Destroy All Monsters: Five Years Since THE SOCIAL NETWORK
David Fincher's The Social Network turned five last Thursday, and I watched the film again to mark the occasion. I've seen it several times, but each viewing seems to give me something new.
It's 2015 and already I am seeing a lot of "best of the half-decade" / "best of the decade thus far" lists forming on Letterboxd and elsewhere, and I'd need to put The Social Network in the conversation if I were making a list of my own. Its value as a work of American cinema only seems to deepen, year by year.
Great movies, even ones set in their own (recent) past, seem to uncannily anticipate the culture they're arriving in. When I first saw The Social Network I suppose my interest in it was largely centred around answering two questions: the omnipresent "They made a movie about Facebook?" joke, around the idea of the film in the first place; and, arriving as it did at the tail end of the decade that saw Mark Zuckerberg's enterprise intentionally mandate the end of human privacy, a lot of thinking about that, too.
The Social Network isn't really about privacy, except as collateral damage to (movie) Mark's unmotivated vendetta against women, class, and his own outsize ego; but I read a lot of privacy themes into the movie at the time, because the wreckage of that collateral damage was still so freshly around us. I've posted content on the internet since the middle of the 1990s, so nothing Facebook did or does is theoretically more invasive than anything I've voluntarily done myself; but the creation of a true online community space - on Facebook and elsewhere - remains a seismic change to the nature of human relationships that we are still picking through.
The real prescience of The Social Network, though, isn't its thoughts on privacy or its assessment of Zuckerberg as a new type of entrepreneur. It's everything that the film was ahead of, that has become the legacy of the decade into which it was birthed, all of which paint the movie in increasingly chilly colours of foresight: toxic masculinity; Gamergate; the pervasive sense of personal entitlement that seems to run fluid among men of every generation from Gen X onward.
It's all in the movie. Arguably, it's all part of Fincher's ongoing artistic project in this decade. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl criticize and disassemble their male characters in other, somewhat softer ways. The Social Network, though, remains the most eviscerating, the film among the lot that is unabashedly cold towards all of its men.
It's a movie without good guys (and arguably, it's a movie without bad guys either). But beyond question, it's a movie about guys, and about a boundary wall in college dude culture between the types of men who exercise their instincts publically / traditionally (the Winklevoss twins, and the other fraternity members interspersed throughout the first act), and those who would have exercised those impulses privately and ineffectively, until Zuckerberg put "the whole experience of college online." These are the men represented by Zuckerberg himself, plus his dorm room cadre of amiable, go-nowhere losers.
The film diagrams the two camps out for us quite explicitly in the celebrated early sequence that sees a series of intercuts between the first party of the fall semester at the Phoenix Club, and Zuckerberg sitting alone in his room creating Facemash.com while drinking beer and ranting misogynistically about his ex-girlfriend on his blog.
This, of course, is the movie's ultimate warning shot. The scenes of idiot frat boys subjugating bus-loads of co-eds in various sexual initiation exercises aren't being contrasted against Zuckerberg's behaviour, but are shown to mirror Zuckerberg's baseline sexism, albeit in meatspace as opposed to cyberspace.
When the party/coding sequence is over, a few frat boys have gotten laid, and Zuckerberg has meanwhile pulled the entire party online by compelling the men of Harvard to rate their female classmates in a neverending A/B test.
(Aaron Sorkin has been criticized - rightly - for the predictability with which he always seems to lean on an Erica Albright type on his scripts to motivate his male protagonist, usually by way of her scorn. In most cases I'd agree. Under Fincher and Eisenberg's craft here, though, The Social Network's disdain for Zuckerberg is so enormous that Albright can't be seen as anything other than the first, smartest person to suss Mark out for the malformed dipshit he really is.)
Facemash, and its proto-revenge-porn online vendetta against Albright, is the act that kicks off the creation of Facebook, and thus, Zuckerberg's ascendance to something beyond fraternities and frat parties and the college experience itself. But The Social Network carefully retains the toxic college rulebook that drives Mark's decisions, and plays it out through the rest of the movie, even as the Facebook maven triumphs.
This triumph, initially, represents a shift in a power dynamic - the inversion of the old money against the new money, a kind of Revenge of the Nerds with all the sexual assault pushed into the subtext - as Zuckerberg overarms the Winklevoss twins by simple dint of the fact that he can code and they think they don't have to, right up till he steals aspects of their social network idea out from under them.
But as the film bears on, Mark proves no more worthy a recipient of power and privilege than those from whom he has swiped it. The early party scene is mirrored in the third act by the coder den that Zuckerberg sets up in Palo Alto, where grown men zip-line off the roof and throw beers at unsuspecting girls; and mirrored even more darkly still, when Sean Parker throws a party to celebrate Facebook's millionth member, and ends up getting arrested for doing coke with a bunch of underage girls.
That The Social Network implies that it may have been Mark himself who set the cops on Parker to remove one last adversary from his path is beside the point. The film ends in a perfect tableau, with Mark sitting alone in a board room after everyone else has left. (The last to leave is a legal assistant played by Rashida Jones, whom Mark has tried, and failed, to ask out on a date.) The sky out the window is a perfect Facebook blue, and Mark is cloaked in the robes of his office, as it were - aimlessly clicking "refresh" on his browser, waiting for a friend request to come back from ex-girlfriend Erica Albright.
Every disconnect between empathy (Mark, I would argue, has none) and achievement, the way real people relate and the way Facebook organizes their relationships, is writ large against that Facebook-blue sky. In The Social Network's view, Mark Zuckerberg didn't so much change the world as increase the number of men who get to continue to play in the way the world used to be. No wonder the internet sucks now.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.