I poked Aaron Sorkin. It happened the day before we first met, and it seemed an appropriate initial interaction with the man who wrote The Social Network, the movie that’s about to become the unofficial origin fable of perhaps the defining cultural phenomenon of this still-new century—the first dramatic exploration of exactly how a brave new virtual world was created. Poking, as the more than 500 million users of Facebook know, is the lowest form of communication in the not quite Utopia that Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s 26-year-old founder, built—it’s the broadband-era equivalent of a passing grunt or a muttered “Hey.” But Sorkin did not poke me back. What was I to make of his unresponsiveness? Was he being standoffish? Did he not see my poke? Is he just not the poking type? Or—as is likely the case—did I not actually poke Sorkin at all, but rather some random Facebook user who just happens to have appropriated his identity?
Such are the vagaries of communication in the vastly popular and vastly imperfect universe of Facebook. But when I meet the real Sorkin the next day for lunch in West Hollywood, he quickly makes it clear that the touchy-feely issues of how people connect or fail to connect within modern social media hold little fascination for him. He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as e-mailing his friends. That puts him in an awkward position, because with The Social Network (which opens October 1), he has dramatized the previously undramatizable—the invention of a website—with such tough-minded wit that he is probably going to become the go-to sage for countless “What Does It All Mean?” panels, op-eds, forums, and talkbacks, whether he wants the gig or not.
Sorkin’s script, which tells the story—or rather, the contentious, conflicting stories—of the founding of Facebook, can boast more than mere Zeitgeist-y oomph. It’s yielded a remarkable rarity in contemporary studio filmmaking: a movie that could recapture for Hollywood some claim to the national cultural conversation that has, in the last decade, been virtually co-opted by television. The Social Network is a film adults can brawl over—it rips into the red meat of Art of War business ethics, the necessity of ruthlessness in bringing a new invention from concept to reality, the problematics of saying “Nothing personal!” as your shiv approaches your colleague’s ribs, and the thorny issue of just who owns an idea—whether, as the movie version of Zuckerberg puts it, “a guy who makes a really good chair owes money to anyone who ever made a chair.” In addition, The Social Network raises a number of questions about filmmaking ethics—specifically, about how much artistic license can and should be taken in turning a group of ambitious young men not far from 20 years old into movie characters. It’s smart, it’s provocative, and it’s going to be polarizing.
Fortunately, Sorkin likes a fight, and he’s been steeling himself for this one for more than a year now, ever since it was announced that he would write the script and David Fincher, the protean director of Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would make the film. As for what Sorkin calls “the collective ‘Ugh’ ” initially heard around the web, “people were reacting negatively to the movie they imagined it was going to be,” he says, “which was people friending each other and poking each other and falling in love on the social network. Which it obviously is not.”
Sorkin had something different in mind. He chose to concentrate on the years 2003 to 2005, during which Zuckerberg, then a Harvard undergrad, took Facebook from a one-night hacker’s prank called FaceMash to a site with 1 million users. Sorkin is less interested in enshrining that “Eureka!” moment than he is in tallying its cost, literally in two cases he depicts extensively in flash-forward deposition scenes. The first is a suit brought by fellow students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, a pair of (you can’t make this up) six-five identical-twin Olympic rowers and charter members of the cool crowd who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea, and who eventually obtained a reported $65 million out-of-court settlement (they’re now fighting for more). The second is the rupture between Zuckerberg and his then–best friend Eduardo Saverin, who started out as the fledgling company’s CFO (it was originally called The Facebook) and ended as the victim of either corporate and personal backstabbing (his version) or of his own myopia about where the company needed to go (essentially Zuckerberg’s version). It’s a complex, not especially flattering, sometimes scathing portrait of the man whom those ubiquitous subway posters have labeled “Punk. Billionaire. Genius.”—and one that has already engendered enough controversy for a Facebook spokesman to call the film “fiction” in a front-page New York Times story. Presumably, it’s not “billionaire” or “genius” that’s raised the company’s hackles.