'The Social Network' is the defining movie of the decade

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

"The Social Network"
Released Oct 1, 2010
Directed by David Fincher

A genius but resentful young man. An ambitious immigrant looking to assimilate. A charming entrepreneur prone to paranoid fixations. Three men of high society unaccustomed to losing. And at the beginning, a young woman tired of being treated as less than.

There have been a few better movies, but "The Social Network" is the defining American film of the decade. David Fincher's 2010 masterpiece may have started as "that Facebook movie," but its story of aggressive capitalism motivated by the perceived insults and restrictions internalized by white men has transformed subtext into substantial text, in capital letters, with several exclamation points added to make sure nobody could ignore the message, and the men who deliver them.

With a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin based on several court depositions involving the principal players, "The Social Network" dramatizes the beginnings of young Mark Zuckerberg, an awkward Harvard University student who nurses a broken (and bitter) heart by writing a new program that compares the attractiveness of other Harvard students called Facesmash. He does this with help from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and by hacking into the online pictorial directories of every Harvard dormitory. The incident gives Zuckerberg some campus notoriety but starts the path of him creating the most prominent social network on the planet, Facebook.

However, the idea of Facebook may not have originated with him. Shortly after the Facesmash incident, Zuckerberg is recruited by Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to create a school-wide online directory for Harvard students. After the initial meeting, Zuckerberg begins creating his social network site (then titled "The Facebook") with Saverin and his friends. Before the Winklevosses and Narendra know it, Zuckerberg's site is launched and becomes an immediate hit on campus.

Facebook quickly gains awareness, expanding to several other prestigious universities, then other colleges around the country, and soon to Europe. As the Winklevosses and Narendra try to stop the expansion anyway they can, Napster developer Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) sets up a meeting with Zuckerberg and Saverin to help grow the company. It isn't long before Parker inserts himself between the partners, sowing the seeds of discord that propel the rest of the film.

While based on research and court records, it's a mistake to take the film as literal truth. Eisenberg gives a strong performance as Zuckerberg, but I have no idea how accurate it is to the real person, nor does it color my opinion of him. Eisenberg does deliver a fully realized character within the body of the film, as his attempt at stoicism can't help but reveal the deep insecurity, contempt, and wounds he tries to hide beneath the surface. The Zuckerberg of the film is angry that he's not privileged enough to join the exclusive clubs on campus, completely overlooking the status he already has as a white male computer programmer enrolled at Harvard University. He is already in a private club, but he can't help but obsess over what he doesn't have.

This condition is examined in the first scene of the film, as Mark is out at a bar speaking to his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). It's more honest to say he's talking at her, as he rants about who's not included him. He is only interested in what Erica has to say when he perceives an insult, or when she finally decides to dump him right then and there.

"You are probably going to be a very successful computer person, but you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd," Erica tells him. "And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart, that it won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

Mark immediately goes back to his dorm and, in the middle of creating Facesmash, insults and degrades Erica publically on his blog. That's the story we've seen illustrated again and again with the rise of online discourse: A woman is dismissed, she stands up for herself, and men go online to fire over-the-top insults and harassment toward the woman. Mark lashes out in "The Social Network," without considering how his words online "are written in ink," as Erica notes later. Like the characters of "The Social Network," struggling to realize how prominent and influential Facebook could be within the context of the movie, the rise of social media in our national discourse continues to impact us in ways we're still trying to grasp, because the flood of information and commentary is non-stop and gains speed and traction. So much of it is toxic and harmful, dragging us further into the muck.

But the men of "The Social Network" are not concerned with impact; they're focused on who's holding them back and why they're not getting their due. The reality of high-stakes capitalism is laid bare in "The Social Network," where the reveal is victory lies not in relationships and ability, but how aggressive you are in the fight. Zuckerberg wins and becomes the youngest billionaire ever, but the "losers" here are still going to do OK. So many others don't have that privilege or fortune.

Thousands and soon millions of people submit their identities to join Facebook in "The Social Network," and now it's become one of the largest sources of news because of the content that is shared there. This week saw the release of two news stories: Leaked audio that has Mark Zuckerberg openly campaigning against Elizabeth Warren's candidacy for president, and Facebook's policy change to allow political campaigns to promote material that is misleading and untrue. The world's most significant information source has its thumb on the scale of another presidential election, and that is terrifying. The film is the film, but its theme of success never being enough colors our reality once more.

"The Social Network" is an incredible film that excels in every way that matters. Between Fincher's detached, dry vision of lawyer conference rooms and college common rooms, Sorkin's fluid dialogue, the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that maintains an underlying menace, and the wonderful performances by the cast, it continues to deserve every bit of praise it gets. As we near the end of the decade and critics plot out their "Best of" lists, I can't tell you "The Social Network" will be at the top, but its legacy continues to haunt and define our lives today.

The Weekend: While September is often a low-key month for studio movies, the campaign for critical and award acclaim throughout the next few months begins in earnest in October.

A murderer's row of acting talent, including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin, adapted David Mamet's astonishing play "Glengarry Glen Ross," released this weekend in 1992. Denzel Washington stunned audiences as the heavy against Ethan Hawke in the police thriller "Training Day" from 2001, and picked up the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as Alonzo Harris. After years of stunning film work that was bypassed at the Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese finally got his due with 2006's "The Departed," starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon. And while 2018's "A Star is Born," starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed) missed its rendezvous with Oscar, it still won the hearts of audiences.

Alfonso CuarĂ³n sent Sandra Bullock to space and drew audiences to theaters in 2013's "Gravity." Two years later, director Ridley Scott left Matt Damon on Mars in 2015's "The Martin," helping to confirm the early fall season was a fruitful release window for movie stars in space suits.

And finally, the first weekend of October saw the release of two films that would prove to be iconic roles for its stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger let off a little steam and a lot of knives, missiles, and bullets in 1984's "Commando," while Jack Black faked his way into a music teacher job in 2003's "School of Rock."

Next Week: "Pulp Fiction"