Thursday, November 18, 2010

John Doe, Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network as a David Fincher movie

[Did this for Business Standard Weekend]

An early scene in David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en has an elderly police detective named Somerset (Morgan Freeman) alone in his room at night, sitting up in bed, probably suffering from insomnia. A clock ticks ominously in the background. Later in the film, when Somerset and his young partner break into the den of a psychotic
serial killer (known only as “John Doe”), they discover hundreds of notebooks full of incoherent rants – outpourings against the world and the people in it – scribbled in the killer’s writing. Still later, we learn that John Doe isn’t just committing grisly murders built around the seven deadly sins; he’s playing God, at least in his own mind; he’s exposing human foibles, and the world for the wretched place that it is.

On the face of it, nothing in this dark story seems like it could in any way be related to the sophomoric birth and subsequent growth (and growth, and growth) of a social-networking website. And Fincher – a director with a distinct, bleached visual style, who is drawn to gloomy, often unpleasant narratives – hardly seemed like the right person to helm a movie about Facebook. As a fan of his earlier work, I was bemused about what The Social Network would turn out to be.

And yet, within the first 10 minutes of this film, I felt the thrill that can come from seeing a gifted director take unpromising material and bend it to his own purposes. Without making a facile comparison between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (this film's protagonist) and a serial killer, it’s worth noting that The Social Network is about a young misfit – a geek who has already spent a lot of time cocooned by himself in front of his computer, writing thousands of lines of code – who demonstrates his inability to relate to other people (including his girlfriend) in the very opening scene. Soon, for his towering achievement, he will create a concept that will captivate a generation (while also revealing some not-very-flattering things about Internet denizens). In the cyber-age, what better way to play God?

“What I’ve done,” John Doe modestly says near the end of Se7en, “is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed, forever.” He says this with the same emotional inexpressiveness - the same detached, "I don't care what's happening in this room, I can see the Larger Picture" look - that we often see on Zuckerberg's face in The Social Network. I have no idea how long the Facebook phenomenon will be studied or followed, but consider the warped interior life of Doe (who no doubt spends a lot of time talking to himself) and then consider the virtual-world seductiveness of a website where you can poke and share personal photographs with people whom you wouldn’t necessarily say hi to if you saw them across a room in the “real” world.

Social alienation and the attempt to deal with it – by trying to connect with people or by taking recourse in escapism – has been an important theme in Fincher’s work. In The Game (a movie that was in some ways prescient about game-playing in the online world), an unhappy, middle-aged banker is led through a series of situations that he believes are real, only to discover that his family and friends had played a carefully orchestrated prank on him. In Fight Club, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s
brilliant novel, the nameless protagonist joins a support group for testicular-cancer patients (despite not being one himself) and later creates an alternate life for himself by willing a new personality into being. In the relatively conventional thriller Panic Room, the theme of isolation was given a more literal treatment: a woman and her little daughter are trapped in the “panic room” of their new house while a gang of thieves try to get in. Fincher even managed to take a quaint 1920s short story by F Scott Fitzgerald (as different a writer from Chuck Palahniuk as you're ever likely to see!) and turn it into a modern-seeming parable about a life literally lived backwards.

It doesn’t take much effort to see the lines joining these films, and The Social Network is a culmination of sorts for this director. A question that he and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would have faced is: how do you make a serious, involving movie about the creation of Facebook anyway? Apart from being a seemingly flippant subject, this is history so recent that the protagonists are real-life celebrities who are around the same age as the actors hired to portray them. ** What they did was to turn Zuckerberg into an enigmatic cipher, a genius whose motives are never entirely clear. By underlining the irony that the young man who launches a billion “friendship requests” is oddly friendless himself in the real world – and that he betrays the only real friend he has (at least in the movie’s view of things) – they gave the story a powerful dramatic arc.

“Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world” the film’s closing title tells us, but it’s imposed on a shot of Zuckerberg alone in a room, endlessly refreshing his FB page to see if his ex-girlfriend has accepted his “friend request”. The image is a pitiable one, but it’s also a comment on the very particular form that alienation has taken in the Internet age. With hindsight, David Fincher was the right director to deal with the phenomenon of millions of insomniac sociopaths staring unblinkingly into their computers, convinced that they are connected.


** This business of celebs playing other contemporary celebs is very confusing. I was so muddled by the sight of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker that in a scene where Zuckerberg thinks Parker's girlfriend looks "familiar", I momentarily thought "Britney Spears?" (with whom Timberlake had a high-profile relationship)

(Side note: The Social Network is executive-produced by Kevin Spacey, who played John Doe 15 years ago. Not that I'm saying that necessarily means anything!)


  1. Just stumbled upon your blog. Great work. You have just been blogrolled.

    Regarding the movie, I was shocked when someone on Rope of Silicon said that it is the movie of the year.

    "Inception?" anyone I wanted to scream that screen.

    But after seeing it, even if it is not the movie of the year, I think it is a good movie. And you are right the treatment is unique. The insane inside everyone of us admires the hesitant ruthlessness in Zuckerberg, even if we hate to admit it.

    Best of luck with your book. I am sure it will do well.

  2. Gaurav: thanks. About Inception though, I agree with most of what Jim Emerson said about that film here, and what A D Jameson said in this brilliant long piece. Certainly wouldn't name it "movie of the year" (not that I care to make such sweeping and meaningless proclamations anyway).

    At the same time, I think it says a lot about our age of media hype and opinion pornography when a movie that was a few months ago being widely proclaimed as the greatest thing since the bioscope was invented is already under the radar, sidelined by the Next Big Film.

  3. I am yet to see Social Network (I am also yet to get on Facebook :-)) but I was wondering if there is a similar theme of shutting off from the world obsessiveness theme as in Zodiac (a great movie IMHO, & in fact a few hours after we finished seeing it on DVD my wife gave birth to our first son, so we both remember it fondly as it was the last movie we saw in like 6 months). Fight Club & Se7en also has that asocial/ driven theme.

    Btw, if you wondered how SN would look if it were directed by Wes Anderson, Michael Bay, Christopher Grace or Frank Capra, the answer is here -

  4. I see you didn't actually take the analogy u were making to its logical conclusion and equate Zuck to a serial killer ... or is it David Fincher who's doing that? :P
    Altho I've read that movie is fairly neutral in depicting Zuck's view of things as well as his critics' view .. have to catch this one soon and see for myself ..
    Btw Jai, what's the release date for your JBDY book?
    On a separate note, found out yesterday that youtube's movies channel has 'Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne' listed for legal viewing (tho I have no idea whether its a subtitled version or not) and immediately remembered ur post on it. Intend to watch it sometime now and try and observe all the things u pointed out.

  5. I am so glad that you did this review - infact I have been following your blog waiting for a mention of this movie! As always, you had a completely different take. I come from a background in technology and am in an industry that studies tech trends impacting social and living world and for me the movie was about the creation of lifestyle changing social networks ( ofcourse driven by more complex motivations and basically a guy wanting to impress a girl - really original!). I would have never thought of comparing it with Se7en or Fight Club! So your perspective was refreshing !

  6. Tipu: everything else in your comment apart, I thoroughly approve of anyone who watches a film like Zodiac (as opposed to, say, Mary Poppins) just hours before going into labour. I'm sure you guys are great parents.

    Akshay: no specific release date that I know of, but it should be in bookstores by December 10.

    As for GGBB, if you're watching it for the first time try to forget about all the things I pointed out and just enjoy it. Much better that way!

    Vipula: thanks. I'm not suggesting that this film can only be appreciated through the prism of Fincher's career. I'm sure it can be enjoyed by people who haven't seen his earlier work and are interested in it just as a chronicle of the social-networking phenomenon - after all, it's a tightly made film with a very strong script and performances.

  7. Ah, it's so good to see an out-and-out auteur review after a long time. Good work, Jai!

  8. When I first heard about David Ficher is directing TSN I never understood the choice of producers to go with him but your analog gave me the right set of mind about Ficher's movie journey.I have seen almost all the movies of David n I found The Game most interesting.Thanks again for this great piece.

  9. Jai, our first date movie was Silence of the Lambs :-)

    Another reason I like Zodiac is that it is shot in & around where I live, so there is that thrill of recognizing familiar places. Also, it is one of the few good new movies based in the newspaper world (I didn't much care for the movie version of State of Play).

  10. Sounds like a very interesting movie indeed.

  11. I went to watch "The Social Network" only because it was a David Fincher film. I think he has a unique way of telling stories and the narrative in his films is not always straight forward. And you were right about the last scene.. I found it quite ironical when the founder of facebook is refreshing his page trying to find if that ex-girlfriend of his would accept his friend request. I was wondering did
    this movie really piss off the real Zuckerberg.

  12. This movie left me with mixed feelings. The cliched portrayal of the nerdy programmer (though the emacs and perl scripts in the background are much more genuine than the usual pop-ups that we see on most computer screens in movies) and I think what never did come across in the whole movie was the absolute joy that some people can derive out of programming or web-site building.

    I tend to agree with Zadie Smith who talks of "The Social Network" being a movie made by 1.0 people about 2.0 people.

    The other thing I had a problem with is that if Zuckerberg is dating the same girl for the past 7 years, isn't it disingenuous on the part of the director to end the movie the way that he did ??

  13. sharply written,loved reading it, thanx so much.
    i am not particularly fond of the kind of picture the last scene paints. thats how fincher's thread of sociopathic depiction and aaron sorkin's story arc would want zuckerberg to be. but apart from being socially awkward isnt he a brilliant person? dont you think the movie shrinks the intellectual capability of a harvard student?then how is this story based on the life of the real zuckerberg? and i read that eisenberg and sorkin said in rolling stones that they do not want to judge the person - mark zuckerberg by answering the question "what is wrong with him?" but isnt the whole film judging him?

  14. i searched the blog for benjamin button, strange you never spoke about the film

  15. I thought this was as good a movie as anything I've seen lately.

    I disagree with the common view that the film is anti-Zuckerberg. I don't think it is as simplistic as that.

    First and foremost, this film is most successful in capturing the flavour of campus life. Also, it shows how awkward it can get for young 20 somethings when faced with problems that are usually faced by grizzled 50 year old corporate bigwigs.

    One of my favourite scenes in the film was when the two Winklevoss twins meet up with Larry Summers, the Harvard president and former Treasury Secretary. Despite all their outward cocksureness, one can sense their nervousness and self-doubt when faced with one of the most prominent American public figures of their time.

  16. Also, this film was more than just a chronicle of Zuckerberg-Eduardo friendship. It was a meditation of how vague a concept "sweat equity" actually is! Does Eduardo "deserve" a 30% stake in a potential billion $ business just because he invested some $20k to begin with? I think that's a question worth pondering on.