Why “The Social Network” Is the Best Movie of the 2010s
From the biting social satire of Parasite to the gentle coming-of-age stories Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, from the engrossing horror of The Witch, Raw, and Under the Skin to the resonant romances of Before Midnight and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, from the all-out action extravaganza Mad Max: Fury Road to the heartfelt masterpiece that is Moonlight: it is safe to say that this past decade has been chock-full of incredible films. Almost as if to respond to the ever-increasing flood of homogenized, safe, and overwhelmingly big blockbusters, filmmakers kept homing in on the personal, the experimental, the outright weird, resulting in some of the most wonderful works of cinema I have ever seen. But among these masterpieces, there is one film that always stands ever so slightly above the rest; a movie that not only manages to revolutionize and reinvigorate a tired genre, but does so with a razor-sharp vision, technical mastery, and a deeply human core, all while being eerily prescient about the decade to come. Oh, and it’s also about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook.
On paper, 2010’s The Social Network might seem like an exceedingly formulaic film, the likes of which tend to garner awards nominations en masse but offer little beyond watching a well-known actor impersonate another well-known person. But where Oscar baiting biopics like Judy and Bohemian Rhapsody contend themselves with hitting a checklist of life events and iconic imagery, David Fincher’s film dissects the history of the biggest social networking site with laser precision while eschewing most of the genre’s usual baggage. It helps that there is very little famous iconography of Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin founding Facebook: no memorable quotes, no instantly iconic public appearances. The film also takes large liberties with the story, changing facts, dates, and people in order to tell a particular story that might seem libelous to some, but also frees the film up to stray from reality – after all, this is not a documentary. This allows Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (simultaneously at his most and least self-indulgent here, but more on that later) to forgo attempts at evoking moments of déjà vu in the audience and instead focus on a story of friendship, entitlement, and betrayal that resonates even more strongly in the year 2020 than it did a decade ago.
In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a student at Harvard University and spends his time obsessing over ways of distinguishing himself, a process of self-victimization and resulting spiteful ambitions that fuels him throughout the movie. His girlfriend Erica, played by Rooney Mara in the best single-scene performance this side of Viola Davis in Doubt, tries to put up with him but, after a dizzyingly quick and condescending conversation that opens the film, exasperatedly breaks up with Mark. In leaving, she gives the film its thesis statement: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd, and I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Erica’s words reverberate through the rest of the movie as Mark and his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield, whose vulnerable performance is almost good enough to make you forget he is playing a Brazilian) set to work on creating what will one day become Facebook. It is clear from the first line of code that Mark is not in this for money or fame, at least not in any traditional way. Instead, it seems to be that spite is behind his ambitions: against Erica, against the jockey Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer in a double role), against anyone he perceives as below him or above him – so, pretty much everyone. He finds a kindred spirit in Sean Parker, the freshly ousted founder of Napster, who dazzles Mark with daring tales of “bringing down the record companies” and other acts of sticking it to the man. Parker is played by Justin Timberlake whose blandly handsome charisma pairs well with Sean’s motivational coach-like platitudes to embody the exact kind of antagonistic success to which Mark aspires. Together, the two men take Facebook through the roof and across oceans, yet their aggressively head-on, “fuck you” attitude increasingly alienates Eduardo – intentionally sabotaging business meetings with investors that wronged Parker in the past, taking headquarters from Harvard to a frat-like Palo Alto residence, and, in a final act of betrayal, forcing Saverin out of the company when he refuses to go along with their new business plan.
This information is revealed to the audience across two different court depositions, as Zuckerberg is sued not only by his former best friend Saverin, but by the Winklevi (as Mark calls them) and their partner Divya Narendra for allegedly stealing their idea for “The Harvard Connection” – a site whose concept sounds suspiciously familiar to Facebook. Contrasting Mark’s earlier relationships with these people with their ugly ends gives the film’s events a tragic aura of inevitability. Increasingly, the characters’ sense of entitlement becomes clear: whereas the rich and athletic Winklevoss twins seem to consider success their birthright, even complaining to Harvard’s president when Facebook takes flight before their project does, Zuckerberg and Parker embody the self-described underdog, a type of masculinity that always constructs an oppressor in order to have an enemy – think incels, comic-book fans, any largely male subculture that considers itself under attack. That foe can be “the man”, in Sean’s case, or quite literally a woman in Mark’s, as repeated encounters with Erica only seem to infuriate – and motivate – him more. But even as he becomes more and more successful, Mark does not seem satisfied, standing in the corner at parties, never really fitting in. In the movie’s final shot, this hollowness is laid absolutely bare: as the informational text states, “Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest millionaire in the world”, he stares expectantly at his laptop screen after sending a friend request to Erica. Despite all his success, he is no happier than he was at the beginning. Eisenberg absolutely nails the bitter ambition, the awkwardness, the spitefulness at the core of Zuckerberg’s character in a performance that make perfect use of the actor’s peculiar charisma.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is famous for his snappy dialogue and focus on somewhat antisocial men who find great success (after The Social Network, he went on to write the similarly minded films Moneyball and Steve Jobs), but it is his collaboration with director David Fincher here that makes the film work. Sorkin’s often overly precious and witty lines – think of Erica’s complaint that dating Mark “is like dating a Stairmaster” – pay off wonderfully when they underscore Mark’s superiority complex. Launching one condescending tirade after another in the deposition scenes, followed by exhausted reaction shots from his lawyers, his behavior gives you an idea just how deeply spiteful this man is – but moments of weakness, of confrontation and admission also reveal to you the toll that acting in this manner takes on him. Fincher shoots the movie in his trademark style, framing every scene with almost inhuman precision; combined with rapid-fire, yet always focused editing, the film often feels like an insight into Mark’s mind. This impression is further underscored (no pun intended) by the movie’s brilliant soundtrack. Rather than relying on a traditional orchestral score, replete with leitmotifs and swelling emotions, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross use cold yet vulnerable electronic music that feels like another extension of Zuckerberg’s character. (Author’s note: this score also introduced to me to Nine Inch Nails, helmed by Reznor and Ross and my favorite band ever since – another personal reason this movie is so good.)
However, rather than blindly take his viewpoint, The Social Network is smart enough to show us how Mark’s actions affect the people around him. When he invents a “hotness rating” site to get back at Erica (and seemingly, women in general), we get more than a few shots devoted to the harm he is carelessly doing. Eduardo’s abandonment in the latter portions of the film is given equal weight to Mark’s meteoric ascent which gives their final confrontation an impact it would not have otherwise. These additional perspectives do not infantilize the viewer – unlike, say, Joker, Fincher and Sorkin trust us to figure out that Mark is not a great guy by ourselves – but lend further weight to the film’s events, reinforcing its theme of entitlement and the effects thereof. Look at the careless, ruthless behavior the real Zuckerberg displays in his operation of Facebook. Look at someone like Elon Musk, demanding attention for his most inane and useless actions. Look at the way in which celebrities seem to crave public approval even when, during times like these, they have no grounds for those demands. And these are the less egregious examples we have seen over the last decade, not even mentioning the global resurgence of racist populism and anti-feminism – all of which can be traced to a feeling of entitlement, of spite, of the corrupting nature of success. The Social Network summed all these things up in a movie that is sharp, precise, prescient – and above all, incredibly well made. Other films of the 2010s may have touched my heart more, but if there is one that feels like a timeless masterpiece every time I revisit it, it has to be this one. The Social Network is the best movie of the decade because it is a movie about this decade.
Claudius was listening to Ghosts V: Together by Nine Inch Nails while writing this review.