What The Social Network gets wrong about Harvard—and Facebook.

What really happened.
Sept. 30 2010 8:13 PM

You Can't Handle the Veritas

What Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher get wrong about Harvard—and Facebook.

The Social Network. Click image to expand.
The Social Network

Reliable sources inform me that there comes, in every human life, a point of terminal uncoolness—that uncomfortable moment when the music starts to feel too loud, the prime-time TV gets a little baffling, Velcro seems brilliant, and the tastes of mainstream people sound like groupthink from a distant, maybe child-eating, place. I think I may have reached that point, this week, on seeing the new Facebook movie. The Social Network, by writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, has been widely, roundly praised by critics I respect and frequently agree with. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis wrote about the movie as "a creation story for the digital age and something of a morality tale."David Denby, in The New Yorker, described a film that "pushes beyond simplicities," a report on "class, manners, ethics" that is Sorkin's "best work yet"—a film, in short, that's "absolutely emblematic of its time and place." On reading this, I felt sure it was time to take up boules, so out of touch with my own culture did I seem to be. The Social Network I saw was a rote and deeply mediocre film, much weaker than the best work of its writer or director. How could I, who should have been sucked deep into that on-screen universe (Mark Zuckerberg was one of the first people I met in college; we lived a couple of rooms apart as freshmen), feel so impervious to the movie's "emblematic" pull?

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Social Network was made to provide Facebook's half-billion users with a kind of origin myth, and that myth's luckiest feature, from a cinematic point of view, is its roots in the nation's most iconic ivory tower. People go out of their way to set movies at Harvard, because, like Vegas or Cold War Berlin, Harvard signifies. The things that Harvard signifies are the things The Social Network takes as plot points: It is a movie framed to be about—and here I'm quoting some unsubtle dialogue I scribbled down from the fifth row—"a world where social structure was everything." Fair enough. What's troubling, though, especially in a film that strives to capture a new 21st-century order, is the movie's totally regressive concept of that structure.

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Sorkin and Fincher's 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and—well, do what, exactly? Wear madras? There were some kids at Harvard, in my era, with an interest in whatever gaunt remnants of old-style affluence remained, but the impulse was nostalgic and theatrical more than ambitious—people who arrive in the Ivy League these days do not come from black-tie dinners and wood-paneled rooms, nor do they enter such milieus after they leave. The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco. Sorkin and Fincher's failure to discern the underlying culture of the place in the aughts may be why their portrait of today's Cambridge, Mass., strivers felt so tediously stock and two-dimensional to me: I recognized their Harvard, but only from Love Story and The Paper Chase, not my experience. To get the university this wrong in this movie is no small matter. In doing so, The Social Network misunderstands the cultural ambitions, and the nature of Zuckerberg's acumen, that made Facebook possible.

I'm not complaining here about the movie's superficial liberties, of which there are plenty. Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is a withdrawn, wounded recluse who spirals across campus with his head locked down, answering questions in a quick, high-strung rodent voice. The Zuckerberg I knew—not especially well; we occasionally used to have lunch together in the dining hall before losing touch sometime in 2003 or 2004—was outwardly friendly, often smiling, confident, inclined, if anything, to talk at outdoor volume. He was something of a geek, I guess, but at Harvard in 2002, this was not exactly a minority position. His room was on the first floor of our dormitory, where outgoing freshman seemed to be placed, and he had his desk positioned such that if the door was open to the hallway, as it sometimes was, he'd face the other kids coming and going on their way to class.

Still, who cares now? Eisenberg's portrait of an oppressed, psychologically wounded mogul fits this cinematic universe better than the real Zuckerberg would, and, anyway, it's beside the point to fuss over the nitty-gritty of the movie's accuracy: The Social Network is openly built according to the laws of narrative fiction, not documentary. What is not beside the point, given the film's ambitions, is whether these various details converge to nail the real-world-zeitgeist target they hope to. They don't. The movie paints a picture of a cultural world that is as black-and-white as it is outdated.

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