by HELEN GEIB
The Social Network is a dramatization of the genesis of Facebook that will appeal equally to people who are interested in how Facebook started and people who couldn’t care less. The film makes that story interesting, and offers some insights into the explosive popularity of social media. Nonetheless, it’s not, or at least it’s much more than a movie about Facebook. The narrative focus is on a group of complex, flawed young men and their ambiguous actions and motivations. The personal drama is the film’s real story.
The film uses an elaborate flashback structure. The structural device is to tell the past story in segments introduced by present-day deposition testimony. It’s impressively well executed. There’s never any confusion about where or when we are within the fragmentary timeline. It also ups the entertainment value by drawing us immediately into the story: Seeing these guys, two of them formerly the best of friends, clawing at each other’s throats makes us anxious to learn just how everything got so messed up.
If business success is measured by the amount of money at stake in the (seemingly inevitable) ensuing lawsuits, then Facebook’s creator-founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a supremely successful man. He was sued for many millions of dollars in each of two unconnected cases. One of the cases was brought by the Winklevoss brothers, Harvard upperclassmen who hired Mark, before he dropped out to focus on Facebook, to program a campus-wide social networking site. The other was brought by Mark’s former classmate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the estranged best friend, who put up the initial seed money that got the social network off the ground.
The deposition scenes punctuate the main, told-in-flashback story showing each of the principals (the litigants plus Napster mastermind and Facebook early promoter Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake) playing out their own individual part in the drama. This structure promises a he said/he said/they said truth-finding approach. However, the notion that The Social Network is a Rashomon for the Facebook generation is short-lived. To begin with, the testimony and the “while he was doing this, they were up to that” flashbacks are complementary, not contradictory; discrete pieces of the (film’s version of the) whole story.
For example, the Winklevoss twins and Zuckerberg are in agreement that they sent him lots of emails while he was purportedly employed by them but actually spending all his time developing the Facebook prototype, which emails he either ignored or answered with prevarications. Where they disagree is the inference to be drawn. The brothers quite naturally draw the negative inference that Zuckerberg put them off because he had stolen their idea and wanted to beat them to the going-public punch; however, they don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what Zuckerberg was really up to during that time. This is not, Rashomon-like, “We were both there but remember it differently- who you gonna believe, me or the supercilious jerk sitting on the other side of the table?”
To the contrary, the camera is a privileged observer. It shows us what really happened, unfiltered and unmediated.
The camera likewise shows us what happened between Mark and Eduardo. It does not show us Mark’s version and Eduardo’s version and ask us to decide between them (although it does leave to us what conclusions to draw from what we’ve seen). This is an important distinction to make because The Social Network has been accused of playing fast and loose with the facts of real events in living people’s lives.
All biopics and historical dramatizations raise the question of fidelity to the record. Even the most jealous guardians of the subject’s legacy must agree that some degree of inaccuracy (selection, compression, composite characters) is acceptable and indeed necessary, if only to shoehorn the true story into a movie’s two hour running time. The farther back in time the story reaches, the more leeway for the dramatist.
Accounts of recent events deserve less latitude. The living are not past caring, and there’s no readily available body of literature to support, rebut, supplement, or provide necessary context.
Regardless of who has the facts on their side when it comes to the Social Network controversy (I don’t know enough about the case to adjudicate), I’m troubled by some of the responses I’ve seen made by the film’s ardent partisans. I can’t adopt the cavalier attitude that rich people should expect to have their reputations trashed, and the defense that accuracy is an obstacle to Truth is awfully self-serving. But I’m most troubled by the idea that it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not because it’s such a great movie. That artists- the great ones anyway- have no responsibility to be fair to the people whose lives they have appropriated.
The ethical dilemmas are not confined to the drama unfolding on screen.
The Social Network is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Special features on both editions are two commentary tracks, one by director David Fincher and one by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin “and the cast.” Additional features on the Blu-ray include a “making of” documentary and various short features on the score, visuals, and other aspects of the filmmaking.
Other new releases this week: Alpha and Omega, Heartbreaker, Piranha 3D