Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Social Network. Nathan Heller explains how The Social Network misunderstands Harvard's culture. Plus: Predict how much the movie will gross at the box office.
The movie alleges that Zuckerberg and his best friend (and Facebook co-founder) Eduardo Saverin fell out, to a large extent, because Saverin was "punched" for the elitist Phoenix club, which the movie fatuously represents as a lusty den of vice where gorgeous co-eds dance in their underwear on tables for lecherous clubmen. This is a world Zuckerberg can't access, according to Sorkin. As The Social Network accurately depicts, Zuckerberg forced Saverin out of Facebook, and Saverin sued Zuckerberg. The dispute between Zuckerberg and Saverin has been litigated to such an extent that we may never know the exact truth of how Zuckerberg felt about his friend. This impasse is something The Social Network banks on. You can't question what you can't know. You can, however, write a story about it.
Ultimately, both Sorkin and Mezrich are responsible for The Social Network's storytelling. While Sorkin has denied looking at The Accidental Billionaires as he wrote his script, the Mezrich book is listed as source material in the movie's opening credits. There are also scenes in the movie that couldn't have come from anywhere but Mezrich's book. The Social Network leaves out some of The Accidental Billionaires' most inflammatory material—you won't see Zuckerberg and Saverin feasting on koala meat on a yacht in San Francisco, for instance— but much of Mezrich's juiciest, least substantiated material reappears in the film. The wild scene in which computer-science groupies approach Zuckerberg and Saverin for sex in bathroom stalls remains. So does a concocted scene in which the Winklevosses and Narendra learn about Facebook's expansion into Europe in the summer of 2004, when they're at England's Henley Royal Regatta. Facebook hadn't crossed the Atlantic at that point.
Sorkin, too, bends truth to narrative. He adds anachronistic references to MySpace. He invents a scene in which early Facebook investor Sean Parker happens upon Zuckerberg's rental house in Palo Alto, Calif., only after a zip line tears off the chimney. And Sorkin creates a climactic, computer-smashing confrontation between Saverin and Zuckerberg that I've been unable to find any reference to in the various Facebook lawsuits.
Let's accept petty deceptions like these as a necessary ingredient in a dramatized story. The problem is that Sorkin doesn't gloss over facts to get at any truths about Facebook's founding. He is trafficking in dramaturgy.
The Social Network's most honest moment comes in the movie's closing scene, when a lawyer played by my Harvard classmate Rashida Jones tells Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg that she doesn't think he's a jerk. It's just that, as she puts it, "creation myths need a devil."
Sorkin, too, has left us with a myth, and the mythmaker has washed his hands of the mythmaking process. Some critics call this a brilliant meta-disclaimer, an acknowledgment that there is no universal truth in the Zuckerberg story. It's not. It's an abdication of responsibility for a story that pantomimes Zuckerberg and is poised to transform Mezrich and Sorkin's version of reality into whatever passes for truth these days.