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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Social Network: Kane in Flip-Flops

William Randolph Hearst was 78 years old when Citizen Kane was released. At the time Hearst had steadily built a media empire on the back of his father’s mining fortune, and had used his influence to more or less successfully influence American history (despite his failed efforts to become Mayor, Governor, Senator, or even President Hearst.) His empire was also clearly in decline by 1941, and thus Orson Welles was able to tell a nearly full story of ambition, wealth, power and corruption to an American audience that was already well-acquainted with the facts.

Mark Zuckerberg is 26, and already the subject of a film about his rise to power, David Fincher’s thrilling The Social Network. That film deals with Zuckerberg from a very Kane-like perspective, going so far as to give him his own personified “Rosebud” in the form of an ex-girlfriend on whom the Harvard sophomore takes revenge. The comparisons between the two films are intriguing and informative, since part of The Social Network’s mission is to explore the differences and similarities between what it took to be successful in Hearst’s time and what it takes now.

The Hearst-method of turning family wealth into influence is introduced into the film via the Winklevoss twins (both played brilliantly by Armie Hammer), whose funny name, belying immense wealth from their father’s hedge fund, and inhuman perfection (they’re both 6’5’’ Olympic-level athletes) seem to preordain them for success. The Winklevi (as Zuckerberg’s character refers to them) are idea men, and they think they have a big one: a website featuring online profiles, but strictly for people with harvard.edu e-mail addresses. They want to hire Zuckerberg for the dirty work of actually creating the pages, much as the Hearst’s might have made their money on the toil of miners and assorted other laborers.

Zuckerberg (played with uncanny aloofness by Jesse Eisenberg) comes to their attention through his near-ruinous facemash.com, an elaborate revenge on the female population at Harvard, which puts two student ID photos side-by-side and simply asks voters to pick the hotter of the two. After his site, created by hacking into several databases, crashes the school’s servers, Zuckerberg is narrowly spared expulsion.

Director David Fincher deserves tremendous credit for this film’s success. Much praise has been rightly heaped on Aaron Sorkin’s script (which, apart from the opening break-up scene, generally avoids the typical Sorkin pitfalls of zinginess and obscure sophistication) but the way in which Fincher frames the action turns the rather mundane creating of a website into a car-chase level thrill. At the time of facemash.com’s creation Zuckerberg is surrounded by his fellow Computer Science roommates and by his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin (played with alternating restraint and frustration, both appropriate, by Andrew Garfield) a prospective businessman and a whiz-kid investor.

The story is by now pretty well-known. Both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins are suing Zuckerberg, the latter for stealing their idea, the former for bilking him out of the profits. These lawsuits serve as the structure for the film, although this is cleverly introduced after a bit of misdirection at the start. Eisenberg shines in the deposition scenes. His impatience and contempt with the process are conveyed expertly through his tone and his sneer. He seems bemused that there is so much time being wasted on the suits, telling the Winklevoss twins and their partner Divya Narendra, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”

The other major presence in the film is that of Justin Timberlake, playing Napster founder and entrepreneur extraordinaire Sean Parker, here first glimpsed after a one-night stand with a Stanford co-ed. Parker is the ultimate 21st-century self-made man, brimming with equal parts innovation and bravado. He is the one who convinces Zuckerburg to move Facebook (he is even the one to suggest dropping the “the”) to California, and he is the one who brings in the big-money investors like PayPal’s Peter Thiel, undermining Garfield’s Saverin at every opportunity. Timberlake nails the part and its underlying notes of paranoid delusion. He’s such a confident star in real life that it would seem impossible for him to play scared on screen, but he does it expertly in a key scene near the film’s conclusion.

On technical aspects of moviemaking I feel under-qualified to comment but I will say that the lighting seemed thematically relevant in a slightly-obvious way. The conference rooms are brightest when the truth is coming out. The dorm rooms are darkest when deceit is ascendant. I enjoyed the songs picked for the soundtrack: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is an inspired choice, as is the film’s closing song, which I won’t spoil. The original music, composed by Trent Reznor, is a little distracting; much of it is overly somber tones played repetitively.

Sorkin and Fincher must certainly have been aware of the Kane similarities, and I think The Social Network invites us to marvel at the differences between Kane and Zuckerberg. The film itself raises the question of what in the world Zuckerberg is going to do with the rest of his life, which could be fifty years or longer? If the film is to be believed, and the Kane comparisons are apt, the answer is a disquieting one. Maybe no one should be this successful so soon.

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