I loved the Social Network. It worked on so many levels, from characters, to story, to magically capturing the zeitgeist of a particular time and age. I recently watched Wall Street II and the Social Network on subsequent weekends. I’d had high hopes for the Wall Street sequel since the original, or at least parts of the it, had done such an excellent job of capturing the morality of certain time and place. Sadly it was an abject failure of a movie. I was terribly disappointed, at least until the postman brought my copy of the Social Network which I found to be an enormously satisfying spiritual successor.
In the Social Network I saw in Zuckerberg as a new generation’s Gordon Gekko, one even more terrifying than the original. In Wall Street Gordon Gekko was clearly supposed to be the villain of the piece. But there was something in Gekko that made him this weird kind of anti-hero, perhaps because he embodied so much of what was and is still counted as success in America. He so embodied so much of who we are as Americans, it was hard to see him as the bad guy. We could see him as a bad guy, but secretly or not so secretly, we would love to be him.
The character of Mark Zuckerberg in the Social Network shows what’s changed and what hasn’t in the 20 plus years since Wall Street. Gekko was easier to attempt to demonize because he seemed so motivated by money. It’s harder with Zuckerberg; his motivation seems more to be the success of his idea. It’s much harder to demonize someone who’s had a really great idea and really wants to see it succeed. There is so much of ourselves in our ideas, whether we have written a novel or just come up with a suggestion for the office. A trait shared by both Gekko and Zuckerberg are their willingness to sacrifice human relationships, most particularly friendship and the loyalty that goes with it for the sake of success. But there is something about their drive and commitment to success that pushes me to excuse this aspect of their character. It reminds me of the argument that an athlete’s character off the field doesn’t matter at all, that what matters and has meaning is only their on field performance.
Watching these types of films used to be simpler, the bad guys were the one’s that wore the black hats, betrayed the guy in the white hat, robbed the train, were pursued, and the got their comeuppance in just enough time for the hero to kiss the girl and ride off into the sunset. Then movies came along where you could root for the bad guy because you knew at the end that justice would be served. You could cross your fingers that the robbery would go as planned partly because you knew in the end, someone would pay the price, the moral scales would balance.
However, in the Social Network it’s ambiguous if justice is served. Certainly it illustrates a world where it’s acceptable that success has further diminished the importance of personal relationships, loyalty, and even ethics. The Winklevosses look like complete idiots when they try to complain about Zuckerberg’s ethical behavior. The Dean almost laughs at the Winklevosses and tells them that the ethical code of conduct only applies to students’ behavior towards the school; it doesn’t apply to each other. It’s reminiscent of Gordon explaining to a wide-eyed Bud Fox that he’s in a dog eat dog take, no prisoners world.
The Social Network avoids making any heavy handed judgments. The image of Zuckerberg sitting in the conference room after most of the lawyers have left working on his laptop is one of the most ambiguous movie endings I have seen in a while. Is Zuckerberg damned and alone after all he has done? Or is it the ultimate validation of his success that one of his assisting attorneys, his peer in age and background, tells him he’s seems like an okay guy, and friends him on Facebook? It’s a victory, but I am deeply conflicted about what kind. To me it seems there is potentially something very hollow about it, although it’s not clear if Zuckerberg or society will ever see it that way. Standing alone in the end a field of victory, friends and foes defeated, is Zuckerberg in heaven or hell? One wonders if he will feel the same in twenty years. Has our society really come to the point where putting success over friendship is a socially acceptable decision?
I hope the answer is no, but as Gekko advised Bud Fox in 1985, in this business “if you need a friend, get a dog”.
My friend Kris posted some great comments here about an aspect of the Social Network that I have not mentioned. A good part of the movie is about the idea of Facebook, where it came from, who had it, and most importantly, who did something about it. I think that it's easier than we would like to admit to come up with a great idea, but actually doing something with it? Let's just say that for all of his flaws Zuckerburg does possess one of the qualities of the classic hero. He does something. But Kris says this all pretty well.