Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is a sociopath. Perhaps he’s a sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome, the mild form of autism. Could be he’s just an asshole. But as Jesse Eisenberg portrays him in the The Social Network — the story of the founding of Facebook that either is or isn’t wildly fictionalized, depending upon whom you ask — there is no doubt that he simply is not a dude for whom social skills are a top priority. The movie bookends itself with scenes in which Zuckerberg, in the beginning a Harvard student, later the billionaire CEO of Facebook, is awkwardly trying to make a connection — not at all ironically with the same woman years apart — and failing. But those moments are not really much more than scornful flourishes to David Fincher’s acerbic tale of the bitter warfare that characterizes what we called success.
It is a relief to realize, actually, once that ending as been reached, that The Social Network hasn’t overly concerned itself with that obvious irony: ha ha, an antisocial nerd invented the most popular social-networking Web site on the planet. As Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson’s War, The West Wing) frame it — the film is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — Zuckerberg’s loneliness, of which he only becomes aware in those final moments of the film, is hardly ironic. It is, in fact, inherent in the mindset that got him to where he is: ultra rich but under legal and personal attack by the few people who ever took an interest in him as a man or as a computer programming genius.
The chill that seeps through The Social Network, then, is a feature, not a bug: Zuckerberg’s is a cold world, and Eisenberg’s (Holy Rollers, Solitary Man) calculated detachment — he has been in other films a weirdly warm and ingratiating presence — makes for an astonishingly sophisticated performance, one that it is impossible to look away from, particularly when he’s being such an asshole. Because Zuckerberg has no care for the feelings of others is how he was able to get the jumpstart, in the autumn of 2003, on what would become Facebook, used now by half a billion people around the planet. Dumped by the girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara: Youth in Revolt), he insulted so thoughtlessly in that opening scene — Fincher stages it in a sort of aloof, anti-movie way, or at least in a way that defies what we usually expect from the back-and-forth between a romantic couple, as if Zuckerberg is removed from the moment just as we are, on the other side of the screen — he gets drunk and proceeds to enact a horrifyingly brutal revenge against all Harvard women, banging out a Web site in a few hours that allows other Harvard students to rate the relative “hotness” of female students, using images gathered from the Web sites of each house at the university. The site is an enormous hit, so to speak: so popular that it crashes the Harvard network and highlights embarrassing holes in its e-security (bringing the wrath of the university down on Zuckerberg), and also making Zuckerberg a star on campus. It sets the stage for the next iteration of the combination of his disdain for social niceties and his technical skill: Facebook.
Zuckerberg is not a sentimental guy; neither is this film. It can’t pretend that it wasn’t a horny, insecure genius frat boy with an overdeveloped sense of self-entitlement who got the ball rolling on a revolution in the Internet experience. And it can’t ignore that it was all men who were in on what would develop into Facebook. But sly hints — a montage of how the reactions to that first Web site are deeply divided along gender lines; a later encounter with Albright that goes badly — suggest an underlying criticism of what we take for granted constitutes a path to success in the world today. Because Zuckerberg treats men as badly as he treats women — he’s not a sexist, he’s a selfish misanthrope — apparently stealing the idea for Facebook from fellow Harvard students Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both portrayed by Armie Hammer) and later lying (and worse) to his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Other Boleyn Girl), CFO of the just-born Facebook, which initially was limited only to Harvard students and reproduced the campus social experience online, about what’s going on with the company.
The criticism seems to ask: What if we had a paradigm for achievement and invention that didn’t involve naked male aggression and unsportsmanlike behavior? Because that seems to be the only one we have these days in the shared space of the public zeitgeist, even though it clearly does not cover all the achievement and invention of the moment. One of the minor flaws of the film is that we never learn enough about Saverin or the Winklevoss twins to truly cast them as heroes… though one moment in which Tyler (or is it Cameron?) insists that they should not sue Zuckerberg for his theft because they are “gentlemen of Harvard” says it all, perhaps. They played fairly and honestly, and lost to Zuckerberg, who cheated, if not legally then certainly morally.
And yet, Zuckerberg isn’t quite the villain, either. He’s an arrogant jerk, sure, as becomes even plainer as Fincher cuts in and out of the depositions that are part of the various lawsuits everyone Zuckerberg pissed off bring against him. He retains the possibly actually insane Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake: The Love Guru, Shrek the Third), bad-boy founder of Napster and certifiably paranoid, as a pal and adviser on Facebook. There’s no sense of the tragic in it: we’re not invited to feel sorry for Zuckerberg. If anything, we might feel sorry for ourselves, that this is the world we’ve made. And to know that even if everyone who saw the film accepted it as 100-percent true, it wouldn’t make one person turn away from Facebook.