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The Social Network: A Shakespearean Tragedy for the Digital Age

David Fincher is one of my favorite directors, because the dude knows how to thread the needle between grotesquely beautiful and intricately disturbing. His darkly-meticulous work pulls you into the underbelly of human nature with a precision that feels almost surgical.

The Social Network is different from his usual fare, scraping the silicon-coated veins of ambition and betrayal for a film that feels less like a biopic and more like a Shakespearean tragedy for our modern era, with keyboards for swords, legal briefs for monologues, and intriguing secrets hidden in the metadata. 

Aaron Sorkin’s script showcases his gift for dialogue, boasting a rare blend of intellect and emotion through conversations composed like verbal duels, where sentences serve as both a reflection of character and a commentary on the larger narrative.

A stunning trailer from two world-class storytellers would have been enough to catapult The Social Network to the peak of my most anticipated list on any year, but we’d moved to Cincinnati in 2010 and I was the creative director for an online marketing agency. 

My world at the time was uncomfortably adjacent to what Facebook had already become. 

The Social Network’s innovative architecture, complex protagonists, and thought-stimulating motifs make it another great guide for aspiring storytellers looking to refine their technique while gaining some insights about the pivotal transitions still shaping our current world.

Facebook is now Meta, and the company has become bigger and scarier than anything I imagined when leaving the theater that night. The thought of a followup to The Social Network has me fantasizing about a film that could catalyze dialogue around our crossroads, currently poised between the potential of AI and the pitfalls of a post-truth era.

In the meantime, put on your hoodie, crank up the Trent Reznor, and let’s dive into what makes The Social Network a movie worth studying. 

Crafting a Compelling Narrative

The Social Network is a classic rise-and-fall tale, chronicling the tumultuous journey of Facebook’s creation and formative years amid the personal and legal battles that followed, distilling a complex, real-life story into a taut, engaging narrative.

One of the key challenges in adapting a true story is condensing a sprawling series of events into a streamlined dramatic arc. The Social Network focuses on the core conflict between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, using their friendship and eventual fallout as the story’s emotional backbone.

This non-linear film uses deposition scenes as a framing device to jump back and forth in time. This allows the story to build tension while strategically revealing information to keep the audience both guessing and engaged.

But the most important narrative element is the clear character arc created for Zuckerberg, painting the portrait of a brilliant yet flawed protagonist, driven by ambition and a need for acceptance. This arc gives the story direction and purpose, even as it navigates an intricate web of relationships and events.

Developing Complex Characters

Mark is undoubtedly the protagonist, but the movie doesn’t shy away from his less-likable qualities. Brilliant but arrogant, driven but insensitive, the film in no way sugarcoats his flaws.

And yet, the script includes moments of sympathy and vulnerability for the character, so the audience can understand his motivations even as they may disapprove of his actions. This nuanced characterization makes him a more compelling figure. The writing and directing are both top notch, but the part of this trifecta that brings it all together is Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Zuckerberg. 

Eduardo Saverin serves as a sympathetic foil. If Mark represents the allure and pitfalls of unbridled ambition, Eduardo demonstrates the human cost, the loyal friend who is ultimately betrayed. Andrew Garfield brings a heartbreaking earnestness to the role, and his arc provides The Social Network’s emotional core.

Supporting characters are crafted to enhance the overarching narrative. Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker with an oily yet charismatic complexity. Armie “the Cannibal” Hammer’s portrayal of the Winklevoss twins displays the subtle variations of twin dynamics while giving us a glimpse into the world of entitlement and privilege. Rooney Mara offers the audience an emotional touchstone as Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright, to show us the personal costs in his quest for technological dominance and societal approval.

Crafting Memorable Dialogue

Sorkin’s script is a showcase of linguistic agility, its rapid dialogue and interwoven conversations buzzing with cleverness and insight. Every scene is another dance of dialectics, with characters pirouetting through a ballet of arguments and retorts.

That kind of relentless dialogue can feel like an assault and get downright exhausting if it’s simply stylistically impressive. But Sorkin’s dialogue is deeply functional. Every line serves a purpose: revealing character, advancing the plot, or delivering a thematic point. Sarcastic quips and blunt put-downs show Mark’s sharp intellect and lack of social grace. Eduardo’s earnest and emotive language reflects his loyalty and vulnerability.

Deposition scenes are a particular showcase for Sorkin’s gift as verbal confrontations make for both dramatic turning points and vehicles for exposition, weaving backstory and technical details into tense exchanges with virtuosity. Thanks to quick-witted, naturalistic performances from the cast, even the densest passages of technobabble feel electric and engaging.

Creating a Distinctive Tone and Atmosphere

Sorkin’s script provides the verbal fireworks, but Fincher — known for his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to create a sense of unease and tension through framing, lighting, and pacing — gives The Social Network its distinctive visual style and tone.

The movie’s muted color palette and shadowy cinematography create a sense of moral ambiguity to represent all those murky ethics. Claustrophobic framing and frequent use of close-ups create a feeling of intensity and confrontation to heighten the interpersonal drama.

Fincher also does an impressive job of evoking a specific time and place, capturing Facebook’s early days and the larger cultural context of the 2000s tech boom. Production design, costuming, and music choices all harmonize to make for a fully-realized world that feels specific yet universal.

Let’s distill The Social Network’s lessons: 

1. Powerful adaptations are human. Always work to unearth the human story within the facts. The Social Network isn’t a documentary; it is a creative interpretation unearthing the dramatic core of complex events.

2. Character is king. The most engaging stories are those with complicated, multi-dimensional characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. The characters are flawed, contradictory, and utterly human. That’s what makes them so compelling.

3. Great dialogue is more than words. It reveals character, advances plot, and delivers thematic insights, all while being entertaining and memorable. Every line serves multiple purposes.

4. Tone and atmosphere are storytelling tools. The way a narrative unfolds is as important as what’s being said. Visuals, sound, and pacing all contribute to the overall impact and meaning.

5. Timeless themes resonate. The Social Network is a product of its time that deals with universal human concerns: ambition, betrayal, friendship, and the costs of success. By tapping into these timeless themes, the film’s relevance extends beyond its specific subject matter.

The Social Network’s legacy lies in its gripping portrayal of a defining moment in tech history and universality of themes for a movie that masterfully illuminates the human condition in any era.