David Fincher’s Academy Award-winning 2010 film “The Social Network,” about the early days of Facebook, has an opening scene that has become famous, in which company founder Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) at a bar.
They bicker and she, in response to one condescending remark too many, breaks up with him and storms out after declaring: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re a jerk.”
Except she says a different word than “jerk.”
Classic stuff. But what happens next is even better. A series of overhead shots shows Zuckerberg jogging through Harvard University’s historic, surprisingly intimate campus on a rainy autumn night. While that’s happening, the soundtrack, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, does something eerie and unforgettable: While a murmuring bass note establishes a tone of deep unease, a descending three-note piano melody pierces the gloom. Something ominous this way comes.
Several minutes go by before Zuckerberg reaches his dorm room, where, according to the legend perpetuated in the film, he drunkenly codes his way into Harvard notoriety by hacking photo databases and building an algorithm to rank female students by attractiveness, work foundational to what would later become Facebook.
It’s one of my favorite music moments in any film, ever. And “The Social Network” itself, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, has come to be regarded as one of the best films of the past decade. Earlier this year Quentin Tarantino said “The Social Network” was “hands down” his favorite film of the last 10 years — and, for what it’s worth, I tend to agree.
That’s because “The Social Network,” which Fincher directed from Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay, really understood what Facebook was, and why the rot underneath its surface would metastasize and consume so much of the world.
The film is scaled intimately, taking place in dorms and offices as Facebook’s founding narrative is both reenacted and scrutinized in hindsight, while Zuckerberg is deposed in a pair of lawsuits against him from former friends and collaborators.
Fincher’s counterweight is the sweep of history, including the misogynist online netherworld that produced a generation of young male coders, the early-2000s tech-bro culture that nurtured Facebook and the Harvard setting that so antagonized Zuckerberg.
This is presented in “The Social Network” as an insular world where wealthy students rub elbows with Nobel laureates and movie stars, where future titans of industry and politics are elected and groomed, where young women are bused into hedonistic parties at elite finals clubs and where kids from modest backgrounds, like Zuckerberg, looked in from the periphery.
In an industry that prized disruptive retribution, this was the real “social network” Zuckerberg gate-crashed with his digital approximation of college life. The nerds were shut out of the party, so they threw their own, and the whole world wanted in.
It makes a good story, although plenty about Fincher and Sorkin’s retelling doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, when Zuckerberg was building Facebook, he was already dating the woman he’d later marry, so the angry-loner narrative doesn’t fully track. But the thing is, it feels right, doesn’t it?
Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg is definitely a (different word than) jerk, and “The Social Network” is the story, in microcosm, of how that type of jerk came to take over and then ruin the world — by focusing on the vanquishment of his rivals, ignoring the destructive potential of his creation, losing control of the genie he let out of the bottle, then denying responsibility once he did.
The world we live in now is the “after” part of that first riveting scene, the one of unease and dread as Zuckerberg runs through campus to begin his fateful work.
We know what comes later — the data-breach scandals, the tense congressional hearings, the corroded politics, the viral disinformation, the violent hate speech, the conspiracy theories, the destabilized economies and institutions, the imperiled democratic norms, the crimes against privacy, the unbelievable loneliness and depression, the world order upended.
As great as “The Social Network” was at the time, its sequel would be totally bonkers.
Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.