Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: NYFF10 OPENING NIGHT Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

Friday, September 24, 2010

NYFF10 OPENING NIGHT Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

by Tony Dayoub

Midway through The Social Network, wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) calls his estranged partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) from California to inform him that their new partner, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)—the smooth creator of Napster—has just succeeded in getting a venture capitalist group to invest half a million dollars in Zuckerberg and Saverin's Facebook. It is a crucial scene loaded with mixed emotions between the two partners. Saverin had just rescinded access to Facebook's $19,000 line of credit after discovering Parker has supplanted him as Zuckerberg's financial idea man; Saverin's clingy girlfriend almost burned down his apartment demanding to know why Saverin hasn't updated his Relationship Status from "single;" and Parker has proven his value by securing meetings with big money men while Saverin was going door-to-door in New York selling advertising to small-fish establishments like a tuxedo rental company. It is the most overt display of the rupture developing between Zuckerberg and Saverin. But for just a moment, Zuckerberg is big enough to congratulate Saverin for their success despite his anger over having the monetary rug pulled out from under him. For just a moment, Saverin is equally gracious even though his instincts tell him he is being shut out from his own company. Party boy Parker is inside their house/office with employees and female hangers-on as he pops open a bottle of champagne. And Zuckerberg is just outside, viewing the celebration through a sliding glass door, privy to—but separated from—the festivities inside.

It is not the first time, director David Fincher (Fight Club) uses a barrier to separate Zuckerberg from the rest of humanity. Throughout the film, we see Zuckerberg keeps running up against barriers both real and imaginary, both forced on him and self-imposed. Whether it's the misogynistic game he invents by hacking onto Harvard's network and stealing female students' photos to allow male students to rate each of them against the other; the intellectual one upmanship he delights in subjecting a girlfriend (Rooney Mara) to before she dumps him; or his perceived physical inadequacies when he compares himself to the bigger, stronger Winklevoss brothers (both played by Armie Hammer) of the rowing crew, it becomes clear the incredibly gifted Zuckerberg is a failure at one thing: connecting to people.

The irony will be lost on no one then that it is this social misfit who comes up with Facebook, a popular website designed to connect people to each other. And though the story of The Social Network looks at first glance to be about Zuckerberg's questionable ethics in developing code for a site whose idea was initially pitched by the dunderheaded "Winklevii," as he likes to call them—it is really about the effects bringing down societal barriers of class, gender, and privacy can have on the human psyche. Increasingly, the film makes clear that too much of Facebook creates an illusion of intimate knowledge where none exists.

As the fast-paced film progresses it becomes clear that these barriers never really come down, they just become frustratingly transparent, allowing those who are "out" to get a look in without ever actually making it "in." Like the crucial sliding glass door I described earlier, the barriers become almost invisible, sneaking up on the characters and the viewer. The Social Network's climax, in which Saverin finally discovers how far out of the loop he is at Facebook just as the company signs up its millionth user, mostly plays out with Saverin and a lawyer behind a closed office with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall which allows us to see, not hear, a loyal old friend get stabbed in the back by Zuckerberg. By the time Saverin comes out and causes a scene, we are witnessing the aftermath, not the incident.

In fact, the only glass partition we do get past is the one in a law office which surrounds the two now-squabbling partners as they are being deposed for a case brought against Zuckerberg by Saverin. With this deposition framing device, writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) cooks up a device which frees him from misrepresenting any of the true events which inspired the screenplay; it allows him to tell the story from multiple points of view using narrators with conflicting motivations which motivate obvious discrepancies between one storyteller and the next. It is an ingenious method for Sorkin to absolve himself from any blame if he errs. But even more significantly, it gets to the point which Fincher is trying to make about Facebook in The Social Network: no matter how much you may think you know about a person, there's always a wall which prevents you from reaching the truth.

The Social Network is the Opening Night film for the 48th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023.

Director David Fincher will discuss his film as part of the
HBO Films Directors' Dialogues series at 11 a.m. tomorrow, at the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam), upper level, New York, NY 10023.

For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050

The Social Network opens nationwide on Friday, October 1st.


Sam Juliano said...

Nice to hear you are in town Tony, though I know you have made this great festival a priority every year. Excllent review here of a film that I obviously hanker to see. I didn't ytake teh plunge this year I'm sorry to say, as I was occupied with some classic film festivals all summer, and I need to resolve some kidney stone issues. But I will be on the lookout for your future reports and wish you a great time in the Big Apple!

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for commenting Sam. I'm sure you're going to enjoy THE SOCIAL NETWORK. It's one of those rare instances a movie feels both timeless AND of the moment, like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, EASY RIDER, etc.

Get well soon.

MovieMan0283 said...

Really good take on the film here - I especially like how you analyze and articulate the "big picture"; one reason I chose to focus my post on individual comments I had made, on various aspects of the film, was that I couldn't quite put my finger on why it worked so well for me (other than subjective reasons). Here you do a great job defining the big point - the partitions and how they right to Zuckerberg as a character and Facebook as a subject.

By the way, it just occurred to me that we hardly see Facebook at all in the movie, or at least I can remember very little of it - except for that shot in the end when he's friending his ex, trying to finally break through one of those partitions; it's as if Facebook exists only as an idea for Zuckerberg and not an actuality - in a way, the real star of this picture is offscreen the whole time!

You also perceived a fundamental tenet of Fincher's aesthetic here - the physical divides - which more or less escaped me; this was a movie whose excellent direction I greatly appreciated but the filmmaker seemed a bit invisible to me (especially since Sorkin's presence is so pronounced), so I like how you've pulled back the curtain a bit.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for your insight, Joel. I'm sorry I took so long to respond, but believe it or not, I spent most of yesterday defending Fincher all over the web (not just for TSN but ZODIAC, which I had thought was put to rest years ago). I found others see this in much the same way you do, with Fincher largely hidden behind Sorkin, although to less favorable feelings about the film than you express.

I'm surprised by this, but then again, I tend to be almost monastic about my auteurism. And with my general distaste for Sorkinese it was easier to look past what I considered an affectation. I'll give it to him, though. Sorkin composed quite a great script. Mannered though it may be, I love the narrative escape hatch he builds for himself in the sense that one can justify many of the potential inaccuracies by attributing it to any of a number of unreliable narrators via their self-serving depositions.

If Fincher is invisible in this, I chalk it up to his growth in maturity as a director, less evident in BUTTON, but surely visible in ZODIAC, the cloth of which THE SOCIAL NETWORK is similarly cut from. His detachment serves the film greatly by distancing the viewer from Sorkin's overwritten dialogue. And as I argued over at Medfly Quarantine, there is a tension invoked by Fincher's handling of Sorkin's script in that, while Sorkin seems to disapprove of Zuckerberg and his betrayal of Saverin, Fincher seems to side more with big-talking dreamer Parker as if to say Parker is more suited to the cutthroat hig-stakes world of big business than Saverin was and Zuckerberg made the right choice in terms of what was best for his business.

Yes, the marriage of two such disparate "auteurs" creates a dynamism rarely felt in movies anymore and has given film writers much to chew on in this inferior year of cinema.

Adam Zanzie said...

In that discussion over at Medfly Quarantine, either you or Ryan (I forget which) said that Sorkin has said negative things about Zuckerberg in the press. What did he say, exactly?

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: Late to get back to this to respond.

I like the way you point out how the direction of some scenes underlines the way Zuckerberg is disconnected from meaningful relationships.

I'm not sure I agree with this though ...

the film makes clear that too much of Facebook creates an illusion of intimate knowledge where none exists.

I mean, I agree Facebook does this. But since Facebook itself isn't ever used in this film the way we use Facebook today, I don't see how that is explored in the film. The only scene I can think of that would support this is the one in which Saverin's girlfriend thinks he's making a statement about their relationship by listing himself as "single," when in fact he just doesn't keep his profile updated.

Now, having said that, if you see Zuckerberg in this film as a forecast of sorts for what people become on Facebook, well, then I'd agree. Because obviously this film is obsessive in demonstrating that Zuckerberg can't connect (and to some degree doesn't care to connect) with people around him in meaningful "human" ways.

It's a good film. I need to see it again just to enjoy that second scene of Zuckerberg shuffling through campus to that awesomely moody score.

Tony Dayoub said...

Adam, I'm not sure exactly what Sorkin has said that you're referring to. He spoke with us at an NYFF press conference along with Fincher, Eisenberg, Garfield and Timberlake. Sorkin's general attitude towards Eisenberg struck me as miffed that this callous young man had burned so many people in his quest to create a website as reprehensible as he found Facebook to be. He struck me as a bit of a Luddite with limited imagination for the myriad uses one could utilize Facebook for. Fincher was much kinder and genuinely impressed with Zuckerberg's drive and achievements.

Tony Dayoub said...


First, let me respond to your comments here. Then I want to respond to your review over at The Cooler.

I'll try to be sensitive because you're a great online friend to me and the site, so don't take any of this personally. I can't put my finger on why but you're reading of the film irked me more than anything I remember reading on any movie before in my life. Maybe it's because I usually admire your point of view and found myself thinking "What is he talking about?" when I first read your post. But I digress...

The only scene I can think of that would support this is the one in which Saverin's girlfriend thinks he's making a statement about their relationship by listing himself as "single," when in fact he just doesn't keep his profile updated.

This is exactly the scene I would use to support what I'm saying. And since so much of the film operates under a feeling of "time compressed," I'm not sure it takes much more than this scene to illustrate what is only one subplot among many.

I disagree with your characterization of Saverin's decision to keep his relationship status as "Single." Though he says he didn't intentionally do this, and though this may be Sorkin's intent in his script, a script which I curiously found was frequently at odds with the final film as presented, I believe the way Fincher stages it in the context of Saverin's alienation from the rest of the FB crowd, far away in NYC, not to mention the way Garfield plays Saverin as overwhelmed with the rapidity in which his life is changing (another symptom of the "Facebook Effect"), supports my take on it. which brings me to what it was that irked me in your post (and others around the net, so I'm sorry if I'm singling you out). (cont.)

Tony Dayoub said...


I bring it up here, by the way, because I didn't want to go into your house and trash your post, but I found your reading of the film to be remarkably constrained by what Sorkin's script was telling us versus how Fincher was contradicting much of that script to forge a new perspective. At times, you acknowledge this, such as when you say, "...thanks to Fincher THE SOCIAL NETWORK is undeniably cinematic." But your very premise made me cringe:

...both [THERE WILL BE BLOOD'S Daniel] Plainview and Zuckerberg are obsessed with demonstrating their superiority and humiliating their rivals; both are unmotivated by wealth except as an example of their dominance; both treat anything short of full obedience as an insult; both exhibit a paranoia about the world around them even while they steadfastly believe, and repeatedly confirm, that they are without suitable rivals; and both fail to realize that their greatest antagonist is the man in the mirror.
While the two characters share many of these qualities, their motivations are as opposite in extremes as they can get. Plainview's prime motive for everything he does is to be left alone. He hates mankind, wants nothing to do with them, and believes wealth and power can build a fortress which he can seclude hmself in forever. Family is the only exception he allows because he sees them as an extension of self, but once even they betray him, he reverts back to his idea of living in solitude. All Zuckerberg wants is to belong. He goes about it quite ineptly, trying to impress associates with his knowledge in such a way as to push them away with his uncompromising knack for condescending towards them. But his actions speak of his desire to reach out, first to male students of privilege who can help him get access to the revered "final clubs," then to the rest of the world who can help him connect to his own Rosebud, Rooney Mara's character (name escapes me), the girlfriend who dumped him.

Sorkin's script would have you believe Zuckerberg is driven primarily by revenge, creating something of value as a response to being dumped, or being looked down upon by the Winklevii and their ilk. But Fincher's visualization of the script shows a lonely man who wishes to connect in a way Plainview never does.

Anyway, my apologies if I offended you, Jason. I took my time in responding because I didn't want to fly off the handle and insult you for no good reason. It's just a movie, right? But I don't know why, THE SOCIAL NETWORK really does strike me as the most important American movie this year, and I have a feeling time will bear out this claim.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: Let's start with the important stuff: I'm not offended. Not a bit. If anything, I'm disappointed. Not that you disagree with me or found that my "reading of the film irked [you] more than anything [you] remember reading on any movie before in [your] life," but that you felt you couldn't say as much at my site.

I hope that if I've proved anything over the years it's that I'm passionate about movies and just as passionate about the debate, and also reasonable about both. If all we're arguing is movies, and our interpretation of them, there's really nothing to be offended by. Not in my book.

And yet, having said that, I will say this: Forgive me if I'm jumping to conclusions here, but if all of this means that you were referring to my blog when, in the comments section of a recent post on this site, you implied that commenters "sycophantically" responded to a review with praise, well, that bothers me a bit for a few reasons:

First, it suggests that my reading of the film couldn't possibly have merit (I think it does, and we'll get to that soon). Second, it suggests that any agreement couldn't possibly be genuine or intelligent. Third, by not engaging in the comments section and arguing a counter point, you create the very illusion of mindless agreement that you found so irritating. In short, I find all of that more offensive than anything you've actually said about my review. (Though, again, I'm really not offended. Just disappointed ...)

If I've ever created an environment at The Cooler that I want only to be agreed with or that I shy away from intelligent debate, please let me know how I did that, because I'd like to think I have a track record to the contrary. Having said that, sure, it's always a rush to write something and have people identify with it. But I'm being totally honest when I say that I probably would have been more excited to read your dissenting argument. (If you haven't yet, check out my recent exchange with Steven Santos on my review of Catfish, which kind of proves the point.)

At the end of your last comment you write: "I didn't want to fly off the handle and insult you for no good reason." I guess I'm confused at the implication that you needed to "insult" me at all. Couldn't you just disagree with my analysis, as you've done here? I wouldn't consider that an insult.

So, likewise, I hope I haven't insulted you in saying any of this. That's not my intent. The above is my honest reaction.

I realize you might have avoided commenting at my site for fear of getting so worked up that you might accidentally deliver a personal insult you didn't intend. And if so, OK, I get that. But in the future, please know you're always welcome to tell me you think I'm full of shit. Truly. You can even use those words if no others will do. Just back it up. That's all I ask.

We good? I hope so. I truly value all the exchanges we've had in the past, so I hope this is one in many more to come. On that note, let me turn to your comments on The Social Network...

Jason Bellamy said...

OK, let's talk about the film now. Where to start? Let's start with our readings of Daniel Plainview, because that's actually where we begin to disagree. You write ...

"Plainview's prime motive for everything he does is to be left alone. He hates mankind, wants nothing to do with them, and believes wealth and power can build a fortress which he can seclude hmself in forever.'

I disagree. I don't feel that what motivates Plainview to become an oil tycoon is the desire to build a fortress in which to seclude himself. Why? Well, for starters he was pretty fucking secluded in the beginning of the film when he was digging in a mineshaft all alone, far from civilization. He could have kept up that life. He could have done any number of things to remain on his own. He didn't need wealth for that.

No, I think Plainview is motivated by a desire to dominate. He wants wealth because he wants power over people. To me, that's why his high point seems to be explaining to Eli that he'd already taken his oil. In that scene, he isn't thrilled by the wealth he got from Eli's oil. He's thrilled by his defeat of Eli. I think Plainview's final encounter with his son is further evidence of he need to have power. When his son says he's leaving, Plainview plays the card he's held in his back pocket his entire life, telling his son he's a "bastard in a basket." The times Plainview is most hurt in the film is when he's powerless: when he can't heal or communicate with his deaf son. When he finds out that the man pretending to be his brother has conned him after he dared to let the man be, more or less, his equal.

I could go on, but you get the idea. That, in short, is what I think motivates Plainview. And if you disagree with that, of course you'll disagree that Plainview and Zuckerberg are anything alike. But let's move to Zuckerberg.

(comment coming up ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

If you'd like, I could go into more detail about the ways Plainview and Zuckerberg line up, but as I said above, I think what they have in common is a desire for dominance. I know you disagree. I'll get to that. For the moment, go with me on this ...

I assume we both agree that Mark isn't motivated by wealth itself. But he repeatedly demonstrates that he hates not being in control -- in the scene in which he's dumped, in the scene in which he confronts his ex, in the scene in which he finds out that Saverin froze their account, etc. Likewise, he routinely takes control of situations: in the litigation scenes, he's repeatedly showing the lawyers that he isn't subservient to them; he repeatedly knocks down his best friend, Saverin, about his recruitment by the Phoenix Club; and of course he shows Harvard (with Facemash) and then Winklevii (with Facebook) that he's the one holding the cards -- getting more pleasure out of that dominance than anything else. The scene in which Zuckerberg scolded Saverin for being so trusting that he allowed himself to get screwed out of his company (another sign of power) really did remind me of the "drainage" scene. It's not like Zuckerberg needed the money. What he needed was to put Saverin in his place. And isn't that interesting, because Saverin was hardly a worthy rival (in fact, he wasn't a rival at all), just like Eli Sunday was no match for Daniel Plainview. What Sunday and Saverin have in common is that they didn't look treat the megalomaniacs around them with appropriate awe. And for that they were punished.

Tony, I think I've done more than cite a few general similarities there. I think I've demonstrated that these men do not have motivations that are "as opposite in extremes as they can get."

But let's get to your reading of Zuckerberg ... (more coming)

Jason Bellamy said...

I found your reading of the film to be remarkably constrained by what Sorkin's script was telling us versus how Fincher was contradicting much of that script to forge a new perspective. ... All Zuckerberg wants is to belong. He goes about it quite ineptly, trying to impress associates with his knowledge in such a way as to push them away with his uncompromising knack for condescending towards them. But his actions speak of his desire to reach out. ... Fincher's visualization of the script shows a lonely man who wishes to connect in a way Plainview never does.

Let me start with a point of agreement: Yes, Zuckerberg shows more of a desire to connect (beyond family) than Plainview ever does. Of course, let's be honest: that's a pretty low bar.

So now let me say that my biggest disagreement is with the notion that my analysis of Zuckerberg is based only in Sorkin's script and not in Fincher's direction, and with the somewhat implied notion that your analysis isn't quite so bound to Sorkin's screenplay.

I think I've already identified several scenes that are as much about Zuckerberg's actions as about what he explicitly says he wants. Similarly, your analysis that Zuckerberg wants to connect can be found in the text of the very Sorkin-esque dialogue of the opening scene. My point being that I agree with you: there are contradictions here between what Zuckerberg says and what Zuckerberg does. I don't think one side is powered by Sorkin and the other by Fincher. It's more cohesive than that.

Having said that, I think it's pretty obvious based on my previous arguments that I disagree with the idea that "all Zuckerberg wants is to belong." I suppose that might be what motivates him in the beginning; because we both seem to agree it's a desire to belong more than it's a desire to seek revenge against his girlfriend that really drives him. (That might be his motivation for the few hours when he goes home and creates Fashmash. But it's not his motivation with Facebook.)

But there are some things we can't overlook: If Zuckerberg wanted to belong, he would have built Harvard Connect. He had his golden ticket. Instead, he deliberately took that ticket and shoved it up the asses of the Winklevii. He played them. If Zuckerberg wanted to belong, it seems he'd be unlikely to look to alienate every person who he actually connected with -- his girlfriend in the first scene and Saverin later on. In both cases, yes, he shows regret. He's got a soul somewhere in there. But when forced to make the choice between connecting with someone and having power over someone, he always chooses power, does he not? (I suppose the exception is Sean Parker, his idol, whom Zuckerberg obeys like a dog.)

I suppose you might say that the final scene demonstrates Zuckerberg's desire to connect. I agree. But isn't the emotion of the final scene one of regret, that Sorkin has built this empire, become consumed with power, and along the way he's lost site of the one thing he said he wanted? Connection? If that final scene is an awakening, and I think it is, then that would suggest that the scenes before it demonstrate a desire to do something other than connect.

(A little more coming ...)

MovieMan0283 said...

Fascinating discussion on this film - the more I read on it, the more I'm intrigued by a movie I initially regarded as rather simple. I like the way you set up Sorkin's screenplay and Fincher's direction in tension with one another, I love juxtapositions like that and it makes me want to see the film again and view it in that light. And don't feel bad about taking a day to get back to me - I'm the last person to get frustrated with something like that, ha ha (ex: I only just now discovered your response). With this & Zodiac, Fincher - a director whom I was not overly impressed with when he was a young hotshot - is definitely growing on me. And he definitely picks great screenplays to work with...

I can't quite get on board with all the Zuckerberg-bashing going on around the film. If he backstabbed his friend in the fashion shown onscreen, then yes I suppose he's a bit of a bastard but to the extent he's being painted as a sociopath I think it's a bit overboard - he just seemed like the average 20-year-old somewhat socially awkward college kid to me. (Besides which, of course, the Zuckerberg we see onscreen is not necessarily anything like the real one but that's of course another topic.)

Jason Bellamy said...

The thing is, if the girlfriend is his Rosebud, doesn't that prove my point? Isn't Rosebud a sign of lost perspective, of chasing after things that you thought you wanted but that you didn't really need? To me, all of that folds into that ambition and desire for power.

As I wrap this thing up, let me list a few shots:

* Zuckerberg running through campus, unconnected with and seemingly unaware of the world around him.

* Zuckerberg "plugged in" at Facebook headquarters, headphones on, again unconnected with and unaware of the world around him.

* Zuckerberg at Facebook headquarters while his friends are off partying.

* Zuckerberg doodling on his notepad, hardly listening to the hearings around him.

These are images of a man who is willingly unconnected. Does Fincher have sympathy for that man? Absofuckinglutely. No argument there. Is The Social Network one of the best films of the year precisely because Mark uses a tool designed to connect people to, ironically, actually drive himself further away from others? Yes! The final scene works in part because it's as if Zuckerberg for the first time sees Facebook not as a tool for his own dominance but as a tool to connect.

The arcs of Zuckerberg and Plainview are by no means the same. One man has an awakening. The other descends into madness. But their ascents from nothingness to power, and their desire for control, have a lot in common.

That's my take. And, honestly, if you still think I'm full of shit, I hope you'll say so.

In the meantime, I hope these comments here are taken of a sign of how much I value your perspective and your voice, here and at The Cooler.

Now let's go to Roscoe's for chicken and waffles, shall we?