There’s certainly various elements uniting in this confident film. Individually, they don’t seem like much, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just when Oliver Stone delivered the new Wall Street, a well-made film based on aged material looking refreshed, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin offer a well-made take on the innovation of – and corruption within – new media. The Social Network intertwines the rise and (semi)fall of its protagonist: we find scenes featuring Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, alongside moments during dual lawsuits against him, from different parties accusing him of stealing the idea. This tale of life in full (even if Zuckerberg is still younger than 30) and its alleged crimes relates to the classic gangster film narrative, consisting wholly of the gangster’s rise-cum-fall. More directly, Network positions itself as a new Citizen Kane, with its protagonist reaching the heights of a communication empire (in Welles, as a newspaper mogul; in Fincher, as an innovator of virtual communications/networking). My friend Robert A. Emmons Jr. (who teaches film/media arts with me at Rutgers-Camden and attended the Philadelphia press screening with me) suggested that Zuckerberg’s obsession with his personal loss – a BU student he harasses on a blog, after she dumps him – could be his “Rosebud.” A fine comparison, even if the girl seems forced in as a bookend to the film.
Those of us interested equally in film history and current trends must smile with such a fresh treatment of tradition. I saw similar use of tradition in the film’s side support. Serving the film as part of the conflict against Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss twins offer rewarding comic relief. The characters are fresh in performance and the writer and director’s confidence in them. Of course, they are also old-time.
Though a universe of criticism exists on the “Star Wars” tradition, many have drawn attention to two curious side players in the films. R2D2 and C3P0 work as something of a Greek chorus, yet also play as revised messengers to drive the plot, used as early as Greek Tragedy, in which they embodied Fate. (How else would Oedipus learn that Polybus and Merope aren’t his real parents?) As related to movie history, the two droids were new takes on the comic-duo motif. Their rapid, humorous chatter – even if R2-D2’s is unintelligible to us – recall the diverting interactions of duos Laural and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. There’s no secret why Lucas used side relief: his overall approach was to bring us back the old-time – space operas, westerns, comic books, afternoon serials. A classically inspired comic duo would ease emotions during the battles, even if the two play just under the radar.
The brothers Winklevoss – played with uncanny resemblance between actors Armie Hammer and Josh Pence – work similarly. By their first appearance, we note Sorkin and Fincher poking fun at the constructed “Harvard Man,” who stands tall and stiff in his sweater and talks even stiffer in the forcedly enrichment, deep voice. Right after we meet them they are betrayed, when Zuckerberg takes their idea of a online network for Harvard and runs with it. The “Winklevi” (as Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg calls them) represent dueling consciousnesses – one (along with a friend) ready to stamp out Zucherberg, the other remembering that they must restrain themselves as “men of Harvard.” The two bicker as such Ivy League-obsessives swear they never should. As members of the college’s crew team, they oafishly remind others that their great bodies come from the upper-class sport. When they lose a race, Fincher films it in their subjective point of view – as a moment of frenetic impulses, even if the issue of win-or-lose beams like a neon sign to their faces.
They rummage through the Harvard book of student conduct to find a code to hold Zuckerberg accountable for the theft of ideas. Their bringing it to the office of Harvard’s president results in the funniest scene, in a film that continually upends our expectation for finding little humor. (The filmmakers cleverly set this up with an opening scene, where the dyspeptic Zuckerberg sinks his chances with the BU student.) The president, obviously overtired by the stuffy Harvard men with whom he must constantly deal, tells them to go out and discover another a new idea. After all, you’re Harvard Men! By throwing back at them the renaissance-man quality they think they were born into, the president’s character adds delicious irony to a dialog-diverting scene. An example of the best kind of dramatic humor – superficially, in the language, and thematically, with the irony – Network propels itself toward the fall of the Facebook mogul, himself rich but lifeless.