The Social Network (2010)

Written by: Aaron Sorkin Directed by: David Fincher

Social_network_film_posterThere are scenes in the social network that make me really dislike the concept of lawyers.  It’s not a fully rational dislike, but it’s close enough to rational to justify the mention. The legal system of the historically-British-colonized world is known as “adversarial.” It means that lawyers are trained to think that doing their job well requires unequivocal advocacy for their clients, as opposed to trying to reach a mutually beneficial, just outcome. The coldness of this system comes out in a scene when Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg’s) lawyer Sy (John Getz) coldly tries to take down his much younger adversary by drawing on an unflattering story about him from a student newspaper. Perhaps more damningly, however, is a moment when opposing council pettily  insists that Zuckerberg and his team address their opponent as “Mr.” irregardless of the fact that the pair are the same age and were friends. In this moment, the lawyer opts for cartoonish property, snuffing out any possibility of amicability in the proceedings.

The antithesis to these lawyers is a junior member of Zuckerberg’s council (Rashida Jones). She attends the proceedings largely to watch and get the experience, though her function in the screenplay is to offer some exposition on the law to viewers. She is also unique in her compassion to Zuckerberg. While her colleagues are unpleasant, she is pleasant but oxymoronic. The legal profession is an odd one. Many will go into it with idealistic aims  and indeed revisit those aims along the way asking questions such as whether law firms have diversity initiatives. At the end of the day, however, many of them will end up practicing kinds of law that at best has nothing to do with social justice and at worst advances the harsh realities of inequality and the adversarial system.

I suppose I’m getting a little tangential here in talking about lawyers, but I believe this gets at some of the key themes in The Social Network: some of its underlying contradictions.

In a much more extensive review of the film (written at the time of its release), Zadie Smith contrasted the real Mark Zuckerberg with Zuckerberg the film character. The on-camera character shares the basic traits of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper but is less cartoonish and is notably more cruel. The real Zuckerberg, Smith posits, was not rendered an evil genius by his social ineptitude, but instead was made bland. This difference may not be a mere error or matter of confusion. The on-screen version is the Zuckerberg audiences want to see: his scheming entertains the masses and provides fodder for his ideological critics.

Nonetheless even the film gives Zuckerberg the occasional sympathetic or at least lucid moment. Smith notes the artistic significance of such moments, but they are politically informative as well. The film’s most important political scene comes when Zuckerberg discusses the motives of his adversaries. Zuckerberg’s implicit driving code in the film (I don’t think ideology is the right word here) is that wealth is a privilege, not a right. The idea of telling people they don’t have rights, of course, reeks of Ayn Rand: the cold side of libertarianism. Yet Zuckerberg (the character) flips this logic on its head. He is not depriving the huddle masses of anything, only his fellow-privileged ilk, who rightly or wrongly think they are entitled to be a top-dog amongst the nouveau-riche as he is.

The Social Network focuses on the lives of a number of young men. They are well differentiated and yet, despite theirs being a modern story (a story of generation 2.0s as Smith puts it), they all feel like they are parts of some Shakespearian tale. In King Lear Edmund is a “bad guy” since he’s willing to turn to violence to usurp a dukedom. Yet it’s hard not to see Edmund as justified in his critique of the arbitrariness of his brother Edgar inheriting their father’s title, since Edmund is deprive due to the mere technicality of his being a “bastard.”The Social Network is similarly full of disgruntled nobility. The Winkelvoss twins (Armie Hammer) and business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) are princely enterpreneurs. In the context of the film they seem worthy of sympathy, but perhaps that wouldn’t be the case if Eisenberg was less of a MacBeth and more of a Robin Hood. Chief amongst the film’s cocky princes, meanwhile is Sean Parker (Justin Timerblake), the founder of Napster, whose role in the film seems to be to show that Zuckerberg has not reached the utmost echelon of corporate arrogance.

Finally, one more character features in the film’s noble cast: Zuckerberg’s Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Much like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, Garfield’s Saverin is a memorable figure: trusting, and nervous, but never quite a pushover: he’s the “good guy.” Garfield’s portrayal is so strong, however, that we forget this “good guy’s” aspirations are to be a Wall Street billionaire and a member of an elite fraternity (apologies if it’s technically not a fraternity, I can’t see the difference). In 2010 Zadie Smith called this film emblematic of a generation, but that begs the question, has the generation already changed? Where, I ask, are the social justice warriors? There is, I suppose, in this film of Shakespearian aristocrats one character who breaks the mold a little. Zuckerberg’s one-time girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) serves as a bit of a Cordelia to Zuckerberg’s Lear: a little bit I say because it’s more that that’s the role he wants her to fill than the one she does.

So how does this all come together? The social network is a story of warring principalities, some of whom are “good King Richards,” and some of whom are “wicked Prince Johns.” There’s an absurdity in this logic, of course. Should anyone rightly be a billionaire? Are people ready for the responsibility of designing a hegemonic social network fresh off designing a website that ranked female Harvard students on their hotness?  It makes for a good story to see Saverin as very different than Zuckerberg or Rashida Jones’ character  as different  than the other lawyers, but this is not reality. Fighting adversarial IP and contractual battles with those close to you is not “wrong” it’s  “just business,” and business can be conducted by people like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Garfield’s Saverin alike.

Artistically speaking, Sorkin and Fincher decided to depict Zuckerberg as an anti-hero. Politically this is a questionable, if not wrong choice. The darker side of Facebook and Zuckerberg is inseparable from the logic of capitalism as a whole, a system that can exist even without anti-social schemers like the on-screen Zuckerberg. I do not conclude this way to make this a “negative” review. Eisenberg and Garfield’s adaptations of their characters are engaging and make for a good story, even if they are not the most politically informative. The Social Network,like all political texts needs to be consumed alongside other sources. Regardless if it is the defining film of this generation, it cannot be the end-all of this generation’s political education

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