How do you make a compelling film about... the creation of Facebook? This is the question that director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would have been faced with a couple of years ago.
On paper, the story of the birth and subsequent growth of a social networking website sounds flat and cinematically unpromising. Besides, we’re talking about history so recent that the real-life FB founder Mark Zuckerberg is a few months younger than Jesse Eisenberg, the actor hired to portray him! And since the Facebook story is very much an ongoing one, surely there was always the risk that new developments would make The Social Network a dated and irrelevant film before it was even released?
And so it might have been if they had made a doggedly faithful, literal-minded biopic. Instead, they dramatised with intelligence and discernment, turning Zuckerberg into a distracted, often inscrutable genius and giving his story the arc of grand tragedy.
They used cinematic licence to stress a central irony: a young man who launches a billion virtual ‘friendship requests’ is relatively friendless himself and can’t relate to most people around him. In doing so, they held up a mirror to a world where millions of people stare unblinkingly into their computer screens, believing that they are meaningfully ‘connected’.
But then, social alienation and the attempt to deal with it — either by reaching out to others or by taking recourse in dangerous escapism — has always been a key theme in Fincher’s work, ranging from The Game to Fight Club. In his grisly
1995 film Se7en, a sociopath known only as John Doe attempts to ‘play God’ by committing murders built around the seven deadly sins.
“What I’ve done,” Doe says, “will be puzzled over and studied and followed, forever.” He says this with the same emotional inexpressiveness — the same faraway, “I can see the Larger Picture” look — that we often see on Zuckerberg’s face in The Social Network. Perhaps, Fincher is suggesting with a wink, the internet age has created its own version of psychosis and god-playing.
Jai Arjun Singh is the editor of the forthcoming The Popcorn Essayists:
What Movies Do to Writers.
This special 2011 Academy Awards series will be published till Saturday, February 26.