Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Soft Underbelly of Success - Thoughts on 'The Social Network'

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key comes Santiago Ramos’ take on The Social Network:

The Soft Underbelly of Success
By Santiago Ramos


The Social Network
DIR David Fincher
SCR Aaron Sorkin, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara
TheSocialNetwork
Aaron Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters in Hollywood who can stir as much interest among moviegoers as a director. In a movie written by Sorkin you can always expect a few things: smart, ping-pong like dialogue (often during Sorkin’s famous walk-and-talks), a detailed picture of the inner workings of a complicated profession, and a celebration of a distinctively American manifestation of excellence. Thus we get the inner workings of highly articulate policy wonks from Washington in The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War, and the life of a team of socially-conscious TV comedy writers in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

What Sorkin celebrates in those scripts is a unique combination of power and intelligence which we call “success.” His characters go to the top schools, and their intelligence takes them on a life trajectory of both personal achievement and altruism. They are always idealistic, often wealthy, and sometimes, in Sorkin’s lesser moments, preachy.

The founding of Facebook, then, is a natural subject for such a writer. Sorkin’s screenplay was inspired by Ben Mezrich’s recent book, The Accidental Billionaires, which tries to piece together the early gestation of an internet company which has seduced millions of people into joining its network. Sorkin portrays Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jason Eisenberg), the computer science student who developed Facebook from his dorm at Harvard, as a recovering nerd blossoming into an eccentric genius, who nevertheless bears the tragic flaw of being a serial betrayer of his closest friends (he is a jerk to his girlfriend in the opening scene of the film, and later on we discover what happens between him and his best friend, Economics major Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield).

This flaw, however, exposes a wound in Zuckerberg which makes him a special Sorkin character. The Social Network shows us the soft underbelly of success.

Before we talk about the soft underbelly, let’s cover the success. Eduardo made 300 thousand dollars betting on oil futures in the summer between his freshmen and sophomore year of college. Zuckerberg had, as a high school student, already developed a program which caught the eye of Microsoft. (Instead of selling it to them, he chose to make it available for free on the internet. He knew he was meant for greater things.) Zuckerberg’s three roommates are skillful programmers with uncanny powers of concentration. The drama begins when Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend. He retreats to his dorm and sublimates his anger into writing a program which he calls “Facemash,” taking the photos of Harvard female students and placing them on the internet for evaluation by their male peers. The site gets 22,000 hits that very night.

This success catches the eye of a pair of identical twin students named Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, representatives of the elite Ivy League WASP ancien regime, who would like to add web entrepreneurship to their resume which already lists excellence in academics and rowing. They ask Zuckerberg if he would be willing to write the programming for “Harvard Connect,” a sort of online Who’s Who for those with harvard.edu email addresses. Zuckerberg is at first lured by the idea of being able to join the Winklevoss’s elite social world. But he soon realizes that the Winklevosses aren’t thinking big enough. He evades them, breaks the promise he made to them, and decides to found Facebook instead.

The film is told through a series of flashbacks as both Eduardo and the Winklevosses testify against Zuckerberg in a couple of hearings which take place a few years after the founding of Facebook. All of them have legitimate grounds for suing Zuckerberg, but those grounds cannot tarnish Zuckerberg’s place in history. When Zuckerberg idly stares outside the window during a hearing, the opposing counsel asks him: “Do you think I deserve your attention?” Zuckerberg responds:

“I think if your clients want to stand on my shoulders and call themselves tall they have a right to give it a try. But there’s no requirement that I enjoy being here… You have part of my attention, the minimum amount needed. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook where my employees and I are doing things that no one in this room…are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.”

When Beethoven told Goethe that the Emperor should bow to them, his arrogance seemed justifiable because he wrote the Ninth Symphony and Goethe wrote Faust. But Facebook doesn’t stack up against either of those achievements, and Zuckerberg’s auto-celebration appears to be the celebration of magnanimity without content. Yet without such greatness or almost greatness, we couldn’t fully appreciate the soft underbelly.

Zuckerberg’s big speech doesn’t capture everything essential about himself. Sorkin’s character is more interesting than that. Zuckerberg is not only the creator of Facebook: he is also a user. The heartbreak which gave tortured birth to Facemash and Facebook doesn’t fully go away. Neither does the tenderness that Zuckerberg feels for Eduardo, who, we are told over and over again, is Zuckerberg’s “only friend.”

Facebook is great but greatness is not enough. The soft underbelly of success is the need we have for affection, which is a need exploited, but not fulfilled, by the program which has made Zuckerberg a quiet billionaire.

Santiago Ramos has written for First Things, Commonweal, Image Journal, Traces, and the Kansas City weekly, The Pitch. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Boston College.