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Anatomy of a Scene #2: The Social Network

June 11, 2012

When The Social Network was first announced as a movie, there were generally three complaints lodged at it that I know of:

(1) Who wants to see a movie about the creation of Facebook?

(2) Why is Aaron Sorkin writing this? He hates the Internet.

(3) David Fincher is a sellout for directing this.

Until I read the script (before the movie came out), I could understand the first two sentiments. As to the first, a Facebook movie could easily just be cashing in on a new phenomena, and more often than not, those movies don’t work. Plus, it could easily be no more than a filmed play, and those types of movies don’t always (if you’ll pardon the expression) play well. As for Sorkin, to say he “hates” the Internet is admittedly somewhat reductive, but he has a long and complicated relationship with online fans and critics (summarized – though in a somewhat harsher tone than I would have done it – here: http://bitchkittie.blogspot.com/2006/02/long-back-story-of-aaron-sorkin-west.html). After reading the script, however, I found it smart and funny, and more importantly, was less about the minutiae or faddish aspects of Facebook, and more about the general creation of a business, how success has many authors, and the friendship and betrayal that’s involved. Also, while Sorkin admittedly had a couple of digs at Internet users (like the line “The Internet isn’t written in pencil. It’s written in ink”), he mostly concentrates on his strengths, such as funny and sharp dialogue, smart characters, and the ability to create drama (and comedy) out of what happens behind the scenes. A good director, or even an average director, would definitely be able to make something good out of this script.

Which leads me to the third complaint. Fincher to that point was best known for his violent and intense drams and thrillers such as SevenFight Club, and Zodiac. But in 2008, he directed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while it made back its money worldwide, garnered many good reviews, and received 13 Oscar nominations (winning three, all technical), it was also slammed in some quarters for being nothing more than another variation on Forrest Gump (writer Eric Roth worked on both movies), and for being “Oscar-bait” (a categorization I despise, but never mind). I also found it compared uneasily to Forrest Gump (a movie I wasn’t a fan of), and while it was undeniably a technical achievement, the movie left me feeling cold. But it seemed to me, upon reading the script of The Social Network, Fincher was making sort of a companion piece to his most controversial film to date, Fight Club. Both films are, in a sense, about alpha male outcasts, how they find an outlet to channel their aggression, and how it becomes a sensation of a kind while also coming at a great cost. Of course, Fight Club is entirely fictional, while The Social Network is based on a true story, but the reading still holds, I think; it’s just the violence of The Social Network is through the words of the characters rather than their fists (as a side note: while some of the “Oscar bait” comments come from people who think all Oscar-bait movies are sentimentality gone wild – another characterization I disagree with to some extent (though not entirely without merit), but again, that’s a whole other discussion – many of them also come from the feeling the only way to tell a story is through viscera and violence, which to me is absolute bullshit). And there’s one scene in The Social Network, I think, that sums up that aspect better than any other, and it’s my favorite scene in the movie, though not just for that reason.

Armie Hammer as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss

The movie, of course, based on the book Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, is about the controversy surrounding the creation of Facebook, and the suits filed against Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) by Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), his then-best friend and chief financial officer, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played, thanks to digital effects, by Armie Hammer, with Josh Pence as a body double), twin rowing champions who, along with their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), claimed Zuckerberg had ripped off their idea to create Facebook while they were at Harvard. Part of the movie involves Tyler and Divya trying to convince Cameron to take legal action against Zuckerberg. Cameron is convinced it will make them look bad (or, as he puts it, “(It’ll look) Like my brother and I are dressed in skeleton costumes chasing The Karate Kid around a high school gym”). However, when Tyler brings up the possibility Zuckerberg may have violated Harvard policy when he stole their idea, Cameron is convinced, and the two of them make an appointment to see school president Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski).

Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski)

When Divya is skeptical about them getting the meeting, Cameron points out, “My brother and I pay tuition at this school, we carry a 3.9 GPA at this school, we’ve won trophies for this school, and we’ll be rowing in the Olympics for this school. I want a damn meeting.” However, Sorkin clues us in at the beginning of the meeting how things are actually going to go. As the Winklevi (as Zuckerberg calls the twins) come into Summers’ office, he’s speaking on the phone, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, but then he tells the other person on the line he has students in his office, and describes them by saying, “From the looks of it, they want to sell me a Brooks Brothers franchise.” Then, when the twins introduce themselves and summarize their complaint, Summers curtly asks what they expect him to do about it.  Cameron then summarizes the section of the Harvard student handbook which he thinks explains how Zuckerberg violated Harvard policy by stealing their idea. Summers’ reaction is priceless:

Summers: (turning to his secretary, who’s on his right) Anne?

Anne: Yes, sir?

Summers: Punch me in the face. (turning back to the twins) Go ahead.

(This is reminiscent, by the way, of an episode of Sports Night where a character talks about his personal life, and his boss responds, “Oh my God; were you talking to me all that time?”, and when the character offers to start the story over, asks him “First, could you just hit me over the head with that blunt instrument over there?” But I digress)

From there, as you might imagine, things go downhill for the Winklevoss twins. Summers acts incredulous at the lengths the twins have gone to pursue their case (he’s especially disdainful when Cameron blurts out how he chased Zuckerberg through Harvard Square), and of the idea that what Zuckerberg did was a violation at all of university policy (“You enter a code of ethics with the university, not with each other.” When Tyler says he doesn’t know what that means, Summers deadpans, “I’m devastated by that”). He dismisses the idea of how much their idea could be worth (when Tyler says he’s in no position to make that call, Summers retorts, “I was the U.S. Treasury Secretary. I’m in *some* position to make that call”). Finally, he tells them Harvard students – to be more specific, the rich ones – expect special treatment  when all they’re doing is trying to invent a job to avoid finding one, and suggest they try to find a new project. Needless to say, Tyler in particular doesn’t take this well (when Summers asks if there’s anything else, Tyler starts to say, “Well, you could take the Harvard student handbook and shove it…” before Cameron shushes him), but he and Cameron have no choice but to leave.

Obviously, much of the credit for why this scene works so well goes to Urbanski. He isn’t an actor per se (though he did appear in The Contender), being best known as a Gary Oldman’s agent (and serving as a producer on some of Oldman’s films, such as the above film and the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and as a well-known figure in Republican circles. He’s also a friend of Fincher’s and Sorkin’s (even though he and the latter obviously disagree on a lot), and in the commentary, Fincher mentions while there were a few fairly well-known actors who were circling the role (among them Alfred Molina), he kept coming back to Urbanski as someone who could play the role, and he was right. Urbanski almost never raises his voice, but still effortlessly conveys both authority and disdain, not from any specific resentment, but of a weariness of having been at this job too long and seen too much. And Hammer shouldn’t be overlooked either; since both characters are in suits here, there’s not much to distinguish them visually (except their ties and a slight difference in hairstyles), but Hammer does convey Cameron’s idealism and Tyler’s outrage to differentiate them. But mostly, the scene works because of Sorkin and Fincher.

Obviously, the major selling point of the scene is its razor-sharp dialogue, which I’ve quoted extensively. In Mezrich’s book, this scene is rendered in a boilerplate fashion; the information is given, and that’s it. Sorkin’s dialogue not only adds zing to the enterprise, but also gives the impression of smart characters duelling it out, which gives the scene a heightened quality. But Sorkin, who is often accused of basically hectoring his audience (to be fair, that’s sometimes justified) or with seeing things in black and white, makes this scene pretty ambiguous. On the one hand, even if you don’t think the Winklevi were asking for special treatment (they do act earlier like they’re doing a favor for Zuckerberg by asking him to help them, but they also seem like nice guys), you could easily say of their complaint, “So what?” Is what Zuckerberg did really a big deal, and was it wrong? (this is the view my friend Owen takes). On the other hand, Summers is representative here of all those people who don’t see the significance of an invention, or new idea, and have been passed by because of it. Add on what we’ve seen of Zuckerberg’s jerk-like tendencies – or, at least what some people think are his jerk-like tendencies – and that’s another layer.

Fincher’s direction adds another layer as well. Sorkin’s screenplay ran 168 pages, and while Fincher had him trim or re-write a few lines here and there, he basically filmed all of it, and yet the film clocks in at exactly two hours. Part of that is how Fincher had the actors deliver the dialogue in rapid-fire fashion, which makes the film light on its feet, and avoids the trap of getting ponderous, especially in this scene. He and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (who also shot Fight Club and Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) shot the film digitally, and most of the Harvard scenes were shot with very little light, partly to cover for the fact most of those scenes weren’t shot at Harvard, but at Johns Hopkins, and partly because the university itself is old, and the dark look helped to give those scenes a sense of weight. The scene in Summers’ office is a little brighter than the others, but is also darker than you’d expect, to perhaps give credence to the idea Summers and his ilk are behind the times. More importantly, while they never lose clarity, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (who both worked on Benjamin Button and Zodiac) make the pace of the edits keep up with Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue. Again, this keeps the scene, as serious as it is, from getting bogged down, and also allows the humor to come forward. While there are still people who think Facebook is a fad (and, thanks to the downward spiral of its stock price, there are those who think its a fad whose time has come), and Sorkin may always cast a jaded eye towards the Internet (and that, among other things, will be a sticking point for some), it seems people in some quarters are finally realizing Fincher’s choosing to direct The Social Network isn’t as out of character as they initially made it out to be, and I for one am happier for it.

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