Monday, April 4, 2011

GSL Movie Review: The Social Network

It's sometimes nice to take a break from detailing the stupidity and corruption of California politics to talk about things we enjoy, and one thing we do enjoy is critiquing movies. While The Social Network wasn't explicitly political, it was provocative on a number of levels that any libertarian could appreciate. And it does concern one of California's adopted native sons, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, of Palo Alto.

So, what did we think of this movie? In short, we loved it. We could give you the standard Roger Ebert plot-summary style review, but chances are we're a little late to that party and you already know the story. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy employs prodigious programming skills to create explosively popular social networking site. Boy leaves the wasteland of pretentious douchebaggery, known as Harvard, for the sunny, entrepreneurial climes of Palo Alto. Boy is sued for intellectual property theft. Boy alienates best friend as his website becomes a global phenomenon. Boy becomes world's youngest billionaire, settles legal action, and moves on with his life. Boy becomes the subject of an Aaron Sorkin hatchet job. (Sorry, we probably should've said "Spoiler Alert" earlier on.) But we'd rather talk about the specifics of what we liked and disliked about it. So, here's how we came up with our rating.

+1 Star for Delivering the Goods. We were very excited to hear of a project being directed by David Fincher (most recently of the superb Zodiac) and scored by Trent Reznor (the sound-design demigod behind Nine Inch Nails). To us, if something says Fincher or Reznor, it's got to be good. They're like Smuckers that way. And both do superlative work in The Social Network. The score by Reznor and Atticus Ross is 2+ hours of pulsing, brooding menace, as you'd expect, and Fincher's direction is flawless. But we were surprised and impressed by Jesse Eisenberg, playing Zuckerberg, and Justin Timberlake, playing Napster founder Sean Parker. We'd only seen Eisenberg previously in Zombieland, so his ability to carry a dramatic role was stunning. But his Oscar nomination was well-earned. And pop star Timberlake is absolutely perfect in the part of a charming mover and shaker in Silicon Valley, which we also wouldn't have expected.

+1 Star for Making Stephan Kinsella Look Like a Genius. In the course of recounting the Winklevoss brothers' legal action against Zuckerberg, the film shines a light on the arbitrary and ludicrous nature of intellectual property law. Libertarians often disagree about IP, but we should all be concerned if the film's account of the Winklevoss suit is accurate. Zuckerberg was forced to pay the brothers $65 million by the government, which is an awful lot of money for two people who didn't do a damn thing to earn it. And it lends force to arguments that property claims that depend on government can easily be abused. Especially considering the scene where the Winklevosses attempt to use Larry Summers to solve their problem for them.

+1 Star for Making Us Think About Old Economy Vs. New Economy. The movie is divided between its Cambridge half and its Silicon Valley half, a distinction embodied in its treatment of Facebook's founding CFO, Eduardo Saverin. In the Cambridge part of the story, Eduardo alternately fails at raising funds for Facebook and advocates monetizing the site as quickly as possible (given how much people bitch about ads on their favorite websites, a series of popups on 2005-era Facebook likely would have killed the site's popularity). When Sean Parker enters the story, Eduardo recedes to the background, except when trying to cling to something he's no longer contributing to. Parker's vision of capitalism is much more incendiary: he recognizes that Napster fundamentally changed music distribution, and that Facebook embodies a radically new business model that can't be ignored. And yes, we loved the business card that read, "I'm CEO, Bitch".

+1 Star for Making Us Think About Excellence and Entrepreneurship. For us, The Social Network is the story of someone driven to greatness, who succeeds in creating something great. We loved the early scene in which database hacking leads to the creation of, just as we loved the Palo Alto scenes with Zuckerberg fully absorbed in making Facebook as great a product as he can. This ties in with the last point; it's wonderful to see a film about someone going their own way to create something that others value, rather than quietly going to work for someone else's firm. And whatever else can be said, that is the story of the founding of Facebook.

-1 Star for the Hatchet Job. We'll say up front that we're not fans of Aaron Sorkin, and the film's too-cute-for-Juno dialogue is irritating in many places; too often, the script goes for a wordplay so awkward that it deflates the drama of the scene. And we cringed at some of the dialogue (note to Aaron Sorkin: the internet is not, in fact, "written in ink"). But more important is that the film feels too often like character assassination. It was, of course, based on the bookThe Accidental Billionaires, which is the story told from Eduardo Saverin's perspective (and during their litigation). As such, the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network is cold, amoral, and manipulative, his charitable donations and lighter side (embodied in his embrace of hacker culture) notwithstanding. And Eduardo is portrayed as a hapless victim, even if few CFOs have more richly deserved firing (note to Eduardo: if you aren't raising funds, and you're cutting off your company's funds to "get attention", you aren't doing your job well). Granted, it'll be a chilly day in hell before Hollywood offers us a sympathetic portrait of a successful entrepreneur. But this is so one-sided and mean-spirited a portrayal that, Eisenberg's icy performance notwithstanding, Zuckerberg is by the end the movie's most sympathetic character.

So, we give The Social Network three of four stars. To everyone except Aaron Sorkin, we congratulate you on a job well done.


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