I know I’m supposed to get out and help push.
The fight for great cinema is on, and I’m expected to throw it into neutral, hop out, and chug-chug-chug with my hands on the door. We all have to get behind “The Social Network” and push the crowds to every mall across the country to see this, The Movie of a Generation.
Can I tap the brakes just a little, just a little, without people saying that I didn’t like it? I did. Very much. However, I remember when Baby Boomers chose “Reality Bites” as the movie of my generation. So I always hesitate to declare one for the next generation. We like to think we are forever advancing as people, and that makes it flattering to pick a film set on the Internet cutting edge. But the rural meth-topia of “Winter’s Bone” or the collapse of the public education system in “Waiting for Superman” is every bit as current and relevant.
Still, it’s reasonable that David Fincher’s sharply made, widely-praised film is a good candidate. So let’s take the time to celebrate “The Social Network” for what it is: a very good origin story about how the founders of Facebook brought us all closer to our lifetime friends while destroying their own friendships in the process.
You can’t turn around without finding a review that compares “The Social Network” to “Citizen Kane.” Critics such as IndieWire’s Todd McCarthy and Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir note or dismiss the similarities in the rise of fictional Charles Foster Kane and the portrayal of real-life Facebook genius Mark Zuckerberg.
Is that an accurate comparison? I say, who cares if it’s accurate? It’s such a fertile comparison that accuracy is beyond the point.
Both pictures come from the tradition of American stories in which self-made rich men end up with everything and nothing. Both Kane and Zuckerberg are lonely figures whose drive for success has slowly erased their human relationships. We want to admire our millionaires, because they represent what we deep down desire. We want to feel we can have the American Dream without having the cost be too much to our soul. These stories reflect the deep hesitation we feel toward our sometimes conflicting values.
Kane and Zuckerberg are also privileged young men who fashion themselves as outsiders. They build their empires by imagining bonds with the common man, in alliance against idle and unfeeling privilege. For Kane, this means muckraking newspapers going after the political bosses of the day. For Zuckerberg, this means taking aim at old money Harvard classmates like the impossibly entitled Winklevoss twins (each played by Armie Hammer, who makes it seem like Brendan Fraser is part of a set of triplets). They are rebelling against the power that they know personally. However, these men might be as much a part of what they hate as they are opponents to it.
The big difference, I would say, is motivation. Kane doesn’t shackle its man with a motivation so much as insinuate his motivation. Rosebud is not just a sled or a symbol of lost innocence. It is the manifestation of the one ineffable thing that Kane chases that he can never regain. “The Social Network” tries to do the same in the form of a lost girlfriend (Rooney Mara). That seems like a stretch. It’s weak in comparison to the accomplishments. But maybe the flaw isn’t failing to find the motivation. Maybe the flaw is looking for it in the first place. Maybe the flaw is not recognizing that some people are just driven because they are.
Written by “The West Wing”’s Aaron Sorkin, “The Social Network” has a full set of lively characters and performances centered around the living-on-credit decadence of our recent past. Eisenberg comes into his own as Zuckerberg, portrayed as a lonely sadist but also admirably ambitious. Some see him as a monster, but I never reached the point of disliking him. I just thought he was willing to do what it took and it couldn’t always be nice. Some have taken his mistreatment of best friend/original partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) as a hideous betrayal. I thought it reached a point where Saverin was out of his depth. Having been impressed by him in “Black Snake Moan,” count me as unsurprised by Justin Timberlake as the party boy entrepreneur Sean Parker. Frankly, I’m a little surprised he isn’t a bigger movie star by now.
Fincher’s direction is sharp, typically meticulous and professional. It achieves the level of precision that has characterized his career. That said, “The Social Network” seems like a collection of good-to-great moments without a wowser scene. “Zodiac” has a number of wowser scenes. Kane has a dozen wowser scenes forever enshrined in our collective filmgoing mind. That doesn’t make “The Social Network” bad. It’s just makes it a little less. It’s just a happy matter of degrees of good.