Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Social Network
According to just about everyone, The Social Network is more than just a movie. It’s a brilliant indictment of the illusory nature of the online social world packed with important questions about the nature of desire, ambition and human connection in modern America. It’s a breathtaking, Oscar-worthy, millennium-defining account of the creation of Facebook and the ironic fact that its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, is a friendless buttwad. Maybe my expectations were too high because of all the hype, but I don’t think I’ll be stealing the life-size promotional cutout from Blockbuster anytime soon. As a character study, the movie is fascinating and compelling, but the question for me is: who exactly is it a character study of?
Not Mark Zuckerberg, apparently. The Social Network purports to tell the story of the creation (theft?) of Facebook by Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg hands in a solid performance in his endearingly-dorky-like-Michael-Cera-but-not-funny way), his subsequent capitulation to the influence Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake redeems himself from The Open Road and kills it as the captivating, hard-partying Napster founder), and his betrayal of his best and only friend, the dashing Eduardo Saverin. But even screenwriter Aaron Sorkin seems to be somewhat confused as to whether the film is fact or fiction, declaring on one hand that it is fact, while on the other hand declaring his relief that Zuckerberg did not participate, lest he be bound to represent Zuckerberg accurately. “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth,” Sorkin declares. “I want it to be to storytelling.” Sorkin’s confusion notwithstanding, the movie appears to have been largely fictionalized.
Something tells me he was a natural in this role
Both The Social Network and Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires were conceptualized when Eduardo Saverin contacted Mezrich about writing his story. Mezrich and Sorkin compared notes and shared materials while writing their respective works. Saverin was the only principle to consult for either the book or the movie. While Sorkin claims to tell the story from multiple vantage points, it’s clear Saverin’s story is the primary narrative. He is portrayed as the first computer-programming geek in the history of the world with good looks, two eyebrows, cool clothes, smooth social skillz, a hot girlfriend, good hair, unimpeachable morals, complete and innocent trust in his friends, impeccable posture, a giant white pegasus, and a flaming sword that he uses to cut Zuckerberg in half (I made two of those things up). In contrast, Zuckerberg is portrayed as an antisocial, mumbling, smug, inconsiderate, unlikable tool who perhaps stole the Facebook idea from some other Harvard tools (the Winklevoss brothers), and who was motivated by his anger at an ex-girlfriend, and perhaps jealousy of Eduardo’s awesomeness and great hair.
The initial storyboard for Saverin’s battle with Zuckerberg’s Skeleton Army
While this narrative is “dramatic, well-constructed, and lots of fun,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, “It’s also, in no small part, fiction.” Unlike Sorkin, who did not meet with a single principle whose story he was telling, Kirkpatrick “spent a year and a half studying the real story in researching my recent non-fiction book… I repeatedly interviewed Facebook founder Zuckerberg, his co-founders, and his friends, along with scores of Facebook executives, and studied all the documents I could get my hands on. I tried to uncover the real history of Facebook.” Though Kirkpatrick’s observations on The Social Network should be taken with a grain of salt (after all, his own Facebook book is competing with The Accidental Billionaires and has not been turned into a major motion picture), they are also well-researched and quite revealing. He says one of the film’s achievements is that many of the details really are accurate (Zuckerberg’s movie outfits were ones he really wore! They really broke a chimney with a zipcord into the pool! Some of the legal dialogue comes from the actual deposition transcripts!). Maybe the little details were accurate, but many of the important points – including the truly damaging portrayal of Zuckerberg – appear to have been largely fictional.
According to Kirkpatrick, while the movie portrays Zuckerberg as an “angry, insecure but cocky young jerk,” the real life Zuckerberg is “one of the least angry people I've ever met. He is even-tempered, generally upbeat, if prone to silence, and highly self-confident.” The movie depicts him creating Facebook in order to impress and get back at an ex-girlfriend, then “shows him repeatedly seeking to get back into her good graces. Its final scene shows a pathetic, solitary Zuckerberg, isolated and alone, forlornly sending a Facebook ‘friend request’ to his ex.” But the truth is that “Zuckerberg was seldom without a girlfriend even before Thefacebook. And shortly before Thefacebook launched, the real-life Zuckerberg began seriously dating a girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, with whom he lives today. He was with her during almost all the events portrayed in the movie.” But it’s not only the movie’s portrayal of Zuckerberg that is inaccurate. According to Kirkpatrick, its heroic portrayal of Eduardo Saverin is also misleading:
"Saverin was Zuckerberg's close friend, as the movie notes. [And it] correctly shows that Saverin made a serious mistake not moving out to Palo Alto along with Zuckerberg and [co-founder Dustin] Moskovitz, despite their repeated urgings… He paid a price when he was pushed out of the company and saw his ownership radically reduced. But it wasn't in the end that high a price, because in a later settlement he got enough stock to give him about 5 percent of the company today, worth about $1.4 Billion (the movie omits this). Saverin, whose commitment to Thefacebook lasted no longer than six months, is the only true accidental billionaire. It's also true, as the movie has it, that Saverin initially invested $1,000 of his own money. But the film implies that all the funding during Thefacebook's first months came out of Saverin's pocket. In fact, Zuckerberg, too, put in lots of cash.”
These alterations of fact cannot be dismissed as minor plot points changed in order to keep a “based on a true story” narrative flowing. These inaccurate portrayals are central to the movie, bearing directly on the character studies that make the movie so compelling in the first place.
In addition to these discrepancies, The Social Network’s fact/fiction identity crisis is particularly apparent in the “depositions” incorporated into the screenplay. Sorkin invents a new kind of “deposition” where the lawyers speak exclusively in nonsensical legal clichés, inexplicably grill their own clients, and make arguments like they’re talking to a jury. He invents a deposition where the witness (Zuckerberg) refuses to give a non-sarcastic answer to questions that may well determine the future of his multi-billion-dollar company, and doesn’t realize that the decision to settle the lawsuit belongs to him, not his lawyers. It’s a deposition to which Sorkin invites not just the lawyers and the witness (the only people present in an actual deposition), but also Eduardo, the Winkelvoss brothers, some other lawyers, possibly their parents, and the entire cast of Circ du Soleil (they happened to be in town). Because the other parties involved weren’t even at the actual Zuckerberg depositions, it makes sense that, according to Kirkpatrick, “Zuckerberg's snide put-downs of the lawyers, the twins, and Saverin are largely invented.” In contrast with actual depositions (I am a litigator by day, though I play a doctor in Mule life), which are quite painful to watch, it seems as if Sorkin said, “Hmm… we need some legal stuff here. What does what’s-his-face from Law & Order say all the time? I think I’ll make this lawyer talk like Atticus Finch. Should he wear one of those white wigs? Should I make that lady say ‘I object?’ And while we’re at it, I think it would be more dramatic if we included everyone in the entire movie in these legal scenes.”
Sorkin’s chief legal dialogue consultant.
Fictionalized versions of true stories are a distinguished and honorable genre. Many loosely-historical books and movies are going for something other than accuracy, be it entertainment, beauty, art, box-office success, or just some good old-fashioned fun (movies like Oliver Stone’s JFK, The Motorcycle Diaries, Braveheart, and Almost Famous come to mind). There’s nothing wrong with this, largely because you generally know what you’re getting. Conspiracy theory films like JFK are understood to be based on exactly that, theories. We accept that biopics like The Motorcycle Diaries, Ray, I Walk the Line, etc. tend to err on the side of flattering rather than tearing down their subjects in order to tell an inspiring story. Epics like Braveheart are set far enough in the past that none of the principals are alive to be offended by (or object to) their portrayals. And films like Almost Famous change the names and make it clear that they are fictional stories informed by various elements of true stories. The one thing all these movies have in common is that they are re-telling stories from the past, and here is where The Social Network is different. It is a fictionalized re-telling of a story that is still happening. There is something disconcerting about a movie that re-shapes a story that is still unfolding. Yes, serious “true” stories have been told by contemporary films, but they are generally held to a higher standard of factual accuracy (see All the President’s Men).
The bigger issue is the way that Sorkin wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he wants all the narrative leeway generally afforded fiction. After all, art is art and doesn’t need to justify itself with narrative accuracy. However, he also wants the legitimacy of “fact” on his side, even going so far as to end the movie by telling us “how everything turned out in the end.” It’s easy to understand why Sorkin wants both. This combination of art (this movie is so well done!) and fact (this is how the biggest website in the world really got started!) translates into buzz, rave reviews, and (very likely) Oscars. The artistic merit of The Social Network – the storytelling, the acting, the dialogue – has garnered well-deserved praise. But given the liberties the film takes with the facts, how fair is it for Sorkin to also be claiming factual legitimacy? Especially to his protagonist, who is portrayed in such a relentlessly negative light? Believe it or not, I kind of feel bad for Zuckerberg – that’s right, I feel bad for a 26-year-old kid worth $10 Billion who may or may not have stabbed his BFF in the back. Maybe it’s because I’m an insurance defense lawyer and have no heart. Or maybe it’s because, if the movie is as fictional as it appears to be, no one deserves this kind of character assassination. It’s not a true story, and it’s not a made-up story; it’s some kind of misleading mish-mash. Yes, The Social Network is a fascinating and compelling movie. I might even watch it again sometime. But if I do, I’ll certainly keep in mind that for all its purported accuracy, it’s really just a fictionalized account of one side of an ongoing story. Perhaps, with my expectations properly set, I’ll enjoy the movie more.
And maybe I’ll wind up with that Justin Timberlake cutout in my bedroom after all.