The Social Network is a 2010 biographical film about the creation of Facebook, its creator Mark Zuckerberg, and the lawsuits that dogged him during the early years of the website. Taken on its own, the movie is pretty good. It’s well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and has probably one of the best conclusions of any film made in the past decade. However, the film’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, has openly admitted that his only motivation in writing the screenplay was to tell a good story, and that the facts weren’t important to him at all. As a result, the movie, while being critically acclaimed, is also widely criticized for its gross inaccuracies and heavily biased portrayal of its subject matter.
Biographical films usually fit into one of two categories: the first contains movies like Kinsey and Nixon, where the primary purpose of the movie is to examine the main character and impart information to the audience. Events can still be changed slightly by the filmmakers to make them more fitting to the medium, and of course the movie can still have a message and conclusion as long as it fits reality, but the overall film is, at its core, a biography. The second category contains movies like Ed Wood and Boys Don’t Cry, where the main character is used more as an icon than an actual human; in this case the reason that the main character is developed is just to increase the empathy felt by the audience, not because the actual character is in itself important. Of course, in either case the film is character-driven and imparts information about its subject, but the latter type is less analytical of the actual person and more about what they represent.
Zuckerberg is in his late 20s, and obviously making an analysis of his life as it is now would make little sense, so The Social Network tries to fit into the second category. However, while the movie does a great job conveying its messages, they aren’t actually the messages that it should have had. In fact, Sorkin has stated that he doesn’t actually use Facebook at all and barely does anything with modern social technology other than email his relatives, which couldn’t be more obvious while watching the movie. Zuckerberg is solely used as an icon of someone who thinks that getting power will cause him to be socially accepted, even though that’s purely conjecture, and the most cursory of glances at the man’s history would reveal a number of definitely accurate angles that the filmmakers could have taken instead.
The screenplay may be technically proficient, but it can’t make up for the fact that the writer doesn’t understand the subject matter. For a movie supposedly about a social network, it has nothing at all to say about social networks, or even the impact of technology in general. Nor does it have much to say about programming or sociology, which were Zuckerberg’s majors in Harvard and the fields that define the portion of his life that the movie is about. Instead, it relies on lazily using Zuckerberg as the Hollywood edition of a nerd — a well-written portrayal, yes, but not a unique one or one that has any relevancy to the subject matter. Even if it does want to be entirely about Zuckerberg’s personal life, it never actually has a real portrayal of Zuckerberg in it at all, just the stereotyped strawman version. Whether it’s true or not, the impression left is that the filmmakers had a personal vendetta against the subject — and that makes the entire thing seem reprehensible.
Minor alteration of the true story is fine, and it would have been okay for the writer to ignore the fact that the real Zuckerberg is currently married to the same girl he was dating before he created Facebook, if he was going to use that plotline to illustrate the character’s isolation and the consequences of his misguided ambition. Except that a lot of the real Zuckerberg’s friends — and even people who the film portrays as enemies — have stated that the “misguided ambition” doesn’t actually exist anyway. That’s a double whammy of dishonest screenwriting, and it isn’t the only example in the film. The entire thing is built upon (and littered with) factual errors.
In my opinion, biography is the one genre of film in which the filmmakers absolutely have to have integrity with the facts; and in this case, as Sorkin admits, they had as much integrity as a paper bag in a hurricane. If they wanted to simply make a good movie, they shouldn’t have made a good movie that pretended to be a true story. Especially if they’re going to pretend the movie is about someone who’s still alive and at the height of his career: that’s called being an asshole.
I’m not necessarily saying that Zuckerberg is a really nice person — with all the non-disclosure agreements and out-of-court settlements, it’s impossible to really tell at this point in time — but that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly acceptable to make an entire movie just to sling mud at him. The film completely ignores any impact Zuckerberg had on the world itself, as if none of that mattered and the real story is just some kid being a jerk. Maybe that makes for a compelling story, but it has almost nothing to do with the social network the movie is named after. Are they just focusing on the creator’s personal relationships to make him look unequivocally bad, even though the majority of it is at best conjecture anyway, so they can avoid actually making a point about the current issue the movie should have been about?
If it stuck to reality without inventing all sorts of nonsense seemingly for the sole purpose of insulting Mark Zuckerberg, it could have had some short-term relevancy on top of its timeless messages about ambition and friendship. It wouldn’t have been incredible, but it still would’ve been good. Instead, it’s a movie that pretends to be about something current while actually just using the current things as a platform for mudslinging. It never has anything insightful to say about its current issues, it just uses timeless messages and didacticism so it can be praised by stodgy film critics. And that’s lame, mean-spirited filmmaking at its worst.
If you can ignore the fact that it’s supposed to be a biopic and just take it for what it is, you’ll probably enjoy The Social Network. It’s a good movie. It’s just a terrible biography, and a lot less insightful than it’s cracked up to be.