[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!)