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.
Sorkin is fond of saying that when it comes to the drama behind Facebook’s creation, “fundamentally, you could tell the same story about the invention of a really good toaster.” That’s one of the few unconvincing arguments he makes for the movie, which has the virtue of not being generic. In fact, it seems like a story Sorkin was born to tell. No American dramatic writer wrestles more consistently, or enthrallingly, with issues involving the remorseless hyperspeed of the communications profession. And Sorkin is one of a small handful whose mere name is enough to evoke an entire conversational style—jabbing, self-aware, propulsive. It’s the sound of characters whose minds and mouths work faster than those of the people around them, guys whose conversational aesthetic is, in Fincher’s phrase, “about the absolute total tonnage of words.” Sorkin’s three TV series—the cult favorite Sports Night; The West Wing, which was originally less about the president than about his messaging team; and the failed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—have all been about people who spin skeins of sentences for a living, who lead with their brains and joust with their vocabulary. And in 2007, he took what now looks like a warm-up lap for The Social Network with his Broadway play The Farnsworth Invention, a story about the creation of television that pitted guileless inventor Philo T. Farnsworth against NBC founder David Sarnoff, a cold-blooded visionary. “I saw Farnsworth a few times,” says producer Scott Rudin, who was instrumental in pairing Sorkin with this material, “and one of the reasons I wanted Aaron to write this movie was, as much as he had found enormous pleasure in the Frank Capra story of Philo Farnsworth, it was clear to me that the person who wrote that play really had his heart with Sarnoff.”
The result may be what Fincher kiddingly calls “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies”—not to mention a gimlet-eyed study of old-money, we’re-all-gentlemen-here entitlement versus the equally cutthroat stylings of classless (in both senses) New Economy titans. But it’s also something uniquely Sorkinian: an earnest, unsparing feature-length exploration of the question “What exactly does it mean to be an asshole?” It’s a tag with which Zuckerberg (played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg) gets labeled by a young woman in the first scene; two hours later, another woman semi-exonerates him, telling him he isn’t one, although the exact way she phrases it is pretty cold comfort. What lies between those bookends are a couple of philosophical stumpers for superachievers: How much of a jerk are you allowed to be in the name of getting the job done? And if you’re the smartest guy in the room, you know it, you act on it, and you don’t care who gets hurt, then what is the word for what you are?
The film’s journey to the screen began two years ago, when writer Ben Mezrich received a late-night e mail “from a kid who was a Harvard student who said that his best friend had co-founded Facebook and no one had ever heard of him.” That best friend was Saverin, a Brazilian-born 2006 Harvard grad who was, at that moment, embroiled in a legal wrangle with Zuckerberg over an attempt to drastically dilute Saverin’s ownership stake in the company and remove his name from the Facebook masthead. (Saverin eventually got his name and reportedly a huge chunk of his ownership restored in a settlement said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.) Mezrich (Harvard ’91), a prolific author with a torrential, hyperbolic writing style who crafts his nonfiction with an eye toward the multiplex, went out for drinks with Saverin and soon fashioned his side of the story into a book proposal that went out to both publishers and studios—and also was leaked onto the web.
The idea captured the industry’s attention immediately. Hollywood has had the same kind of love-hate-fear-resignation relationship with Facebook that it’s had with almost every other Internet innovation—a downward spiral of enthusiasm from “We can exploit this to sell our movies!” to “We can’t figure out how to exploit this to sell our movies!” to “Has anybody else figured out how to exploit this to sell their movies?” to “Let’s just post a link to the trailer and call it a day.” But the possibility of bringing to the screen a brand with a fan base of half a billion was irresistible. Making a movie about Facebook isn’t like making a movie about Yahoo or Google. It’s a charged word—a symbol of groupthink, giantism, toxic oversharing, and the destruction of privacy to those who hate it and an absolutely essential mode of self-presentation to its adherents. Either way, it’s not a subject that breeds indifference. Even as two producers, Dana Brunetti and Michael DeLuca, were pitching it to one set of Sony executives, Rudin was talking to studio chief Amy Pascal. The three soon joined forces, with Rudin taking the lead and bringing Sorkin aboard as a writer early in 2009; Sorkin only “got to page three of the proposal” before calling his agent and saying, “I want to do this, sign me up.”
The creative team behind The Social Network acknowledges, in almost uniform language, that “there’s no way the movie could have been written without Ben.” But they’re careful to note that the film was inspired by the proposal, not based on Mezrich’s book, which was published last year under the title The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook—A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. Though Sorkin met with Mezrich in a Boston hotel and the two men later compared notes as they did independent research, each was writing his own version of the story. Mezrich says he handed Sorkin chapters; Sorkin recalls “Ben reading some notes off his computer,” but adds, “I don’t remember getting written material and didn’t get a look at any of the book until the screenplay was almost finished.”
Mezrich’s book opens with a note in which the author explains that he re-created scenes using not just the factual record but “my best judgment,” altered descriptions, compressed several conversations into one, and changed settings. All that, plus its thin bibliography, its lack of footnotes, and Mezrich’s inability to obtain Zuckerberg’s cooperation, was too much for several major critics: In the New York Times, Janet Maslin slammed its “protracted feats of guesswork,” calling it “so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.” (“There’s a whole cabal of old-school journalists who hate the way I write nonfiction,” Mezrich says. “It’s a true story, but I write in a cinematic, thriller-esque style. It’s a valid form of nonfiction that dates back to Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Or maybe it’s a genre that I’m trying to create.”)
Sorkin’s screenplay and Mezrich’s book share a narrative arc, but The Accidental Billionaires is very much the Eduardo Saverin story—an aggrieved young man’s account of how a friend shafted him (a position clearly endorsed by Mezrich’s use of betrayal in the subtitle). Sorkin opted instead for a Rashomon-like, multi-perspective account that leaves room not only for Saverin’s and the Winklevosses’ takes but also for Zuckerberg’s. “Several different—and sometimes contradictory—versions of the story were told,” Sorkin says. “I didn’t choose one and decide that it was the truth. I dramatized the fact that there were conflicting stories.”
That may be the largest departure from Mezrich’s book, and it led to Sorkin’s most daring decision, to turn Zuckerberg himself into a “character” complete with a set of personality traits—prickliness, intelligence, verbosity, wit, arrogance, and occasional dead-eyed blankness—that make him a classic Sorkin creation but also represent a big leap of imagination. It’s undeniably a lot to extrapolate from the hoodied, overrehearsed, sometimes halting real-life Zuckerberg we’ve observed in TV interviews and YouTube videos. (One of the problems with so self-consciously presenting yourself as a blank slate is that you invite others to draw all over you.) Zuckerberg, who cooperated with a different book, David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, clearly feels stung; Kirkpatrick recently rallied to his side, calling the movie “horrifically unfair” in an August 20 Times story. Rudin calls that charge “specious” and says that Kirkpatrick discussed serving as a consultant on the movie but was warned by Facebook that he’d lose Zuckerberg’s participation in his book if he did.
We’re used to seeing movies reprocess history and even current events into drama, and in recent years, the writing of Peter Morgan, from The Queen and The Special Relationship to Frost/Nixon, has expanded the parameters of what we accept in the portrayal of contemporary public figures. But it’s one thing to play with Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. It’s a new kind of license to turn a real-life 26-year-old whose most life-changing decisions were made as a teenager into an incarnation of Silicon Valley killer instinct, undergrad dorkdom, impatient brilliance, and middle-class Jewish-American aspiration fighting the Wasp Establishment. Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in—inside the Harvard final clubs that represent power and acceptance (something Zuckerberg has denied ever wanting), inside the social and dating dynamics that seem easy for his classmates and unreachable for him, and away from the Jewish fraternity that symbolizes his lack of access to the inner circle. It’s a great idea for a character—but you don’t have to be particularly sympathetic to Zuckerberg to understand his likely horror at having an entire set of motives, flaws, and vulnerabilities so publicly and permanently ascribed to him.
To Facebook users who are still smarting from Zuckerberg’s recent contention that an expectation of privacy is no longer the default mind-set on the Internet, the fact that the CEO himself is now feeling the glare of the spotlight represents sweet, though not exactly symmetrical, payback. Others, though, will call the transformation of Mark Zuckerberg into “Mark Zuckerberg” presumptuous. Sorkin doesn’t disagree but says it was essential. For one thing, he pretty much had to invent Zuckerberg, since protracted discussions between Rudin and Facebook that were intended to secure Zuckerberg’s participation eventually came to nothing. “Once we got past the fencing,” says Rudin, “I said, ‘What would have to happen for you to want to cooperate?’ And Elliot Schrage [Facebook’s head of global communications] said, ‘You have to not call it Facebook, and it would have to not take place at Harvard.’ So it was fairly clear that we weren’t going to be working together.” According to Rudin, Schrage did, however, supply a line that turns out to be one of the film’s sharpest defenses of Zuckerberg, dismissing his detractors by sardonically noting, “Creation myths need a devil.” “To me,” says Rudin, “that’s a great rebuttal to almost every aspect of what anyone would say that’s negative about him.”
Sorkin, though, was relieved that the talks failed. “I completely understand” Zuckerberg’s decision not to make himself available, he says. “And more than understand it, I’ll be honest—I’m grateful. We wanted to be able to say we tried really hard, and we did. But we did not want Mark participating, because we did not want to give the sense that this was a Facebook-endorsed movie, a puff piece of some kind.” Sorkin had had some experience with a real-life subject looking over the shoulders of filmmakers and saying “But that’s not how it happened,” on 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and didn’t particularly relish another round. This time, he wanted freedom—whether it was the latitude to portray Larry Summers (then Harvard’s president) as the embodiment of witheringly imperious contempt in one scene that takes an especially acrobatic leap into speculative fiction, or to present his version of Zuckerberg, his way. “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” Sorkin says, blithely tossing potential critics a couple of hundred rounds of free ammo. “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”
Sorkin had an ally in Fincher, a director who, at 48, has amassed an impressive and adult body of work, from Fight Club to Se7en to Benjamin Button, but who has not, until now, taken on such a densely spoken movie. “I think telling a good story is always an interesting directorial challenge,” he says. “I read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so much how I feel about the notion of the Internet, and about the loneliness that characterizes much of modern interpersonal communication.’ It was an amazing idea—Harvard, this 300-year-old institution built by people who understood business and innovation—and then, this new paradigm where somebody goes, ‘If I’ve got a DSL and enough Red Bull, I can prototype this thing!’ ”
Sorkin’s shooting script was 162 pages—a screenplay that, using normal one-page-equals-one-minute Hollywood calculus, would have yielded a two-hour-and-42-minute film instead of the one Fincher made, which clocks in at a fleet two hours, not including closing credits. After Sony looked at the draft and told them they’d have to cut the script, Fincher says he and Sorkin went back to his office, “and I took out my iPhone and put the little stopwatch on and handed the script to Aaron and said, ‘Start reading.’ He was done in an hour and 59 minutes. I called the studio back and said, ‘No, we can do this. If we do it the way Aaron just spoke it, it’ll be two hours.”
The film is uniquely Sorkinian: an earnest, unsparing exploration of “What exactly does it mean to be an asshole?”
Sorkin’s and Fincher’s confidence was boosted when they watched Jesse Eisenberg’s audition. Eisenberg, 26, who has become, in The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland, and Adventureland, something of a specialist in motor-mouthed, sharp-minded, neurotic young men, put himself on a QuickTime video reading a scene as Zuckerberg. Sorkin’s characters, says Fincher, “are people who need to work their way through the kelp beds of their own thought processes on their way to the exact idea they’ve been trying to find.” And Eisenberg was “the first person who could do Sorkin better than Sorkin. He can just flat-out fly. You can see in his eyes that he’s searching for the best way to articulate something in the middle of articulating two other things.”
Eisenberg, who, even off-camera, sounds like someone who was fashioned from one of Sorkin’s ribs, says he hasn’t watched television in ten years, but before that, he’d been an avid fan of Sports Night. Other actors, however, didn’t find those familiar rhythms until they were in the presence of the screenwriter. When Justin Timberlake, who plays an impish, diabolical version of Napster founder and early Facebook partner Sean Parker, auditioned, he read opposite Sorkin, who was playing the role of Zuckerberg. “It was awesome,” says Timberlake. “Aaron writes like he speaks, so when you say his words, you hear his voice in your head a little, dry and witty. And in the audition, when I heard him say his words, I thought, Oh, so that’s how fast this screenplay of 100,000 pages is gonna go by!”
Before production on the nearly $40 million film began in October 2009, Fincher steered his cast members away from any impulse to try to contact their real-life counterparts. Other than Timberlake, who had chatted with Parker briefly when he was in contention for the role, the actors never met the men they were playing, and that’s the way the director wanted it. “Fincher was adamant about us playing what was in this script,” says Armie Hammer, who does double duty as both Winklevosses. “He didn’t want us to meet the real people and come back saying, ‘No, no, they say it happened completely differently; we have to do it like this!’ ”
Eisenberg kept audio recordings of Zuckerberg’s public-speaking appearances on his iPod and would play them just before shooting, “not because I was trying to sound exactly like him, but because I was trying to get into the spirit of a very specific kind of confidence that he has that seems simultaneously comfortable and a little defensive.” But he also made his peace with the fact that a face-to-face encounter with the man he was playing wasn’t in the cards. “Your job is to justify the position of the character,” he says, “whether it’s Mark’s frustration that he’s trying to run this organization and keeps having to deal with people who feel like they deserve something because they’ve always gotten their way, or with his friend who wanted to take the company in a direction that he felt would hurt it. I felt that my character was in the right. There’s no other way to act.”
That, in fact, was one of Fincher’s specific instructions to his ensemble. “He’d be on set with Jesse, and I’d be on the other side of the room,” says Andrew Garfield, who plays Saverin, “and I’d overhear him saying to Jesse [about Saverin], ‘This guy had to go—he couldn’t keep up with you. He had to be cut off.’ Then he’d notice me listening, and he’d come over and say, ‘But you’re absolutely right too.’ He would justify both sides constantly. I just trusted him and the script implicitly.”
That’s essential when working for Fincher, who is famous for doing multiple takes—99 of them, he says without hesitation, for the movie’s first scene, in which Zuckerberg gets brutally dumped (and not without reason) by his Boston University girlfriend. “There’s a method to his madness,” says Hammer. “Yes, you do a lot of takes, but you feel extremely protected. He told me he knows that actors are inherently vain—we sit in front of a mirror and think to ourselves, Oh, in this moment, I’m gonna give him this look. And he didn’t want us to bring that to set.”
“So many Oscars are won in the tub,” says Fincher, laughing. “I want to take them past the point where they go, ‘But I had it all worked out!’ You have to be hypervigilant, especially with Sorkin’s writing, because sometimes actors will want to add another course to the meal that isn’t there. They’ll think that if you pause between sentences, it gives the lines meaning, and we had to disabuse everyone of that notion. And once they got that, they took to it like ducks.”
When Sorkin and Fincher disagreed, it was usually over a minor visual or textual detail—with Sorkin arguing for the dramatist’s prerogative to make some things up, and Fincher countering that whenever they knew the facts, they should stick to them, right down to the drink in Zuckerberg’s hand the night he hacked into Harvard’s student databases. In reality and in the movie, it was a Beck’s, although Sorkin forcefully argued it should be a screwdriver, making the case that it would telegraph Zuckerberg’s intention to get drunk on that fateful night more than cracking a beer would. Could this possibly matter? Actually, yes, sort of. “I was mostly picking a fight with David,” says Sorkin, “because I wanted to have it out with him on the question, what is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”
“Aaron is used to thinking fast and making bold decisions,” says Fincher. “He comes from TV, where you don’t have time to pick gnat-shit out of pepper. But in the movies, my whole thing is, everything we put on the screen, even a prop, is going to be debated and scrutinized, so we need to make sure it’s not saying something we don’t want it to say.”
The two men were in full accord on The Social Network’s portrayal of Zuckerberg as misunderstood genius, nerd, creep, ambitious young postadolescent, misfit, or all of the above. And it might surprise Facebook’s CEO to know that he is viewed with intense sympathy by just about everyone behind this movie—all of whom, not incidentally, have been at some point in their professional lives on the receiving end of the word asshole. “I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute but aren’t about to give you control of anything,” says Fincher. “I know the anger that comes from when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do. So I feel it would be irresponsible to say this is the story of a guy who betrayed his friends.”
As for Sorkin, he calls Zuckerberg “an anti-hero for the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie and a tragic hero for the last five.” And it’s hard not to see a shadow of the author himself in the film’s main character. For the first four years of The West Wing (he left the show in 2003 after clashing with Warner Bros. TV), Sorkin was known as a hard-charging control freak who rarely let a scripted sentence from his staff go by without a pass through his typewriter. The version of Zuckerberg he has created—a brilliant young man who does not suffer fools gladly—would seem self-flattering if Sorkin hadn’t made him such a pitiable bumbler when it comes to simple human interaction. His Mark is someone who aches to connect and invents a way to do technologically what he can’t do intuitively. “I struggled before I started writing this,” he says. “I tried to sound like a 19-year-old, which I don’t know how to do, and eventually I abandoned the idea and thought, This is just going to sound like me, the way I write, and what I would concentrate on in Mark’s voice is that he’s a guy who’s trying to overcome his obstacle to communicating. I could hang my hat on the fact that he’s the smartest, and also the most awkward, guy in any room that he’s in. And, like a superhero, I would think that if you’re that person, there are things that are going to push you to shed your meek identity, and show people just what you can do.”
When Sorkin was growing up in Scarsdale, his parents used to take him to the theater—stuff he was too young to understand. He sat through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when he was 9 and started developing a feel for the rhythms of adult conversation before he could even grasp its content. As a child, he says, “I loved the sound of dialogue. It was like music to me. And as a result, what I want to do now is imitate that sound.”
There are few who can do it as well, as he’s about to demonstrate. “I’m going to give you a rant,” says Sorkin pleasantly. We’re sitting in the Terrace Room of the Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles. Sorkin, a tan and dapper 49, looks so at home in these echt-showbiz environs (he’s even played a particularly acrid version of himself on HBO’s Entourage) that at first it’s hard to believe him when he says he still feels like a Hollywood outsider, more an East Coaster than an Angeleno, more a playwright than a player. But as he talks, it becomes clear that his sense of himself as an observer in a strange land fuels his writing and his thinking. He opens an elegant cigarette case, ignites, and prepares for liftoff. Soon enough, we’re up, up, and away in what proves to be a very well-designed hot-air balloon. The theme of this particular ride is going to be “I am not a fan of the Internet.” “Not a fan” is not a euphemism for “I’m ambivalent”—it’s a euphemism for “I hate it.”
Within seconds, we’re gusting across the entire cultural and sociopolitical landscape. It’s not hard to figure out that some of Sorkin’s animus is professional—in a way, The Social Network can be seen as a well-aimed spitball thrown at new media by old media—and some is personal. His 2001 drug bust for possession of mushrooms, pot, and cocaine is still eminently Googleable and a reminder that, as Zuckerberg’s furious ex-girlfriend tells him in the movie, everything on the Internet is written in ink. And his last series, Studio 60, was so completely and brutally dissected, episode by episode, on various blogs that, he says, “papers would take to quoting posts [from] a website devoting to not liking” the show. But his ingratiating high-gloss soliloquy has little sense of injury: While digressive, it’s always coherent, and while impassioned, it’s usually cheerful. He’s propelled by exploration and curiosity, not by rage.
As he revs up, we coast over the statistic that one in four Americans still believes Barack Obama was not born in the United States (“There’s just too much bad information getting out there, and I have to believe that’s mostly the fault of the Internet, which isn’t held to any standards of accuracy”). He points toward his unfulfillable vision of a web governed by libel and slander laws and held to old-fashioned standards of factuality (“People say, well, there’s so much Internet content, how could you possibly do that? And the answer is, there would be a lot less Internet content! Thinning out the herd is a good thing. There would be a Darwinian falloff of people who think they can go out and just state anything they want as fact”). He discusses his wavering First Amendment absolutism (“While everyone deserves a voice, not everyone deserves a microphone”) and his appetite to understand the right-wing talk-radio demagogues who hate everything that he, as a “liberal Hollywood elite,” stands for. He touches on anti-Mexican xenophobia, the bigotry that festers in the virulent swamp of unsigned chat boards, the Supreme Court justice who noted that the path to many of our freedoms is forged by basically bad people (“I think it was William O. Douglas, but I’m not sure, so can we stipulate that I don’t know who it was?”), Larry Flynt, CNN’s Rick Sanchez, why we watch American Idol, the dumbing-down effects of anonymity (“Anyone who has ever been in the stands at a Giants game understands that”), his occasional propensity to answer his Internet critics using his own name, his desire for a level of discourse that does not degenerate into “calling somebody a douche bag,” and the lack of a need for instant news.
“I have to tell you,” he says, “I don’t feel like I had any trouble getting information before. Every morning two newspapers were literally thrown at my house. All I had to do was open the door and get them. Anyway,” he says, sighing and finally, gracefully touching down, “I’m not quite getting the Internet.”
It’s a lovely ride, reminiscent of one of those shots in The West Wing in which Josh and Toby would fulminate with escalating irritation and articulation as they ambled down a White House hallway, although in this case, they would have walked halfway to Georgetown before they’d blown themselves out. It almost doesn’t matter that it ultimately circles back to the exact spot from which we’d launched—that it is what Sorkin would call “all middle.”
“I’m really weak when it comes to plot,” he says bluntly—a startling self-assessment from the creator of three television series. “With nothing to stop me, I’ll write pages and pages of snappy dialogue that don’t add up to anything. So I need big things to help my characters—a really strong intention and a really strong obstacle. Once I have those, I feel I can write.” That self-knowledge has turned Sorkin into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after—“overemployed,” he jokes—screenwriters. Having rebounded from the quick death of Studio 60 into an exceptionally robust second (or is it third?) act, he now has a ridiculously full dance card: a new TV pilot (he won’t yet disclose the subject), the book of a Broadway musical (ditto), a script about the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and an adaptation of Andrew Young’s book The Politician, about John Edwards, which he plans to direct. It’s a surprising roster for a writer who insists that he is primarily interested in politics because “it’s just a great place to find stories” and who says that he’d “really like to get out of the nonfiction business for a while.” That seems unlikely, since Sorkin himself knows just how good a source real life is for what he needs as a screenwriter. With The Social Network, he has found the protagonist of his dreams—a man who is so single-mindedly the embodiment of intention that he comes close to reducing anyone who doesn’t think like him into an obstacle. And because he is such a convincing writer, many of us may walk away from the movie not simply thinking that he has created an extraordinary character but that we are, in fact, seeing the real Mark Zuckerberg.
Is that fair?
Sorkin pauses before answering, which is not a rhetorical device he often employs. “When you’re writing nonfiction,” he says, “that’s always a question that you’re wrestling with, especially when you’re writing about people who are still alive. On one hand, you don’t want to screw around with people’s lives, you never want to say anything that isn’t true, and you don’t want to mess with history. On the other hand, this isn’t a documentary. Art isn’t about what happened, and the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things. There’s a set of facts I’m dealing with, and I try to imagine motivations and fill in blanks that none of us can see. But the question of truth … the very first words out of Mark’s mouth in the present-day part of the movie are, ‘That’s not what happened.’ And that’s my signal to the audience that there are going to be any number of unreliable narrators. This isn’t the movie that’s going to tell you ‘Mark Zuckerberg stole Facebook,’ or that he didn’t. But,” he says, “we would sure love for those arguments to happen in the parking lot.”