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So here’s a question. How many billionaires can you name? Three? Four? Bill Gates. He’s on top. Warren Buffett? Stopping shouting Bruce Wayne. How about Mark Zuckerberg? Sure, you read the title so you already know that’s where I’m headed. He’s the youngest yet to be so, a guy most everyone knows, earning his fame through a meteoric rise to international celebrity for his role in the creation and evolution of Facebook, a social media site that in a short time devoured all others and continues to be the number one source for sharing personal and media content in the world with nearly 2 billion active monthly users at the time of the writing. You can’t touch that.
So yes, you know all that, but it’s important to keep it in mind simply because what he has done is so extraordinarily rare, it’s almost impossible to keep it in perspective, the numbers and stats and machinations in play beyond the scope of what most of us typically contend with. Not that we aren’t, each and every one of us, unique to the world, ’cause we are, but just being Mark Zuckerberg is a phenomenon all its own. And this is the central message to The Social Network, a film directed by David Fincher of all people, who to this point had made some of the more mind-bending and twisted thrillers in modern cinema, including The Game, Se7en, The Panic Room, and Zodiac, to name a few. To make a biography seemed a bit off track, and yet, as the movie–and more importantly the very story of the subject reveal–perhaps he was the perfect choice.
The film follows Zuckerberg’s university years at Harvard and of course the inspirations of his world-changing idea and beyond, evolving into his many personality and legal battles with those it effects, leaving Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) a distant figure we appreciate for his achievements but difficult to identify with … except for two great moments, one a simple but powerful ending shot that sees the newly-established victor of a mighty new empire about to rule a coming decade of unparalleled success and the other, the opening. Remember that? We’ll let’s discuss.
While studio logos are still flashing on screen, we hear the first bars of The White Stripes Ball and Biscuit a song that has as much to do with what is about to happen than any dialogue soon to be spoken. But, let’s get to that in a minute. We hear a male voice over the song recount a questionable statistic about the number of genius minds in China related to the population of the United States, inspiring a female voice to retort it can’t possibly true, and before we even see the players in this scene, we already feel something incendiary. What is this going to be, My Diner With Andre with angsty twenty-somethings? Turns out. Not at all.
The couple are Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), sitting at a small table in a crowded pub with a couple of beers between them. There is chatter around them as the place bustles, but the focus is on he and she as Zuckerberg zips past his own comment, slipping in his perfect 1600 SAT score and then to which ‘Final Club’ he wants to try and join, a final club being unofficially recognized Harvard social clubs notoriously difficult to get into. Erica keeps up as best she can, and the two seem momentarily like they are content together if not challenged by each other’s views. All is mostly well.
But there is a shift as the conversation presses on with indefatigable energy. Tension replaces interest as Zuckerberg seems taken aback by Erica’s attitude toward the clubs and which to choose, her joking remark about boys who row in crew a barb he takes personally. She retorts that his speaking style is so disjointed–often saying two things at once–it’s hard to know where he’s going. The conversation continues but a seed has been planted, and it takes roots when she asks him which club is the ‘easiest’ to get into. Whoops. What is that supposed to imply?
The perceived affront crawls under his skin, so he attacks back in his own blunt way, to which she further complicates by telling him he is obsessed with ‘Finals Clubs’ and needing medication, all bits of humor she hasn’t understood yet are tripping wires inside her date. After correcting her use of Final rather than Finals, he explains that he believes his membership into a club will lead to a better life and therefore needs to do something substantial to catch their attention so that then–and this is the kicker–when he gets in, he will be taking her to events that will feature people she wouldn’t normally get to meet. You can guess how that plays. It is right at this exact moment where their relationship ends, though Zuckerberg doesn’t know it yet.
Insulted to a degree she can barely contain, she drops the bomb, asking him what it means that she couldn’t meet these people on her own, which begins a desperate tirade from him to try and collect her back, though his choice of words again only dig the hole deeper, ending with a shot at the very school she is enrolled in, it not being Harvard. There is flak ricocheting about the room now and it’s all headed his way. She has one more the barrel though.
She leans in and tells him that one day he is probably going to be a “very successful computer person” warning him that he will think, all his life, girls won’t like him because he is a nerd, but that won’t be true. It will be because he is an assh*le. The proverbial mic drops and she splits. The date is done and the movie starts.
‘Ball and Biscuit’ is the eighth track on the album Elephant, released in 2002 and is about a narcissist attempting to earn the favor of a girl. The lyrics feature the man in the relationship speaking to the woman, telling her that he is the seventh son and that while right now she could care less about him, soon enough she will, when he is done. Of course, the ‘ball’ and the ‘biscuit’ refer to drug abuse, but the symbolism is already there, and the song, with its distorted guitar chords and swing from soft to heavy make for a near perfect backdrop for the steadily crumbling conversation, the ball and biscuit being his addiction to himself.
The larger significance of the scene is how it so immediately establishes the main character and everything we need to know about him in such a short time, from his extreme intelligence to his torqued talking style to his ambivalence toward subtlety and nuance. He impacts like a sledgehammer with nearly every word out of his mouth and more so, he seems unclear how these chains of dialogue can harm. What’s interesting though is his backtracking and belief that apologies somewhat warrant him excuse, which perhaps has worked before yet with Erica, does not. She recognizes a streak in him that she knows is unfixable, comparing him to a StairMaster in how exhausting it is to keep up, most of the time trying to figure out if what he’s saying is not tainted with veiled mockery.
Erica is the thread that binds the entirety of the film together, even if it’s not made so clear throughout, though will be in the closing sequence when her words against him are reworked by another woman and redefined. It’s a moment that inspires him to make a gesture that tests much about what we’ve come to know about him but at the same all along suspect. Either way, the opening volley is a remarkably-powerful five minutes that, in the hands of Fincher, is a lot closer to his work in thrillers than it first appears.
Instead of driven by an action sequence to set the stage, we get a conversation, but one that is so wrought with intrigue and character development, it is just as suspenseful. We want to know what happens. A villain is introduced, one we think going in is meant to be the hero, and yet Fincher strips away any conceit about what that means. With a script by Aaron Sorkin, he and Fincher create a moment that is visceral, with two strong figures in slow opposition, engaged in a verbal battle that hurts one but figuratively mortally wounds the other. This immediately puts us in a state of unease, just like the how chords of music from The Black Stripes dissipate into the equally unnerving sounds of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross‘s ‘Hand Covers Bruise’, a chilling tune that follows an escaping Zuckerberg running through a darkened campus back to his dorm, a plot forming thick with revenge that will lead him to a world of incredible wealth and many enemies. It all starts with a girl and pub and moment of truth. A fantastic opening shot better than you remember.