By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Call it a character flaw. But aside from a cherished gaggle of relatives and friends, I don’t much care what folks are up to if it doesn’t affect me. Thus my conspicuous absence from Facebook. However, after seeing director David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” about its wunderkind founder, Mark Zuckerberg, I am rethinking my stance.
Enriching via its socio-historical characterization of a generation and the technological gizmos that have helped shape their mores and folkways, the biopic transcends entertainment. “Hmm,” you’ll opine. “So this is where goeth humankind of late.” The curious use of the archaic goeth notwithstanding, your perception would be spot on.
So let us venture back to those primitive days of yesteryear at Harvard, circa 2004, when not every mortal could boast potential access to 500 million friends. Mark Zuckerberg, sophomore computer science major and nerd extraordinaire, bathes his inferiority complex born of social ineptness in the only solution he knows: acumen and arrogance.
Out of this apparent mother of invention springs Facebook, a social network for college kids to meet and greet, at first only at Harvard, then at the other ivies, and eventually anywhere there’s a computer. The rest, as they say, is history, and thus inevitably fraught with pretty much the same claims and lawsuits that accompany any new creation.
It’s been the case ever since the first wheel rolled. For every Henry Ford there is a George Selden (“road engine” patent holder) asserting proprietorship. Told in flashback, director Fincher’s chronicle adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book focuses on Zuckerberg’s quippish, haughty protection of his game-changing bonanza.
But the legal battle, though not without its provocative points of conjecture and conclusion, is more importantly an entrée to the complicated workings of a human being. We are transfixed by the very mixed emotions Mr. Zuckerberg elicits in us. Sure, he’s amassed billions. But we suspect the emotional fortune he sought remains elusive.
Accompanying that judgment and serving as intriguing subtext for those of us not keeping up with our algorithmic studies, there is the humbling awesomeness engendered by the Harvard milieu. While sadly true that the great unwashed can tell you what Miley Cyrus— but not Hillary Clinton— is doing, our really smart people are smarter than ever.
Although Harvard needs no such advertisement, the peek into the unofficial think tank that has spawned its lion’s share of discoveries ostensibly celebrates the joy of inclusion. Which, ironically, is what Mr. Zuckerberg could never feel. It hurts even worse after his only true buddy, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), is wooed by an elite social club.
Some critics delight in broad strokes, like suggesting “The Social Network” is to our current crop of 20-somethings what “The Graduate” (1968) was to the Baby Boomers in their salad days. While perhaps a tad grandiloquent, such estimation does at least establish a reasonable perspective. Very good movies tend to attract classical comparison.
The long shot I’ll venture concerns the content of Mr. Zuckerberg’s character. While Jesse Eisenberg’s excellent portrayal has no compunction in pointing out the protective cad he can be, his conceit, individualism and genius suggest Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead” (1949). Though certainly no Gary Cooper, the visions are similar.
Both exude a rational selfishness that comes of believing the greatness is in the work itself…not how much money it makes or how it may benefit society. If he is a hero in the process, so be it. Take it a step further and we’re in truth-is-beauty territory. Yet unlike the hypothetical, test tube Roark, Zuckerberg’s philosophy is challenged by real life.
And, to be candid, his ethos is a complicated work still very much in progress. How to be a Bill Gates, if not an Edison? He knows their stories, what promoted and confounded them, and what relegated the incautious brainiacs like Tesla to die poor and in relative obscurity. Yet even if one is vigilant, the inexperience of youth can lead to imprudence.
Enters stage left, Justin Timberlake’s charismatically realized Sean Parker, fallen idol of Napster fame, who captures Mark’s ear and imagination. He claims to have the roadmap, the pitfalls to avoid in the Silicon Valley gold rush. This doesn’t please the emerging entrepreneur’s original coterie of supporters. Alas, it is now also a tale of innocence lost.
Filmmaker Fincher gets it right by wisely forsaking the old template that cast way too many films about breakthrough and invention in the same, formulaic light. Set in the properly enigmatic, brave new time and place and worded in its cutting edge terms, “The Social Network’s” telling of the Facebook saga is sure to win many moviegoing friends.
“The Social Network,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by David Fincher and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara and Justin Timberlake. Running time: 120 minutes
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