Change is not polite. The bigger the change, the more likely that it is messy and painful and ugly. Even its beginnings are often disturbingly uninspired and uninspiring. Despite what Hollywood and history books tell us, change is less often sparked by a passion for justice or a vision of a better world. More often, even the most beneficial change is inspired by ambition, competition, revenge, spite, wanting to seem cool, or the most frequently compelling reason of all — some romantic companionship or a reasonable approximation thereof or at least to appear cool in front of whichever gender you are hoping to attract.
And it is change that is the subject of this movie. Don’t call it “The Facebook Movie.” It’s about a small group of college students who almost accidentally create a product that almost accidentally becomes a phenomenon. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said repeatedly in interviews, it could just as well have been the invention of a toaster that he was writing about. Sorkin, whose past work includes “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The West Wing,” and a Broadway play about the invention of television, uses the origin of Facebook as a way to engage with classic themes of loyalty, innovation, greed, class, and the challenges of relationships of all kinds.
In a meta-touch, the movie’s shifting points of view effectively crowd-source the storyline and its own willingness to bend the facts acknowledges that there is no one way to tell the story. However, even with the inevitable scenes of pale dudes staring intently into computer screens while they furiously bang away at the keyboards, the story is grounded in the same emotions depicted in ancient Greek drama — ambition, rebellion, anger, betrayal. It depicts the contrast between the arrogant brash and very young upstart who starts a spite project because he can’t be accepted by girls or clubs and the arrogant smug club members who assume that all they need to do is cite the school handbook to the university president (probably once brash, now smug, perpetually arrogant). Is there an underdog in all of this that we’re supposed to root for?
No one is better at writing dialogue for smart people than Sorkin. In the opening scene Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg of “Zombieland” and “The Squid and the Whale”) and his girlfriend are on a date. They have a blisteringly fast exchange about status that shows he has some issues when it comes to navigating contact with other humans. She dumps him. Frustrated, bitter, and a little drunk, he goes back to his dorm room and impulsively does two small things that will have seismic consequences. In olden days, someone in that situation might go back to the dorm and trash the now-ex to his friends. But this was 2002, so instead he wrote something nasty about her on his blog. And then he decided to create a mean “hot or not” website by posting student directory photos online. This gets him into trouble with the school. And it brings him to the attention of three upperclassmen, in both senses of the word. They have the dazzlingly casual arrogance of members of the most exclusive of the final clubs. Two of them are gigantic twins who are on the Olympic crew team and look like they walked out of a J.C. Leyendecker ad for Arrow shirts.
They ask Zuckerberg to do the programming for a website that will post and connect all of the students at the school. He brings on his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield of “Never Let Me Go” and the upcoming Spider-Man reboot), as chief financial officer — meaning that he provides the initial $1000 in start-up money.
A few months later, “thefacebook.com” is up and running and growing exponentially. Zuckerberg combined the appeal of a blog (students can express their feelings or describe their activities) and the connectivity of a computer network. When a classmate awkwardly asks Zuckerberg whether a girl in their class is dating anyone, Zuckerberg adds a function to the site that lets participants state their availability and interest.
There is change that comes because people want something. And then there is the more profound change that comes about because of something people didn’t even know they wanted. Facebook did not exist ten years ago. Today it has more than 500 million members around the world.
Zuckerberg meets Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a seductive Justin Timberlake), who entices him with a combination of glamour and venture capital. He plays the role in this movie that Lampwick does in “Pinnochio;” taking him to the fun place that turns little boys into donkeys. But he is right about some important decisions, including dropping the “the” and raising money from backers rather than advertisers. And it turns out there are two ways to become a cool guy; you can be accepted by the guys who are cool or you can be the one to redefine what cool is.
But who created Facebook? Zuckerberg is sued by the upperclassmen, who never participated after proposing the initial idea and by Saverin, who is pushed out after Parker comes on board. The movie allows us to make up our own mind. And then it ends with a reminder that even an enormous innovation in making human connections cannot substitute for the real thing.
The performances are all top-notch. Eisenberg is superb, playing not the real Mark Zuckerberg but the character created by Sorkin, hyper-alert and obtuse, his voice both taut and tremulous. Armie Hammer is outstanding as both of the towering twin brothers and Rooney Mara (soon to play Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as the girl who starts the whole thing by dumping Zuckerberg. Sorkin perfectly captures the cadences of the Harvard community, including a gem of a cameo by Douglas Urbanski as Harvard president Larry Summers. Director David Fincher minimizes the scenes of people staring intently at computer screens while madly banging away on a keyboard to keep this movie about the power, the lure, the fragility, and the importance of the social network of the analog world. It might inspire the next Facebook, but it is more likely to inspire people to log off.
Parents should know that this movie includes college-style behavior including sexual references, some crude, and non-explicit situations, strong language, and drug and alcohol use.
Family discussion: Who “invented” Facebook? What made it so popular?
If you like this, try: the documentaries “Catfish” and “Startup.com” — and listen to this interview from Creative Screenwriting with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about his work on the film.