new ways. But there’s something to be said for learning the name of a new friend’s favorite band, book or movie through a good old-fashioned conversation rather than by skimming an online profile.

Facebook is an innovative, game-changing, entertaining and addictive Web site, and in the barrage of status updates and messages and deciding what to “like” and whom to “friend,” it can be easy to forget that the way in which we define ourselves extends beyond the choices provided by the site’s profile options or fan pages or the number of comments on a wall.

In a world that is infinitely nuanced, Facebook’s blue-and-white homepage offers us an easily categorized world, and in that world, the word “friend” carries a very loose definition. That girl I haven’t spoken to since third grade? My mom? An ex-boyfriend? All friends on equal footing, as far as Facebook is concerned. And a list of “friends” can be pared down with the click of a mouse.

In real life, as “The Social Network” demonstrates, relationships are infinitely more complicated, and it’s these relationships that provide Fincher and Sorkin with the material for a compelling story. And while no one can claim that “The Social Network” is entirely accurate, it does try to capture a greater truth through its commentary on friendship and betrayal, ambition and identity. It raises the question: How much of your real life social network are you willing to risk in the name of money, fame or success?

Facebook advocates for a more open society, and it urges users toward this goal by asking them to share their lives online, to define themselves through a limited set of characteristics, by a list of likes and dislikes, or selected photos. But what the movie does, more than anything, is demonstrate that it’s just not that simple. The complexities of the human experience, of relationships, of an individual, or even a company, can’t be fully captured by a few lines of code or in images on a screen.

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