The Social Network
A few months ago Quentin Tarantino labeled The Social Network as the best movie of the 2010's "hands down." While I don't agree with him, The Social Network is certainly one of the essential movies of the 20th century. Besides dealing with the origins one of the most important socio-technological developments of the 21st century, it also features a screenplay by dialogue-master Aaron Sorkin. Despite the stereotype of extremely long dialogue scenes associated with Sorkin, The Social Network is actually a much more fragmentary, cross-cut movie. Using the present-tense story of Mark Zuckerberg's deposition for two related lawsuits allows the movie to jump freely among and across characters and scenes from the past. The result is a more freewheeling movie than one might expect (though still told in linear order). Sorkin uses a similar present/past storytelling device in his 2017 movie Molly's Game, though it relies much more on voice-over and does not jump around between characters since the flashbacks stay aligned almost exclusively with Molly.
Despite this complexity, the deeper structure of the movie is relatively simple, with three acts built around Mark's (Jesse Eisenberg) external goal of making Facebook into a successful company. As you might expect from a Sorkin dialogue-driven movie, however, the act structure is not especially integral to following the movie. The first two acts are built on pretty straightforward goals and climaxes: creating and growing Facebook. The final act is built around hitting one million users and forcing Eduardo out of the company.
One aspect of the movie that is a little more complex, however, is the use of character alignment within the movie. Mark Zuckerberg is the clear protagonist of the movie. But as you might imagine, he is not an especially likable protagonist. Of course, protagonists don't have to be likable--just compelling, and Mark is certainly that. But Sorkin and Fincher also cleverly align us in key spots with Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), Mark's friend and business partner. Eduardo is the primary victim of Mark's desire to be in control and succeed (especially compared to the Winklevoss twins). By aligning us with Eduardo, Sorkin and Fincher allow us to understand on an emotional level the damage that Mark's attitude about business versus relationships causes to those around him. Of course, we also see this through his relationship with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), but she only features in a handful of scenes, mostly in the first half of the movie (though her presence is powerful throughout the movie, and especially at the end).
As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, Based on the book by Ben Mezrich
Release Date: 2010
Runtime: 120 minutes
Movie Level Goals
Protagonist: Mark Zuckerberg
External Goal: Create a highly successful company
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Internal Goal: To impress the right people (Erika and the Final Clubs)
SUCCESS | FAILURE
The Social Network's external and internal relationships make it highly unusual for a Hollywood movie. This is due to two qualities, both of which are uncommon and when paired together make the movie a rarity.
First, The Social Network is based on an "false dependent" goal relationship structure. Most movies have dependent goals: the external depends on the internal for success or vice versa. Goals are almost never independent--if they were, they'd have no reason to be in the same movie. When goals are independent, as in The Social Network, the movie positions them as dependent, only to reveal at the end that they aren't actually linked. This allows the movie to have the structure of related, dependent goals while also generally making a point about our, or the protagonist's assumptions. In this case, Mark believes that his external goal of creating a highly successful business will lead to success in his internal goal of approval from those people who in his view have rejected him, namely Erica and the Final Clubs. But, of course, what he and we learn is that creating a highly successful business does not lead to approval or acceptance from those who have rejected him (nor to acceptance and love more generally). This general structure of "false dependent" goals is shared by movies like Deadpool and In Good Company.
In Deadpool, Wade believes that capturing/defeating Ajax will allow his disfigured face to be healed (external) which in turn will lead to Vanessa accepting him back (internal).
Deadpool : There are no words. Me and you are headed to fix this butterface.
Ajax : What? You stupid fucking idiot. Did you really think there was a cure… for that?
Deadpool : What?
Ajax : You heard me.
Deadpool : No. No! So, you mean to say… after all this, you can't fix me?
Ajax : It sounds even stupider when you say it.
Of course, Wade discovers that Ajax can't fix his disfigured face, but Wade can at least get revenge on Ajax by killing him. This creates a mixed external result. But Vanessa accepts him despite his disfigurement, and so like The Social Network, we have a "false dependent" ending.
The second quality which makes The Social Network unique is which of the two goals fails. In Deadpool, the external fails (or is mixed), but Wade still has success with the internal goal of love from Vanessa. His assumption that the internal depended on the external was proven false. In the case of "false dependent" goals this direction of external-->internal being false is the norm. The character fails at the external, but still achieves the internal. Because the internal goal is more meaningful, the movie still ends on a positive note.
In Good Company works in a similar fashion. The protagonist Carter (Topher Grace) believes that being a kick-ass boss in his new job (external) will lead to general happiness in his life (internal). When Carter is fired from his job, he discovers that shallow work success does not lead to happiness, and his general "lesson" is similar to the one learned by Wade in Deadpool.
What makes The Social Network especially unusual is that Mark succeeds at his external goal of creating a highly successful business. And yet, his belief that this will lead to approval from Erika and others whose opinion matters to him is mistaken. In Deadpool and In Good Company the external fails but the characters get the internal anyway, proving that the two goals were not actually related. In The Social Network, Mark succeeds at the external, but still can't get the internal. This creates a much more bitter ending as Mark attains the more "shallow" goal but fails at the more meaningful goal. Though this is tempered somewhat by Mark's hopeful refreshing of the screen to see if Erika accepted his friend request, I don't think too many viewers share his hope. However, despite this more negative-oriented ending, Mark seems to have learned the lesson: love and friendship are more important than success.
I've broken The Social Network into three acts: