Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerd

Director David Fincher’s The Social Network takes a not-so-promising premise — the story of Facebook — and turns it into an amazing movie. Compare it to, say, The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Good movie, but not great. This was great. And I knew it in the first few minutes.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg’s intellect rolls over his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend like a tank. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. He stomps her; she dumps him. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly captures the way nerds talk and think. Nerdspeak. Sorkin speaks it like a native speaker.

Nerds have more short term memory (a larger RAM buffer) and will refer to earlier conversational threads assumed dropped. Nerds are both anti-social and anti-Machiavellian. In the nerd ethos, thought is code; you follow the argument where it leads; you put all your assumptions on the table — including assumptions about social status, motives and intelligence. Sparing people’s feelings doesn’t enter into it. This sounds like insensitivity, but it really isn’t. If you’ve got an IQ of 170 or so, you insult people without even trying. So you stop trying not to.

To write this smart, you've got to be that smart. Props to Mr. Sorkin.

In the opening scene, you see exactly what kind of brain Zuckerberg has — and exactly what kind of character. The scene is the whole movie in embryo, a logic bomb waiting to explode. Everything flows from there ...

As a result of social rejection, Zuckerberg creates the greatest social network in history.

A college prank to get back at his ex-girlfriend evolves, step by step, into Facebook. We trace this evolution looking back in time from the vantage point of depositions and legal hearings. Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend and two twin, upper class jocks are suing him over the intellectual property rights issues. I.e.; the jocks claim Zuckerberg stole their idea; his best friend claims he cheated him out of partnership in the company. From one perspective, Zuckerberg stabbed them all in the back. From another perspective, he didn’t. Facebook evolved, ineluctably, like so many lines of elegant code.

Zuckerberg may be great with computer code — but he's not so great at moral code. The movie doesn’t dismiss him — or excuse him — as a human computer or autistic savant with a low social IQ. Zuckerberg's not socially unaware. He’s socially indifferent. And proud. His giant, pulsating brain remembers every social slight, every patronizing implication, every sneer. He balances the equation. He gets his payback.

Facebook is the revenge of the nerd.

This film has great performances by Jessie Eisenberg (Zuckerberg), Armie Hammer (playing both twins), Andrew Garfield (as Zuckerberg's dumped partner) and — believe it or not — Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker, Napster's crash-and-burn founder). Acting that doesn't feel like acting — no milking the scene, no going for the big moment. Director Fincher makes you feel like a voyeur spying in on real people — pretty rare, for a big budget movie these days.

What this film doesn’t have is any detailed investigation of Facebook itself. There a few throwaway scenes — but nothing like those 1960s movies explaining the growth of rock and roll with a montage of teens listening to portable radios on the beach. Facebook is a phenomenon. The movie assumes you know about it — and gets on with the story.

That story is largely fiction. The filmmakers had access to the broad outlines of the story — and no access to the actual details or characters, wrapped in layers of nondisclosure agreements as they were. The Mark Zuckerberg of this movie has about as much reality as Prince Hamlet or Leopold Bloom, which is just fine with me. That’s probably why this film is so much more than a mere bio-pic. It’s the bio-pic of an idea — an idea that stands for all ideas. It’s a universal story.

Fincher’s movie and Sorkin’s script brilliantly shoehorns two plot threads together: (A) the exciting birth of an idea — as in the discovery of Radium or penicillin (B) the human cost and betrayal associated with the ownership of that idea. Facebook was a brilliant idea. The filmmakers are absolutely clear about that.

Whether the kudzu-like social network Zuckerberg created is such a good idea for society is different question — and a question for a different movie.

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