The Antisocial Network

05-Oct-10 1:58 PM by
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Facebook now has a membership of nearly twice that of the United States. Although often decried as a time sink, there are those with more grievous complaints against the service and its supposed founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book Accidental Billionaires, is a witty and fast-paced look at the intellectual property theft and financial cunning that left multiple parties with claims to Zuckerberg's empire.

As with Mezrich's other book about a Cambridge, Massachusetts, college, Bringing Down the House (which became the 2008 film 21), the movie's gist is accurate, while the details have been fictionalized and dramatized to make for a better story. The Social Network is set during two different 2008 court cases, flashing back to 2003 and the following years that saw the inception of Facebook. In one of the present-day settings, Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg is confronted by the Winklevoss twins, two Harvard students who contracted Zuckerberg to build their own social network, Harvard Connection, which magically morphed into Zuckerberg's own Facebook; in the other, he sits opposite Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the next Spider-Man), a classmate who was Facebook's CFO for its first year before being diluted out of the company.

Most of the film is not about technology, but people and personalities. With a script by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the film's dialogue moves quickly — an impressive feat, since Zuckerberg, founder of the premiere online social networking site, ironically has no social skills himself, alternating between clever zingers and non sequiturs. The film opens with banter between him and his then-girlfriend in which each barely has time to breathe as they engage in verbal ripostes and repartees; "dating you is like dating Stairmaster," she says. After making several miscalculations that culminate in a breakup, Zuckerberg realizes that as a computer nerd, he'll never pick up chicks at Harvard. He then turns to the only alternative medium he understands: online.

Zuckerberg is portrayed as neither villainous nor sympathetic but merely emotionless, being better able to network with computers than with people. His cold logic works for him as much as it does against him. At times, Zuckerberg is portrayed akin to Anakin Skywalker, a powerful potentate who doesn't know who his friends are as others struggle to control him; at other times, he's closer to Emperor Palpatine, whose Machiavellian machinations manipulate the situation more subtly than even his puppets realize. He is hated as much as he is pitied, as when Saverin, sitting across from the Zuckerberg and his lawyers, looks at Facebook's founder, aggrieved. "I was your only friend," he laments. In many ways, the movie is more about Saverin and the other satellites that revolve around the Facebook maelstrom, including Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), co-founder of the company Napster (not to be confused with Shawn Fanning, the developer of the program Napster), who is made out to be a superficial, avaricious rockstar entrepreneur.

Whether Zuckerberg is actually the bad guy that The Social Network makes him out to be is questionable; even Sorkin has said that he was more interested in storytelling than truth. But it's neither surprising nor unbelievable that the sort of backstabbing this film depicts could've happened; friends and classmates may not think conducting business would require anything more than a handshake, making future misdealings possible and likely to be taken personally.

The technical details of the film are few and far in between. Early in the film, Zuckerberg hacks into the Web sites of Harvard's social clubs, known as "final clubs." It's likely that a social club would have neither needed nor implemented security for their online rosters, so it's no stretch of the imagination to watch Zuckerberg write perl scripts in the emacs editor to break into Apache servers and exploit PHP security holes with the wget command. The details are accurate but token.

The consequences of his actions are more dramatic than realistic, though. In Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg uses the results of his hacking to create the Web site Facemash.com, which proves so popular as to freeze his hosting computer; in the film, Facemash's traffic shuts down the entire Harvard network, resulting in a disciplinary hearing and an academic probation.

I suspect that example is representative of much of the film's interpretation of reality. The general story is correct — Zuckerberg started Facebook while at Harvard, resulting in two legal battles over its questionable origin — but the details are mostly fabricated to make a better movie. Who knows what dealings Zuckerberg had with women, or what truly drove him to create this empire? Only he knows — and he isn't talking. In its stead, we have a film where even simple hacking is made dramatic courtesy Sorkin's script and Trent Reznor's soundtrack. Seeing this film will likely take less time than attending to your FarmVille vegetables and might make you a less enthusiastic fly in Zuckerberg's web.

Right on the Button

06-Jan-09 5:17 PM by
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I recently saw an interesting film. It's about a boy and girl who meet in their youth, then go their separate ways: one to war, the other to pursue a career in the arts. Their lives continue to intertwine, but when her life takes a turn for the worse and he wants to be her hero, she pushes him away. Finally, she comes back to him, and they are together until his condition — which all his life has made him different and kept him apart from society — ultimately drives them apart.

Sound familiar? It should — it's Forrest Gump. But the movie I saw was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who is born old and gets younger. The main difference between the two is that, while Forrest Gump was funny with a touch of sad, Benjamin Button is sad with a bit of funny.

Before we begin our story, we're told a brief tale of a blind clockmaker. It's pleasant enough but does not tie directly into the life of Benjamin Button, delaying our introduction to that character. Once we get there, it's a fascinating tale. Reaction to Benjamin's condition is muted, and for awhile, it's amusing to see the reactions of disbelief he encounters living in a 1920s New Orleans retirement home. Eventually, Benjamin's mental age is old enough, and his body young enough, for him to strike out on his own with great enthusiasm. But he soon finds the coldness and loneliness of the real world unbearable, sending him back to Louisiana — but you can never truly go home again.

I can't remember the last time I saw a Brad Pitt film. Benjamin Button reminded me how unfortunate it can be when actors make the news for all the wrong reasons. We sometimes become so fascinated by the personal lives of the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, and Tom Cruise that their perceived character flaws overshadow their genuine talent.

What's more remarkable is how little Brad Pitt is actually in this film. I am told that much of the first 40 minutes features not the actor himself, but a computer-generated double. I don't know if this is true, or if technology like image metrics was in fact used in place of makeup on several body doubles, but whatever the technique, it's astounding how few artifacts were present to alert the audience to this substitution.

The film has a colorful supporting cast of characters who come and go. One mainstay is Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones 4; Lord of the Rings) as love interest Daisy. I did not see in Ms. Blanchett's biography that she trained as a dancer, but she certainly carries herself as one in this film. Those performances and her striking features make for a memorable role.

The movie makes some notable departures from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story. Since the original was written in 1912, it obviously had a different setting, with Button fighting in the Civil War, not World War II. But of greater significance is Button's condition and the reactions of his loved ones. In the book, he is born more literally with an old man's body — all five feet of it — and, more important, an old man's mind as well. When Mr. Button first meets his strange son, the newborn asks him for a robe and a cigar. The boy is sent to school, but his mind is far too advanced to be as easily amused as a child would be. His advancing youth embarrasses those around him, who in contrast are getting older and weaker, and they demand he cease such rude behavior (as if his aging was entirely within his control). As he gets younger, he finds himself disrespected by his own son and unable to return to the military service in which he'd earned rank. These differences in setting and encounters underscore a more basic difference: in the book, the conflicts caused by Benjamin's age are often external, and the film moves that struggle to be internal, as Benjamin is rarely physically handicapped by or socially ostracized for his condition.

Both the book and the film can be off-putting at times, but the movie at least tosses the audience the occasional joke (often provided by the aging residents of Benjamin's home) to offset the almost continual stream of funerals. The closing montage is especially poetic, tying all the strings of Benjamin's sad life into a tapestry as rich as Siddhartha's:

"I figured out one thing. If you're growing older or getting younger, it really doesn't make any difference. Whichever way you're going, you have to make the most of what this is. Along the way, you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music; some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons; some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers… and some people can dance…"