The Medium Is the Message in David Fincher’s Present-Tense Social Network


Is the world moving so fast that we’re actually memorializing, in movie form, the year 2003? The events of The Social Network, the opening-night film of this year’s New York Film Festival (which we’ll review in next week’s issue), begin during the fall of that year and bring us up to the present day. Recounting the rocky rise to world domination of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network is so of-the-moment that the White Stripes counts as a period signifier.

Fetishizing scraps of facts as if a greater truth can be found in the minute, rather than the metaphor, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin approach the zeitgeist as a beast that’s left fresh tracks: to talk about “the way we live now,” they retrace, step by step, just how we arrived here. With actual journalism in transition—some would say in peril—dramatic films like The Social Network are in a sense filling a void left by the demolition of investigative news, taking a journalistic approach to fictionalized entertainment, constructing stories that lay out evidence, reveal sources, and respect chronology. It’s moviemaking as a magazine cover story. Like in the 1970s, another time of financial crisis and protracted military engagement, it seems things have gotten so tangled that many filmmakers can’t wait to start the untying. (See: The Queen, The Battle for Haditha, even The Hurt Locker.)

The gold standard for factually constructed, present tense filmmaking is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Thirty-four years after its release, the film has lost none of its experiential punch. Made in 1976, less than two years after President Nixon’s resignation, it captured America in a different maelstrom of the present, though also dazed and confused as to how it all turned out so badly. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman, much like Fincher, broke up a puzzling reality and put it together one piece at a time. They looked closely, embraced the banality of the workplace as a baseline, and depicted the reporting process in what seems like real-time rather than reductive montage. Woodward and Bernstein spend as much time on the phone or pecking at a typewriter as they do sneaking out for shadowy meetings with Deep Throat. Despite the fact that its revelations are no longer a national secret, All the President’s Men still works in the moment even as it’s so clearly of a moment.

(This is not often the case. As with magazine features, most movies that trade in hot-button current events have a short shelf-life. Take Oliver Stone’s recent W. While ripped from the headlines and providing a quick-draw portrait of a sitting president, W. lacked a certain journalistic vigilance—having more in common with Stone’s historical fictions J.F.K. and Nixon, films not as interested in facts as they are in psychological conjecture.)

The contemporary films that The Social Network most closely recalls are Shattered Glass (2003)—the true story of another inscrutable, morally mercurial twentysomething upstart—and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999). Mann’s film is a pre-millennial paranoid thriller about big tobacco, corporate malfeasance, legal maneuvering, and the degraded standards of a revered news show (60 Minutes). The Insider has a gossipy, mildly salacious, behind-the-scenes quality similar to Fincher’s film, with plot points that nevertheless arise from unsexy court injunctions, editorial redactions, and cell phone conversations. As a relevant piece of factual fiction, Mann’s film rang the alarm for its late-’90s era, warning of rampant corporate power that could, and did, ensnare employees, consumers, government officials, the judiciary, and the press, a sorry state that led millions of Americans to vote for Ralph Nader in the next year’s presidential election.

More than a decade later, The Social Network shows that it’s no longer corporate entitlement that keeps us up at night (though it still should), but rather a public-sphere busting Internet. So how does one make a drama of and about the information age—an age of physical inactivity and visual inertia—move? How can you get an exciting scene out of e-mail? The truth is that it’s not really a stretch. Film is, essentially, the advance of information at a speed faster than we can process, flipping forward by frames and edited together by design. Fincher uses the rapidity of film recording to articulate the speed of media. He shoots a telephone exchange as a standard shot/reverse shot, cutting between two characters to mirror and contrast, hastening cuts as the exchange becomes clipped, creating suspense through rhythm and by simply, materially riding the waves of conversation.

Not just chronicling the times but emulating them, Fincher barely ever lets Zuckerberg be alone. Though The Social Network takes an angle on the boy billionaire, it’s not really a character study or reflective biography—it provides no back-story or psychological skeletons upon which to flesh out a narrative. This is, both out of choice and necessity, an of-the-moment impression, without the traditional biopic over-reach. If anything, Zuckerberg is a composite hastily and self-servingly sketched, a model and martyr for the true present, a man without privacy and yet unknowable.
Without the luxury/constraints of hindsight or historical context, Fincher and Sorkin’s story builds power through distance, through a strictly objective eye, as if the film were capturing rather than making a reality. (Of course, it’s doing the latter: Just as our collective memory of Watergate includes Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, so will we look back on Generation Facebook with a vision of Jesse Eisenberg in a hoodie and shower shoes.) Like All the President’s Men, The Social Network doesn’t will meaning onto the material, but allows meaning to arise from accumulated circumstance. In other words, The Social Network succeeds, per journalism’s most basic directive, in showing not telling. And like great journalism, a great film can capture the reality of the present—and even make art out of it.