The Social Network, the movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), directed by David Fincher (“Fight Club”) and written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), has been out for a while, but I just got around to seeing it this weekend. I found it to be an engrossing, intelligent, well-made movie that I would recommend to anyone who likes high-quality films.
It left me, though, with a nagging question. What did the real Mark Zuckerberg think of the way he was portrayed in the film? It’s unusual to see a movie where almost all the characters are based on real, living people, especially when set in the very recent past.. I was especially curious about Zuckerberg’s reaction because the film essentially did a hatchet job on him, portraying him as a consummate jerk — someone who stole the idea of Facebook from fellow students who had hired him to work on their own project, and someone who betrayed his best and only friend who was with him in the company from the start.
I found the answer in an interview that Zuckerberg did with Startup School on October 19, 2010.
He said that the filmmakers got a whole bunch of things wrong and just some random details right. He got a big laugh from the audience when he said they got the clothing right, that every single shirt and fleece they showed in the movie were things that he actually wore. What he found most “thematically interesting,” out of all the things the filmmakers got wrong, was the frame they used, starting the film showing a girl who dumped him, and making it seem as if his whole reason for starting Facebook was to meet new girls.
The woman in the beginning of the movie was fictional, and Zuckerberg said that he’s been dating the same woman since before he started the company. That detail aside, what bothered him the most was the disconnect between the real life of Silicon Valley inventors and the way that Hollywood sees them. People who make movies, he said, “just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.” That line got loud laughs and cheers from the audience.
Zuckerberg came across as more charming, more self-aware, and more humorous in the real-life interview than his semi-fictional counterpart did in the movie version. There were many similarities though, between the real and the cinema versions. Watching the video of Zuckerberg talking on the stage made me appreciate Jesse Eisenberg’s performance even more. Zuckerberg talked fast, visibly thought fast, and was quite intense — traits that Eisenberg captured very well.
It was good to see that Zuckerberg did not appear particularly upset about the film and even had a sense of humor about it, though it’s impossible to say if his initial reaction was the same. At times the film seemed to me a bit cruel in its portrayal of a character who was not only based on an actual person, but on one was only 19 in the beginning of the story time of the film.
Ultimately, though, the film was using Zuckerberg as a metaphor. The film was not meant to be an accurate biography, or even particularly non-fictional. What Fincher and Sorkin were getting at, in my opinion, was how a life-changing invention came into being almost by accident. What was driving the invention of Facebook, as the movie told it, was not primarily Zuckerberg’s desire to meet girls (despite what the real Zuckerberg said at Startup School). Mostly it was Zuckerberg’s feeling of being an outsider because he couldn’t get into Harvard’s most exclusive clubs. He was determined to become somebody special.
The irony, in the film, is that Facebook, a site that is all about making social connections, was invented by someone haunted by being a social outsider. There’s no denying that Facebook has had a huge impact on our culture. The question the film raises is whether that impact is entirely a good one. Is something meant to foster healthy communities irreparably tainted by being born out of social resentment?
Source: Video of Startup School interview with Mark Zuckerberg, October 19, 2010 (relevant part starts at 13:45)