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The Social Network: Friends in High Places

We’re born alone. We die alone. But in between, we are connected to people.

We are connected to them because we love them. We give birth to them or give birth to us. They call us up to talk on the phone about their problems. They sleep next to us at night. They make us laugh when we buy our coffee from them, or sit next to them on airports.

Some of these connections last a lifetime. Some do not.

Thanks to Facebook, we now have two working definitions of the word “friend” and “like” and “status.” We assign a number to the amount of friends we have gathered like that really means we have more friends. I have something like 720 friends. Does that make me feel less lonely? Does it help me feel like a belong to the human race? Has it changed my life in any significant way?

When Mark Zuckerberg set out to make Facebook he didn’t know he wanted to change the world. It was only later, when the idea took hold and he was on the fast track to becoming the world’s youngest billionaire did it occur to him that he wanted to change the world. If you ask him today if he did, he would probably say yes.

What struck me about David Fincher’s best film to date, The Social Network, was that it frames itself around Mark Zuckerberg’s need to have a social life where he had none before. Broken-hearted, too unimportant to be invited into a “final club,” a complete nobody. His inability to connect with people is probably, in real life, a spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. In the film, he’s much of a robotic nerd hell bent on ruling the world one piece of code at a time.

As embodied by the brilliant Jesse Eisenberg who gives nothing short of one of the best performances of the year, Fincher and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is someone who doesn’t have the kind of genius that creates ideas, but does have the wherewithal to make those ideas into working projects. When he takes the idea of a social networking site for Harvard away from the Winklevoss twins, he doesn’t so much steal their idea. He cockblocks them from launching their site before he can launch his own better one. He took their idea, because he saw what they had and knew he could turn it around into something better. Instead of sharing this information with them and making them the youngest billionaires in the world, he did it himself. That makes him an asshole. But it also puts him in the history books. How many successes have been built on such dishonest tactics? A lot, probably.

Fincher’s film, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book, “Accidental Billionaires,” Aaron Sorkin takes this success story and turns it into art much the same way Orson Welles took the story of William Randolph Hearst and turned it into Citizen Kane. Was it really Hearst’s story? Not exactly. Is it an American story? Absolutely.

Sorkin is on fire with this script. There is not a fatty piece presented, not a glossed over sappy moment. It turns out that his collaboration with Fincher is a match. Fincher’s coldness and Sorkin’s passion are combustible. Both are obsessive compulsive with their projects and have harnessed their collective fervor into a story about a similar obsessive. For parts of this thing, you might feel like you can’t breathe. It is a heavy metal song. It is an aria. It is two hour drum solo. And it doesn’t let up.

They hold up a mirror that says “this is who we are in 2010.” Or maybe, this is who we are, period.

The Social Network isn’t about Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz. They exist in real life and they have their own stories. They also have pretty decent PR firms, or least Zuckerberg certainly does. The movie hasn’t even opened yet and already a long profile in the New Yorker about the Zuck, and how he he’s had a girlfriend all of these years and he’s close with his mother, and he’s really a nice guy. Only one crack in the armor appears when Zuck, in a childish move, removes Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing from his list of favorite TV shows on Facebook after reading the script.

Sorkin, for his part, tries to squirm out of the indictment by saying that he doesn’t know Mark Zuckerberg and therefore didn’t particularly mean to “punch him in the face” with this script. Too late. It is a small price for Zuckerberg to pay, considering how he’s wormed his way onto every corner of the web and changed how we all make friends. Sorkin admits to having a disdain for “the blogosphere,” while Fincher, clearly does not. Fincher supposedly hand-picked various bloggers to see his film early. Sorkin’s disdain is felt in nearly every frame, but since we here on the net tend to operate from a place of self-loathing to begin with, we don’t really care if he mocks us.

At one point (not in the script) the only person not either in love with Facebook or Zuckerberg, his girlfriend Erica (a very good Rooney Mara), tells him something to the effect that he’s a mean person in a small, dark room saying whatever he feels like saying. This is the Sorkin we know. The one who really does believe that the internet is bad for you. And you know, he isn’t wrong about that.

The movie version of these people, Sorkin and Fincher’s adaptation of their story, has broader implications. Hell, if it were that interesting of a story we’d be watching movies about the Twitter people, the YouTube people, the MySpace dude, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs. Our tech giants are often boring stories: nerdy shut-ins hunched over a computer writing code until a great idea pops into their head.

We have these abilities at our fingertips but we’ve never really stopped to ask whether or not this really is the right road. Just because we CAN do it, does that mean we SHOULD? No one has ever really taken a close look at the motivation behind so-called “social networking.” If I’m “friends” with someone I knew for five minutes in college but now must absorb them into my every day life, is that a good thing? Are we meant to be this global community or are we meant to move through life letting go and making new relationships?

The beautiful irony in the film is that, as he building ways for people to be “more open and connected” he’s burning bridges with his own relationships. The higher he climbs, the bigger asshole he has to be. The best scene in the movie involves the movie-stealing performance of Andrew Garfield, which I won’t spoil here. It is just one line, and like so many one-liners in this film, Sorkin’s thumbprint, it hangs in the air like an unwanted ghost.

Great films are great stories. This film pins you down from the first scene and doesn’t let up until the last pivotal frame. It is all on Eisenberg, this moment. He gives just enough to let us in, to feel his authentic isolation. And then the music starts, and we’re released back into the world. And the first thing you want to do is check your phone for messages. You can’t wait to turn on your computer and check your Facebook or your Twitter. Even as I did so, the film was alive in my mind. I waited to hear from my “friends,” my connections with people whose faces I have never seen, but whose thoughts are typed to me every moment of the day.

Jon Stewart said about Bruce Springsteen at the Kennedy Center Honors that Bruce “empties the tank every time.” I felt like Fincher, Sorkin, Eisenberg, Garfield and even Timberlake emptied the tank. They took everything they had and they threw it down.

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