Sunday 10 October 2010

Movie Review: The Social Network

This film is about Facebook. For those not in the know, Facebook is a web site slash web service whereby users can post personal information about themselves including photos and videos and share them with their friends. Facebook is a social network service which is dedicated to building and reflecting the social networks or social relations among people.

Facebook by the numbers: 500 million users, $800 million in revenue (2009), 1,400 employees, offices in 8 countries and depending on who you ask, an estimated value between $20 to $30 billion. Oh yes, and now 1 film and a good film at that. Ah, one more number to add: the 97% ranking it received from Rotten Tomatoes. Obviously we have a good piece of entertainment here but just what is fact and what is fiction?

Any film which purports to recreate a real event invariably takes poetic licence with the true story. How many times have I seen during the final credits some notice which tells me that certain characters may have been introduced or dialogue created or events changed for "dramatic effect"? Hmmm, reality just ain't good enough?

The entire movie is based on the 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. In reading about the book, its author and just what access was available to original sources and people, I believe that while the overall "facts" are correct, many of the details, surrounding events and dialogues are more from Mezrich's imagination than reality. Mezrich describes his work as "dramatic narrative account" where he has reconstructed dialogue and entire scenes for the benefit of the story. What? Isn't that fiction? How could he write dialogue if he wasn't there with a recording device?

Apparently, Mr. Mezrich has gotten into trouble before for his "non-fiction" works. In fact, his book Bringing Down The House (made into the film 21) contained this disclaimer:

The names of many of the characters and locations in this book have been changed, as have certain physical characteristics and other descriptive details. Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.

This sounds like carte blanche to write anything one wants regardless of the facts. Investigations by 2 newspapers uncovered a number of things in this book which were total fabricated.

But back to the movie: let's add to the questionable if not partial fictionalization of the source materials, Aaron Sorkin screenwriter. He has stated that he tried to create a compelling story rather than slavishly follow facts. Writing this just after having returned from the movie, I can say that Mr. Sorkin succeeded admirably. The Social Network does offer the viewer a very compelling story and I guess whether or not all the details are accurate or even real doesn't necessarily preoccupy the audience as we sit in rapt attention to the unfolding of this huge social event. I would say that it is here, we have the most important fact of the movie, a fact which is 100% accurate: Facebook.

Watching this story take place, no matter what the details are, and thinking about how this idea, this start-up company is going to reach 500 million users by the middle of the year 2010 just staggers the imagination. It is this particular fact which contrasts so sharply with the backdrop of the other more mundane aspects of university life at that age. Most students are studying hard, playing hard, drinking lots of beer and getting into some mild trouble. How many of them come up with an idea which will eventually be worth over $20 billion? No matter what Mezrich and Sorkin may have done with the material to spice it up for "dramatic effect", the sheer magnitude of the Facebook phenomenon itself turns a compelling story into an I-can't-take-my-eyes-off-of-it story.

Our hero or antihero, Mark Zuckerberg is the nerdy wunderkind who manages to code together what turns out to be a concept so good, so taken up by the public, one wonders why nobody had thought of it before. Apparently others had gone before Facebook but these attempts were more focused. The film shows Zuckerberg recreating a popular web site of the time, Hot or Not (still around), using pictures of Harvard students. Such sites involved students rating pictures of fellow students and were of limited interest. Zuckerberg's key idea with Facebook was to generalize the information and focus more on social interaction as opposed to just dating.

The astonishing aspect of building such a service is that the actual content of the site comes from the users themselves; Facebook is merely offering a means to organize and distribute said content. Zuckerberg tapped into the huge phenomenon, the huge need for the social interaction students have at university which may be for many of them the first time they have lived away from home. Facebook first took hold at the campus at Harvard then at the campuses of other universities. It was really university students who first embraced this Internet based social networking idea and from there the gospel spread into the mainstream. All this started in February 2004 and we are now merely 6 years later: 500 million and a film.

Before going to see the film, I had heard that Alan Sorkin was the screenwriter and for me, that was an interesting point of the project. Mr. Sorkin was responsible for the television series The West Wing, an absolutely fabulous show. My wife and I got hooked and watched it faithfully. Based on the unusually high quality of the writing for this series, I knew this film would have excellent dialogue and a gripping story. Mr. Sorkin came through with flying colours.

I will issue no spoiler alerts; other reviews have adequately covered the plot and the list of characters. - Although Justin Timberlake, yes, that Justin Timberlake, does a pretty good job here. - My purpose is to say that this film is excellent, thought provoking and riveting... all without a single car chase scene. I think about some of the other films I've seen lately like The Expendables or Machete where I saw the necessity of having a pocket calculator to keep track of the body count. Here is a film which brings a fascinating real life story to the screen and creates a forceful movie experience with no deaths or explosions. Sometimes you can shake the world without trying to blow it up.

Like my review of the movie The Town, I will summarize in 3 words: Go see it!


Rotten Tomatoes: The Social Network: 97%

Wikipedia: The Social Network

Wikipedia: Facebook

Mashable: What is Facebook really worth?

I include here some articles critical of Ben Mezrich's accuracy in his non-fiction.

CNN Money: The book that Facebook doesn't want you to read - June 25, 2009
Accidental Billionaires's author Ben Mezrich explains how he put together the tawdry tale that has Silicon Valley buzzing.

Globe and Mail: Zuckerpunched! Maybe those tech nerds aren't so harmless - May 21, 2010


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