Consider the fact that one in fourteen people on the planet has a Facebook account. That means that, by the numbers, every single United States citizen (every single person) is a Facebook member...plus 190 million more people. To say Facebook is big is like saying Motley Crüe had drug problems; it just doesn't need to be said, and it's such an understatement that it's almost a lie. As such, one would expect Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's The Social Network to make a proportionately gargantuan impact in the cinematic space, and, in my estimation, it comes pretty close. Not Facebook close...but close.
Sure, Sorkin, who told ABC News, "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling," commits enough conceptual distortions in the name of building a cohesive narrative to warrant skepticism, but I'm not sure it's possible to develop a compelling tale about a 26-year-old entrepreneur and his six-year-old company without taking artistic liberties. The Social Network is not an encyclopedic history; it's a story, and storytelling requires simplification. There are plot points. There is conflict. And there is resolution...kind of.
To make things more confusing (and ultimately compelling), Sorkin injects enough truth into the film to seriously undermine the film's not-quite-fact/fiction status. The opening hacking montage that outlines the conception of Harvard's FaceMash (Facebook's eventual predecessor) follows Zuckerberg's publicly leaked online journal almost verbatim. His rebuttal to the Harvard Ad Board's investigation was equally precise, and the fact that Zuckerberg is downing green bottles of Beck's while blogging about his recent breakup is no coincidence:
"The fact that we know what brand of beer [Zuckerberg] was drinking on a Tuesday night seven years ago should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and the event," Sorkin told ABC.
As for the irreparably damaging and scathing portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg that we all expected; it seemed overwrought. Sure, Eisenberg wasn't exactly charismatic, but he was very smart, and what he lacked in manners, he made up for with wit...and honesty. More often than not, when he delivered a runaway monologue or incisive retort, he spoke the truth (with a poet's skill, no less), and although it usually offended someone, it made good sense.
If Sorkin wanted to portray Zuckerberg more negatively, there were plenty of resources available to him that would help achieve that aim. For instance, a recent New Yorker profile shares a transcript of a conversation between Zuckerberg and a friend about the Harvard Connect situation that ultimately resulted in a sixty-five-million-dollar lawsuit:
Friend: so have you decided what you are going to do about the websites?
Zuck: yeah I'm going to fuck them
Clearly, Sorkin pulls punches, and instead, makes Zuckerberg's greatest offense his deceitful dismissal of good "friend" and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin through veiled legal documents. That, padded with Zuckerberg's misogynistic FaceMash beginnings, and disdain/infatuation with Harvard's social clubs define his shortcomings. The idea that Facebook was spawned in an effort to spite a failed relationship and acquire social status seems generously simplistic, but ultimately believable on a sub-conscious level. Men have done stranger things to attract the attention of women. Think Trojan War... or monster trucks.
All in all, I think we've all encountered nineteen-year-olds with greater flaws and fewer redeeming qualities.
I've also read several reviews from Harvard alumni who were outraged at the anachronistic, oversimplified portrayal of their alma mater. I'm pretty sure that I didn't need to graduate from Harvard to understand that they're missing the point. If Harvard grads were searching for inaccuracies, they could start with the physical attractiveness of the undergraduate population in the film. Harvard Square isn't exactly Hollywood (Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones excluded).
Instead, I think the film's portrayal of college life was one of its greatest strengths. Most films that chronicle undergraduate culture portray one of two mutually exclusive scenarios: vapid and debaucherous fraternity parties or high-minded, dissertation-addled existences. What The Social Network gets right, is that these two spaces are often cohabitated by the same people, especially at prestigious institutions like Harvard; at [substitute reputable school name here], the idiot who fell out of his dorm room window while clutching a bong is the same kid who discovered a plausible explanation to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity...or whatever.
While The Social Network has some shortcomings (especially its ending), it's relentlessly entertaining, and inspires open-ended commentary on interesting issues like: old money vs. new money, entitlement, emerging industries in California vs. those in New York, the permanence and lack of barriers on the Internet ("It's written in ink"), relationships, and what I found most compelling: the fluid concept of truth.
There are a lot of versions of truth available within the framework of the film, and because the film's major players are all very much alive (you can friend them on Facebook....even the Winklevosses!) and have their own relationship with the truth, the story becomes infinitely more engaging. Ultimately, it forces us to ask serious questions not only of the movie, but also about the veracity of the stories we've been told and come to accept. What distortions classify as fiction, and what passes as fact? It's kind of like the fluid nature of the word "friend," these days: sometimes we take artistic liberties.
Follow Zach Weisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zachweisberg