How does a billionaire get his start?
According to Aaron Sorkin, he gets his start by being verbally eviscerated by his girlfriend in a bar after insulting her family, her intelligence, and later, in private (as private as one’s LiveJournal can be), her bra size. When we first meet a college-aged Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), he puts his foot in his mouth at least four times throughout a conversation with his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), until she finally gets fed up.
“You are probably going to be a very successful computer person,” she says, leaning in close. “But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true,” She pauses. “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
And thus, Facebook is born. Well, maybe not exactly. But, as Sorkin writes in the screenplay for David Fincher’s film The Social Network, it lights a fuse. What begins as a night out with his girlfriend ends with a gloriously pissed off Mark Zuckerberg sitting at his computer, drinking beer, talking smack on the Internet, and starting FaceMash — a website that takes the directories of student photos from dormitories on the Harvard University campus, picks out the women, and puts them into an algorithm that allows the website’s users to choose between two and decide who’s hotter. It’s gross and sexist, and it’s our first impression of the man whose life and decisions we’re going to be following for the next two hours.
So what makes this story about fictionalized billionaires so great?
It’s a combination of Aaron Sorkin’s impeccably written screenplay, and, of course, the performances by the lead cast. The whole cast is fantastic, including Armie Hammer’s turn as Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, two twins who were members of the Harvard elite that sue Mark for stealing their idea for Facebook. However, Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield elevate the already brilliant script to new heights with nuanced portrayals of their real-life counterparts. Additionally, I would be remiss not to credit David Fincher’s direction for the success of the film, but his directing techniques could fill up another essay! It’s not easy to make a film about Facebook exciting, but The Social Network is a staple of the 2010s, and after many re-watches, it’s not difficult to see why.
Sorkin is famous for his dialogue. He has a signature style — dubbed “Sorkinese” — that works to convey complex thoughts in rapid-fire conversation. It’s snappy, repetitive, and it has an almost musical cadence. We see this immediately in the now-iconic first scene of the film when Mark and Erica are at the bar. The voice-over begins before the picture comes through, with Mark stating that there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States, and Erica commenting that that can’t possibly be true.
“But here’s my question,” Mark says. “How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got a 1600 on their SATs?” Immediately, we see that Mark’s main goal is to distinguish himself from the crowd — and we learn in the next few lines that he wants to do so by being a part of one of Harvard’s exclusive and prestigious “final clubs”.
Why are these first few lines important? Because we get the chance to see Mark in one of his purest forms, and it happens within the opening seconds of the film. He’s thinking quickly, leaving Erica behind (making her look slower and less intelligent by association), but most notably, he’s thinking about ways to climb his way to the top. Later in the conversation, when Erica asks which final club is easiest to get accepted into, Mark takes immediate offense, believing that she meant something she didn’t.
This is where things start to go downhill. Mark insults Erica by saying that if he were a part of a final club, he could “introduce her to people she wouldn’t normally have a chance to meet,” and then implies she isn’t intelligent by insulting her college. Erica puts it quite succinctly as she breaks up with him, saying that “dating you is like dating a stair-master”. But this allows the audience to realize a couple of things.
First, Mark Zuckerberg is obsessed with being known — most importantly, being known in an elite sphere. Secondly, we see that he is undeniably intelligent. His brain moves fast (and Eisenberg’s brain must move just as quickly in order to keep up with Sorkin dialogue), and he doesn’t care about leaving people behind. Third, we see that he’s rather socially awkward. He’s not quite shy (like the real Zuckerberg), but rather, his grim determination to be the best results in missed social cues and unintended (or maybe not so unintended) malice. This introductory scene makes it clear to the audience that it feels impossible to hold a conversation him. And finally, it becomes obvious that he takes things personally. Erica’s “you’re an asshole” zinger becomes the catalyst for the events of the rest of the film. Mark’s frenetic anger marches him back to campus, into his dorm, and sends him spiraling into the blissful permanence of the Internet.
All of this character introduction, motivation, and discovery occurs within the first ten pages of Sorkin’s screenplay — what boils down to the first five and a half minutes of the film. The rest of the script follows suit, with quick, repeating dialogue; characters speaking over each other; and the insertions of verbal tics like “um” and “y’knows” to create authenticity. Mark is a complex character, but we see most of his desires and fears on display during the first scene, a testament to both Sorkin’s script and to Eisenberg’s portrayal of a complicated man.
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg
Sorkin’s script is incredible on its own, no doubt about it. But it’s the performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield that contribute to the film’s excellence.
Eisenberg plays the role of Mark with an extreme single mindedness, something that many critics of the film have said isn’t authentic. According to people who knew him, the real Harvard-era Mark Zuckerberg was quiet and shy, less likely to fabricate a story in the Harvard Crimson about his best friend engaging in the dubious activity of chicken cannibalism. But the hard-edged condescension to Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark is what makes his character so engaging and, at times, infuriating.
Mark does a good job of hiding his insecurity. When his best friend Eduardo tells him excitedly that he’s been invited to join The Phoenix, a final club, Mark barely reacts, seemingly as a coping mechanism to hide his jealousy. As we learned in that first scene, Mark wants nothing more than to be a part of a final club himself, and on some level (as we find out later in the film) he views it as a personal slight that Eduardo was chosen instead of him. The closest he comes to displaying vulnerability is when he approaches Erica at a club and tries to…apologize? Explain? It’s unclear, because Erica doesn’t let him get that far. She has no interest in hearing what he has to say (“Good luck with your video game,” she says as he leaves), and Mark immediately turns around and begins explaining to Eduardo how he intends to expand Facebook to other schools. By this point, it’s clear that working on Facebook is the one thing that he thinks will help him achieve his goal of making something of himself.
The final scene of Mark, post-deposition, resignedly pressing refresh on Erica’s Facebook page to see if she accepted his friend request further exemplifies his insecurity. Not only is this scene a full-circle moment (“I don’t want to be friends,” Mark says when they break up during the opening scene), it’s a rare peek behind the curtain at Mark’s inner thoughts. Throughout the deposition process, Mark considers the entire ordeal to be beneath him, frequently making questions asked of him more difficult than they need to be and punctuating his answers with sarcasm and condescension. But deep down, nearly six years later, Mark still cares about what Erica thinks of him. He slumps in his chair as he clicks refresh on Erica’s page over and over and over again, and it’s remarkably humanizing. After all, who among us hasn’t done the same thing?
Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin
In contrast to Eisenberg’s self-serving Mark, Andrew Garfield portrays Mark’s best friend Eduardo with a charming and politely self-effacing manner. He’s a nice boy who wears suits every day, goes all in on Mark’s idea for Facebook without knowing if it will succeed, and somehow made $300,000 betting on oil prices. He is, to put it simply, the kind of man I would take home to my parents. Eduardo trusts Mark because they’re best friends; he doesn’t have a reason not to.
We begin to see hints of Eduardo’s frustration after the introduction of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who weasels his way into the place where Mark’s heart would be and, eventually, into the business end of Facebook. After all, it’s Eduardo’s name on the Facebook masthead with Mark’s, not Sean’s; Eduardo is the one who fronted Mark the money, who he confided in, who rode the subway fourteen hours a day looking for advertisers. Little by little, the audience’s sympathy for Eduardo rockets to high-gear, until finally, Eduardo is standing in the pouring rain outside the Palo Alto house that Facebook is using in place of an office — all because Mark forgot to pick him up from the airport.
So it makes sense, on some level, that Eduardo freezes Facebook’s accounts. The audience understands that he’s hurt and angry, and we feel a little hurt and angry on his behalf. We feel badly for Eduardo because he’s being treated like he’s disposable, but most of all, we want Mark to wise up and realize that he’ll never have the same thing with Sean that he does with Eduardo. To us, it’s not about the business and it’s not about the money; it’s about the friendship.
Garfield is on this journey with us, too. He’s more emotionally available for the audience to connect with, because we sympathize with the vulnerable. As the film switches from Facebook’s beginnings to the deposition room, we see him go from a young and intelligent college student to a grown man with an unyielding mission, and it’s a privilege to watch.
“I was your only friend. You had one friend.“
On the night of Facebook’s “millionth-member” party, Eduardo storms through the company’s headquarters (because Facebook has headquarters now, instead of a thinly veiled excuse for a frat house) to Mark’s desk after learning that his shares in the company have been reduced to point zero three percent and smashes Mark’s computer to the floor. Garfield plays Eduardo’s rage impeccably; a mixture of fury, hurt, and above all, betrayal.
“Tell me this isn’t about me getting into the Phoenix,” Eduardo says. Mark doesn’t reply, but Eduardo has his answer. He deduces that Mark fabricated the chicken cannibalism story, too. “You better lawyer up, asshole,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper. “Because I’m not coming back for thirty percent. I’m coming back for everything.”
In a cruel twist of irony, Mark and Eduardo’s relationship becomes irreparable, just as Mark’s professional life is booming. As Facebook explodes in popularity, uniting people as “friends” across the globe, Mark Zuckerberg is officially friendless. Both he and Eduardo grow up during this scene; Mark comes to the realization that having business cards that say “I’m CEO, bitch” comes with a cost, and Eduardo is no longer the man who would drop everything to help his best friend.
“Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world.”
The drama that unfolds onscreen is exaggerated, undoubtedly. But the fact of the matter is that Sorkin wrote a script about the creation of the world’s largest social networking site that was less about the actual business and more about the complicated relationship between two men caught in the middle of a tangled web; one desperate for renown, the other just trying to do right by his friend. Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield do an incredible job making their audience invest everything in their relationship, which is why the fallout is so heartbreaking. We learn to care about these fictionalized future billionaires and wonder why they can’t care more about each other.
The last words of the film are said by law associate Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones) after the deposition is finished. “You’re not an asshole, Mark,” she says, one foot out the door, “You’re just trying so hard to be.” She leaves, and Mark is fittingly alone as the film ends, the words “Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world” appearing on the screen as he hits refresh on Erica Albright’s Facebook page again, and again, and again.