friday night movie club

Why The Social Network Feels Sharper Now Than When It First Came Out

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin and Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network
Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin and Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network Photo: Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from film critic Alison Willmore, who will begin her screening of The Social Network on June 19 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

When The Social Network opened in theaters on October 1, 2010, it was greeted with a lot of chin-stroking over whether it was too hard on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “Horrifically unfair,” decried Fortune’s David Kirkpatrick, who happened to have written a glowing account of the company’s early years called The Facebook Effect. At the New Republic, Lawrence Lessig noted how little screenwriter Aaron Sorkin knew or cared about the internet. “This is like a film about the atomic bomb which never even introduces the idea that an explosion produced through atomic fission is importantly different from an explosion produced by dynamite,” he wrote. Nathan Heller at Slate argued that the film’s version of Harvard’s social strata was similarly out of touch. Facebook, he concluded, “helped open a large, uncharted territory for a generation whose world first seemed, in many ways, competitively tighter and more predetermined than ever.”

They all had a point. The Social Network — directed by David Fincher and adapted by Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires — is not an especially accurate blow-by-blow of Facebook’s dorm-room origins, freely fictionalizing elements of Zuckerberg’s life in order to portray him as a 21st century Charles Foster Kane whose billion-dollar-empire was sparked by an act of impulsive misogyny. Sorkin has never made a secret of his contempt for all things online, elevating relationship dramas over details about the digital platform. And Fincher does lean heavily on old Ivy imagery — the height being the double Armie Hammers as the impossibly WASPy Winklevoss twins — even as his film slyly undermines the power structures they’re meant to bring to mind. Zuckerberg gave $100 million to Newark’s school system the day before The Social Network premiered, a supposed coincidence in timing that sure seemed intended to prove how little the film actually spoke to the moment.

It sure did turn out to speak to the decade, though — which is why you should watch it with me this Friday, especially since it’s conveniently streaming on Netflix. Ten years in, The Social Network has held up infinitely better than the internet idealism running through so much of the criticism that was aimed at the film at the time. Its skepticism with regard to the latest tech revolutions now looks more like insight than get-off-my-lawn grouchiness. The film didn’t predict the role Facebook would play as a vector for misinformation and political manipulation and an incubator of conspiracy theories and extremist groups. It couldn’t foresee the degree to which the company would shape modern global life while attempting to avoid having to take any ownership over the unwanted consequences. What it did understand is that the desire to disrupt the establishment isn’t the same thing as the drive to build something better in its place. The Social Network is a masterful deflation of self-congratulatory Silicon Valley corporate narratives about changing the world, without ever downplaying the scope of what Mark (a fantastically irritable Jesse Eisenberg) ends up ushering into existence.

It’s resentment, not a stroke of innovation, that inspires Facebook in the movie. Mark gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) in the opening scene, and skulks back to campus to exact an indirect revenge by creating a site that lets users rank his female classmates on the basis of their student database photos. The ingenuity isn’t in the coding, it’s in the social engineering — the way it funneled an existing (and in this case, cruel) impulse into an addictive, shareable format. The site crashes Harvard’s internet and sets Mark off on a path to success that’s strewn with lawsuits and broken friendships. The company is cunningly portrayed less as being built than as being grown — a barely restrained, constantly morphing lab creation that the character circles with nervous excitement. “I’m afraid if you don’t come out here you’re going to get left behind,” he says to Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the best friend that he’s going to betray, as though he, conveniently, has no agency in these decisions. “It’s moving faster than any of us ever even imagined.” The scale is what matters — more than relationships, results, or any responsibility.

The real Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship for a Singaporean one in 2011, a move that was widely speculated to be about avoiding having to pay hundreds of millions in capital gains taxes. The real Cameron Winklevoss tweeted last month that “‘Fact checking’ is a euphemism for editorializing which is a form of censorship.” The real Zuckerberg recently told agitating employees that Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” reference “has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands.” To see The Social Network as a film with heroes and villains is to miss the point. It isn’t even one about the internet, ultimately, something that’s more clear now that its boy wonders have settled into less spectacular adults. It’s about power, and how it can pass from an old guard of entitled rich kids to a class of striving geeks without necessarily improving anything for the rest of us. Because that’s the thing about changing the world — it is, in itself, a neutral proposition. What matters is the type of change you’re trying to bring.

The Social Network is available to stream with a subscription to Netflix and is available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

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The Social Network Feels Sharper Now Than When It Came Out