Monday, October 11, 2010

SW Watches: The Social Network

Firstly, let me say:  This is a pretty darn good movie.  I don't have any rating system, and perhaps I need to develop one.  But, I guess I'm saying:  You don't have to see this in the theater (its not going to be less impressive on your TV), but you're likely going to want to see the movie so you can follow the references made to the movie for the next three months.  Particularly, its a movie of the moment, perhaps more so than any other movie I've seen.  And, frankly, its a bit lucky that this thing made it to the big screen before we'd all moved on to using YouFace or whatever is the next shiny object to blitz the zeitgeist.

EVERYTHING BELOW CONTAINS SPOILERS (Sorry, but I'd like to actually discuss the movie a bit. )

I'll go out on a limb and say:  There's not much in the way of originality in the tale of Zuckerberg and Facebook, particularly if you read the occasional tech website or know much about Facebook's often public legal woes.  Or if you follow much in the way of tech news for companies that tend to get bigger than a bread-box.  But the movie also occasionally has a feeling of "been there, done that" from a narrative standpoint (and we'll get to that in a bit).

I tend to follow Facebook's Privacy issues*, so I've criss-crossed paths with a few stories, and for a company that's got a short lifespan, holy hell, have these guys managed to find themselves in Lawsuit Land an amazing amount.  Of late, however, the stories have mostly focused on "what's real and what is fiction in The Social Network".  The veracity of the story told in The Social Network can and does matter, unless you really want to view it as some sort of modern parable, but somehow that feels a bit lazy.  But it is a movie, so no matter how talented the writer, director and cast, the movie will always exist as a fictional construct.  If that's a disservice to current and ongoing issues...  I can't be sure. 

Business is messy.  The amazing fortunes made by young people starting, HP-style, in garages and dorm rooms aren't mapped out from Day 1, and that leads to some pretty wacky tales.  You don't become a multi-billion-dollar company without leaving a few bodies in shallow graves, metaphorically or otherwise.

The movie doesn't pull the same weak stunt as the very pretty Immortal Beloved and have someone following up on clues in the wake of Zuckerberg's death**, but in many ways, the film has echoes of Citizen Kane, including a final scene I thought was probably necessary for a portion of the audience, but...  What seems to be missing from The Social Network, however, is Zuckerberg's ambition.  Was he the socially maladroit nigh-innocent portrayed in the movie?  Was he really trying to make something cool to find a way to impress the ladies as the movie would have it?  Its hard to imagine the off-screen maneuvering occured without his input, consent or knowledge.

But what the movie kind of hints at that the press seems to only remember in "oh, gosh, can you believe it!" tones is that Zuckerberg was a college Junior as Facebook was getting cranking, but the decisions made and avenues pursued are looked at as if Zuckerberg (I don't think anyone would question his intellectual capability) had the emotional maturity of a few years' worth or work or someone just generally older. *** No @#$% this went a little off the rails.

Zuckerberg's ongoing issues seem to mostly stem from an unstable cocktail of a lack of maturity and (and I know this is going to get me in trouble, but...) the same sort of "I will tell the people what's good for them!" attitude I've seen in many really bad IT and programming shop situations.   And watching Zuckerberg both in the film and real life, I can't help but think "Oh, he's that guy...  Only with 4 billion dollars."

The movie does manage to make some astute reflections upon the entrenched modes of obtaining/ retaining success versus the path of insta-wealth mogul, and I don't know if I can add much that you aren't likely to find in a better review from a smarter writer.  But (a) I appreciated the fact that they managed to show rather than tell via endless exposition, and (b) if I can get judgy for a minute here, it doesn't feel entirely inaccurate.

In building the case (real or imagined) for how and why Zuckerberg decided to pursue something like Facebook, and in the conflicts that arise, writer Sorkin and director Fincher are quietly damning of the origins of final product, and, by extension, the jaded and sordid forms of communication supported in microbursts and what we gain from online profiles and existence (Country, Cities, Online).  Why do we communicate?  What do we gain from communicating on rails set by other people?  Particularly when those rails were originally designed for 18-23 year olds?  And when the rules are managed by a man-boy for whom communication itself is portrayed as fraught with peril to begin with?

Is this the face of success?

I'd take this opportunity to point you to Steven's recent conversation upon similar topics after reading The ShallowsHe starts here and continues for several fascinating posts.

The movie leaves some threads open that I wish had been better explained.  When did Facebook go public and ditch its .edu exclusivity?  When and how did the conversation about ads change?  How does Facebook make its 100's of billions other than on the wishes of unicorns and irrational exuberance?

For the faults of the movie (its iffy relationship with reality, its echoing of well known stories - both real and fictional), the movie has some powerful stuff and can and should at least give you a moment of pause to wonder what the hell you're doing hunting and clicking on that damned website all day.

If I may:  technically, I loved this movie.  The young cast (including Mr. Timberlake) was uniformly pretty amazing.  The script was the kind of smart stuff that seems to pop up only once every 6-18 months or so as per dialog and structure.  Fincher's direction, of what i can see of that stuff, anyway, seemed pretty damned well spot on.

Anyhow, I open the floor to discussion:

*A pal of mine is an EFF lawyer who I tend to follow as he comments upon Facebook's latest brainstorms, and I thought danah boyd made a great argument last year at SXSW, which seemed to lead to nigh-immediate action on the part of Facebook. 

**as of this writing, and at the time of the film's release, Zuckerberg is reported to be in the pink of health

***In a previous incarnation, I couldn't trust student workers with tasks that required a part C as well as a Part A & B, and those were engineering grad students.  No chumps.  But...  I sort of wonder about the wisdom assumed by the populace when we look to the shockingly successful.


Steven said...

First, thanks for the cross-link love.

Second, an odd thing happened this weekend. We set up a furniture cabinet and moved the TV and slotted a DVD to test things out, by chance it was Fincher's awesome "Fight Club." Watching the opening scenes of Jack's half-awake life I was struck by the stylistic overtones that carried across to TSN. I'm not entirely sure what gave it away, but you just knew it was a Fincher movie.

You didn't mention Fincher's (usually) excellent use of the soundtrack. Getting Reznor + Atticus to do the music helped keep some of the mania going during some of the drier scenes. In this I think their work was a lot like Johnny GuyFromRadiohead's work in "There Will be Blood." In times when the visual dragged, the manic sound really kept the tarantella working.

I think the important thing about the movie was that it was dialog-driven and driven by adults being adults (or, those who were barely adults behaving barely adultly). There were no pratfalls ("Guys like beer and we like shopping!") and the movie never really got lazy and called in college teens from central casting (probably helped by Hah-vahd's reputation as a place for exceptional people).

The League said...

Ah! One of my first thoughts crawling out of bed today (I took the day off) was that I'd failed to mention the score of the film, which was all that you say.

That's the risk of trying to crank out a post so I'd have some content up by Monday morning. Sometimes you forget some key bits you should have mentioned by hitting "publish" on a draft rather than coming back to the column draft later and making sure you remembered something like the score.

I do have the "Fight Club" Blu-Ray floating around somewhere. I need to watch that again as a bit of a companion piece.

I liked the casting. Someone wisely did not cast LeBeef as Zuckerberg (and you know the suits thought that would be better), and this Garfield kid showed some chops.

Simon MacDonald said...

I have not seen the movie yet but I've read the book upon which it was based, The Accidental Billionaire. The thing that was missing from the book was Zuckerberg's perspective. You really didn't feel like you were getting the whole story and the narrative seemed slanted against him. Which I guess is expected when everyone interviewed for the book had an axe to grind and Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed.

The League said...

Yeah, I read some stuff online that said it was intended to smear Zuckerberg. I think the movie more or less portrays him as bright but clueless. I guess if Zuckerberg wants a favorable movie, he can buy one about himself.