"You're going to be successful and rich," Erica (Mara Rooney), the departing girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), tells him after a conversation of escalating intensity and social dysfunction at the beginning of The Social Network, which is based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires. "But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."
And with that, she launches a billion-dollar business.
As a freshman at Harvard, Zuckerberg is smart, intense and remote. He might be rude, or he might simply be so distracted by the ideas spinning in his mind that he can't focus properly on other people's reactions. Years later, in the lawsuits that serve as a dramatic framing device, he's exactly the same, granting the smallest possible percentage of his brain's processing power to the endless deposition questions. His real attention is back at the office, where that billion-dollar baby is being built. It needs him far more than the lawyers do.
In between, we learn in flashbacks, Zuckerberg went home from that bar where his intellectually inferior (she goes to Boston University!) but emotionally superior girlfriend dumps him, got drunk, wrote a bunch of blog entries dissing her, and also wrote a system, Facemash, for comparing the 'hotness' of Harvard girls. The site, and being called up before a disciplinary committee, brings him to the attention of twin rowing stars, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), who hire him to translate a social network they have in mind into program code. They are the litigating parties in one of the lawsuits. The litigating party in the other lawsuit is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's only friend. Since the lawsuits cover some of the same events, there's some helpful overlap.
Making an entertaining movie about founding a high-tech business is a challenging task, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin does a pretty good job of it. The movie is engaging and fun, and whether Jesse Eisenberg has captured the real Zuckerberg or not, you definitely believe in him as the smartest guy in the room, and you sympathise when his attention is less than riveted by the endless questions. What's especially effective is illustrating the privacy and other issues raised by Facebook by showing them happening to the founders. Under the advice of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the co-founder of Napster and Plaxo, Zuckerberg moves to California and rents a house for coders to strew with pizza boxes and bad behaviour.
What isn't clear, despite the use of real names and real incidents in the life of a real business, is how much of this movie is fictional. We'll leave aside the fact that no-one in the history of the planet except possibly Sorkin himself has ever talked like Sorkin characters do: no pissed-off college girlfriend has ever managed to be that coherently snide. The more important difficulty is that in writing The Accidental Billionaires Mezrich, who admits to reconstructing dialogue and scenes, had to do without Zuckerberg's cooperation. His primary source was Saverin. I also simply do not believe that the desire to get laid is sufficient motivation to put in the years of intensely hard work it takes to build a company the size of Facebook, a recurring theme in the movie. And also, any 26-year-old running a billion-dollar company who is viewed through that lens is being sorely underestimated as a leader.
But you don't go to Hollywood for truth-in-biopics. For more soberly researched, Zuckerberg-assisted facts you might want to consult The Facebook Effect, released a couple of months ago. In it, author David Kirkpatrick begins by covering much of the same ground as Mezrich (that is, Facebook's founding and early growth), but goes on for a few more years to consider the company's ever-widening impact and what Kirkpatrick believes will ripen into a contest with Google as the dominant method of accessing the internet. Fodder for another movie?
The Social Network Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin Based on The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich
The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World By David Kirkpatrick Virgin Books ISBN: 978-0-7535-2274-5 £11.99