Spoiler Warning: This article touches upon the ending of 'The Social Network' and 'Citizen Kane.'
Cinematical's very own Erik Davis began his review of 'The Social Network' by predicting that "They'll call it a film that defines a generation," and if the ubiquitous ads and the chatter following the film's New York Film Festival premiere are any indication, Erik's prophecy is already being fulfilled.
What I find most interesting about the shotgun analysis he preempted is that such a statement seems far more critical of "this generation" (whatever that is) than it does of the film itself. Incidentally, it's also not true. Well, it's not true enough. Because to say that 'The Social Network' defines a generation is to suggest that it defines only a generation, and I wouldn't be convinced that David Fincher's latest (and possibly greatest) is the best American film since 'There Will Be Blood' if it only concerned itself with or pertained to those born between 'Risky Business' and 'The Sandlot.'
'The Breakfast Club' is a film that defined a generation; 'The Social Network' is a film about a generation that defines what it's like to be alive in the first world. It uses Facebook in much the same way that 'Citizen Kane' used newspapers: as a means to an end. The film's subject is so topical that it feels like something of a quickie cash-in or a movie-of-the-week, and has engendered an array of negative assumptions as to the film's intent that not even an all-star creative team or the year's most compelling trailer seem to have sufficiently addressed. Perhaps the best way to understand what Fincher and Sorkin have attempted is to explore what they haven't. (Read about 10 films that actually did define a generation.)
So while 'The Social Network' sets its sights on a bunch of different things, defining this generation ultimately isn't one of them, and here are five reasons why not. Steel yourself for sweeping generalizations.
1. It's a film "about" Mark Zuckerberg, a kid not representative of this (or any) generation.
Part of what makes Zuckerberg's insane rise to fame and fortune so compelling is that it's largely unprecedented -- if 'The Social Network' wasn't based on a living myth, you'd never believe it. Few and far between are the titans of industry who can readily appreciate Zuckerberg's journey, and not even those generational cohorts of this Harvard drop-out who've come from ostensibly similar upbringings have a prayer of relating to his predicament on a literal level.
I'm a 25 year-old Ivy League graduate from Greenwich, Connecticut, who went to grade school with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the God-like twins (played by an Oscar-demanding Armie Hammer, who provides the film with its most obliviously hysterical moments), from whom Zuckerberg allegedly stole the idea for Facebook, and 'The Social Network's' characterization of our favorite nascent luminary is no more (or no less) fictional or relatable to me than Charles Foster Kane or Daniel Plainview (although I guess he's more likely to catch the 'Futurama' references that dominate my vernacular). The milieu around which the film's sinews take shape may be more familiar to me than it is to some other kids my age, but -- to recapitulate an idea Fincher expressed at the NYFF press conference -- just because you understand where Zuckerberg came from doesn't mean you have any clue what it's like to be where he is.
The sniveling social media wunderkind -- as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin construes him -- is neither hero nor anti-hero, he's just a kid as brilliant as he is flawed, jettisoned with Frodo to the Undying Lands as the fruit of his gifts forbids him from returning to the real world, even those of the hedonistic Final Clubs and the mass-validation they offer.
2. It's a film about unspoken emotions in a generation where we broadcast emotions constantly.
I agree with much of Erik's review, but one point on which I've gotta (very) respectfully defect from his (extremely wise) take (he's my boss), is his insistence that "This is an emotionless generation: one taught that it's much better to sue than get your cry on." I certainly can't argue that I haven't been raised in a sue-crazy culture, but I think Erik's comment is more true of the characters in the film than it is the demographic they represent.
In my experience, the online social networks that have been fed and swallowed by millennials (ick) haven't only made it more convenient for us to communicate with another, they've made it more likely. In 'The Social Network,' one of the most dramatic epiphanies we see Zuckerberg experiencing is when he decides to add "Relationship Status" to Facebook, a hydrogen bomb of a light-bulb moment that effectively turns the service into civilization's largest officiator of interpersonal relationships. Subsequently, Facebook has naturally become the most popular forum on which to declare romantic couplings, yell at your friends, coyly ask someone for a date, or even come out of the closet -- all at a safe distance. If you thought that viral videos like 'David After Dentist' were a popular staple of Facebook feeds the world over, try looking for sadness. Or envy. Or joy.
Mark Zuckerberg -- as Jesse Eisenberg plays him in the film -- experiences all of those things (well, not 'David After Dentist'), but you'd be forgiven for overlooking them. The term "Asperger's" has been tossed around a lot, and it's true that the man-boy around whom 'The Social Network' revolves is the deceptively calm eye of a particularly lucrative tempest. I'll be neither the first nor the last person to point out the irony behind such an emotionally closed and socially awkward individual being the founder of a site that's ostensible function is to facilitate mass communication, but the fact remains that Zuckerberg -- in an effort to be the president of his own little fiefdom -- made an outlier of himself by inventing a tool with which the rest of his Harvard classmates could get to know each other more easily than ever before (and by "get together," I mean "poke." And by "poke" I mean "have sex").
As is the custom when speaking Sorkin-ese, the characters in 'The Social Network' are quicker to rattle off incidental accusations than dissolve into openly emotional histrionics. Zuckerberg and co. created an incorporeal lattice wherein friendships are official and quantified, but one of the most crucial discrepancies that the film's depositions touch upon is the notion that Zuckerberg and his former roommate and CFO Eduardo Saverin can't agree as to whether or not they were ever friends at all. And if Zuckerberg was partially motivated by his bitterness toward Saverin's admission to a Final Club, a silently fermenting jealousy hasn't been so blown out of proportion since the Trojan War.
To that extent, 'The Social Network' isn't a portrait of how a generation communicates -- it's a portrait of a young man isolated by his own genius and self-image, a young man who found it easier to reinvent cyberspace than to reinvent himself, and a young man who desperately needs the validation of the very people from whom his vision eventually detached him. Living in the here and now it's easy to see how Sorkin's tact might make it that much more incisive a look at the here and now, but when eventually stripped from its generational context, the woebegone "refresh" button at the end of the film will simply be to Zuckerberg as a certain sled was to Charles Foster Kane.
3. It's a film about shades of gray in a "Like it" or not world.
So much of the discourse in advance of 'The Social Network's premiere has had to do with judgment -- whether Fincher and Sorkin have smeared the world's youngest billionaire or if the portrait is in fact a bit more sympathetic. Unsurprisingly, the finished film has proved such chatter to be woefully reductive. Not only does the film refuse to pass any sort of moralistic verdicts, it uses a time-hopping structure (oriented around a series of depositions) to deliberately obfuscate the facts, leaving viewers with only their abstract impressions of Zuckerberg and co.
Sure, Sean Parker is something of a villainously instigating presence, but despite the sneering braggadocio with which Justin Timberlake embodies him, the character never becomes a clean-cut antagonist. Likewise, the heartbreaking rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin is attributed as much to the former's savant tunnel-vision as it is the latter's complete failure of imagination. These are imperfect youths in an imperfect world, and the gray shades with which they're depicted are going to be responsible for the film's enduring appeal years into the future, when Facebook is either non-existent or unrecognizable to those familiar only with its current incarnation.
4. It's a film about truth for a generation obsessed with facts.
To piggyback onto the last idea, it's worth noting that 'The Social Network' -- like any great film -- can't be bothered with any facts that don't support the greater truths to which it aspires. I'm fond of quoting Article 5 of Werner Herzog's Minnesota Declaration, which famously states that "There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization."
It's a notion implicit to the cinema, one as evident and well-exercised in 'The Social Network' as it is in Robert Flaherty's 'Nanook of the North' or films that pre-date even that eternal ethnography. But -- and here come the minor 'Catfish' spoilers -- sometime around the day that James Frey was crucified on national television for fabricating bits of his memoir 'A Million Little Pieces,' people seemed to forget that art is the realm of truth, and artists must leave facts to the accountants whenever it benefits their art to do so. And now there's the facile 'Catfish,' a film actually about Facebook that is shocked to discover that people use Zuckerberg's invention to project a persona different and more revealing than that which life imposes upon them.
Abbas Kiarostami's 'Close-up' masterfully subverted the documentary format to show how visual and social media can confuse truth and illusion back in 1990, and people were moved and illuminated. 'Catfish' does the same clumsily and to much less revealing effect 20 years later, and the world is flabbergasted. Thanks to iPhones and the like we've got the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips, even /especially when we're on the toilet. People now feel entitled to the truth (or on Wikipedia, inclined to write it themselves), especially those Zuckerberg's age and younger, who have only scant memories of another world.
'The Social Network' tells a story many anticipate will feel rote due to its recency, but presents it in a way that proves totally destabilizing, forcing you to trash all of your assumptions. Sorkin introduces the deposition room by having Zuckerberg counter an allegation by saying "That's not what happened." It's a moment that lucidly announces that this simply isn't going to be a film about Facebook, and if you really need the play-by-play you can read the book. Instead, it's gonna be a film that uses the incredible Facebook story to tell a story about creation, destruction and everything in between, a story that's interested in the facts only so far as it can brazenly discard them. By that same token, 'The Social Network' insists that Zuckerberg created something like Facebook in part because he wanted to have more control over his image, and now it can be argued that few of the site's 500 million members are less capable of hiding behind their profile.
5. It's a film about men in a generation that's also about women (I hope).
And to dovetail the matter of truth with the film's potentially problematic depiction of women: This is subjective cinema, a story predominately filtered through the minds of four young men. It canvasses a time in their lives when people were distilled into their functions, remembered only for what they offered or what they took away. Given the way the story is told, it's imperative that the women in this film aren't allowed to blossom into roles beyond sex object, shrew and lame moral center. It's that reductive presentation that make women so important to the saga, as they -- ultimately embodied by Rooney Mara's Erica -- are the film's best representations of what's lost, a sweeping synecdoche of the beautifully human complexities that Zuckerberg's tunnel-vision makes it impossible for him to enjoy. The real Zuckerberg, of course, has been in a relationship with Priscilla Chan this entire time, but this isn't a film about the real Zuckerberg.
On the other hand 'The Social Network' is a supreme testament to egocentrism, and I think that's a quality both central to this generation, and -- as Erik suggested -- this generation's disinterest in identifying themselves.