Aaron Sorkin is a devoted Democrat, but the writer/producer's most famous TV show wasn't a response to Republicanism. It was a response to the entire post-Watergate spirit of cynicism toward government. A year into The West Wing's seven-season run, Sorkin told The NewsHour that his program was "a valentine to public service" that "celebrates our institutions." Usually, he added, pop culture portrays officials "either as dolts or as Machiavellian"; in his series, they're "fairly heroic."
But with the social network, the new Sorkin-scripted picture about the rise of Facebook, the writer has found something that he can be cynical about: the world of start-ups, geeks, and above all the Internet. The heavily fictionalized film's opening scenes establish the Web as a place of predation, degradation, and privacy violation. The setting is Harvard, where future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped by his girlfriend. Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg as a socially awkward hacker who both envies and resents the school's hierarchies, reacts by posting intimate information about his ex on his LiveJournal, illicitly extracting photos of female students from poorly protected servers, and using the pictures to create a variation on that hoary Web genre, the hot-or-not site, which by morning has humiliated women across campus. Throughout the sequence, the film keeps cutting to darkly lit scenes of students drinking, dancing, and following their hormones, all shot with a sinister air. The inserts underline the feeling of sexually charged dread: When pundits tut-tut that young people share too much of their lives on Facebook, it's images like these that they have in mind. After years of op-eds and TV reports expressing older Americans' discomfort with the Web and with a generation that's comfortable living its lives there, the social network compresses all that uneasiness into two hours of intense paranoia. As Sorkin put it to a writer from New York magazine, he is "not a fan of the Internet."
Is it an enjoyable movie? That depends on how much tolerance you have for Sorkin's self-conscious dialogue, which is rarely as clever as its author thinks it is. But as a catalog of cultural fears, the social network is as revealing as The Birth of a Nation. Director David Fincher's résumé includes Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, and se7en, so he certainly knows how to make a paranoid picture; and while the film's core anxieties come from the screenwriter, its rhythm and tone may owe more to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Between their pounding, foreboding soundtrack and a camera that never goes too long without showing us a sex- and drug-drenched den of sin, the film boils over with the idea that something rotten is eating into the country's established institutions, from Hollywood to Harvard.
All that terror is embodied in one character, Napster co-founder Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake as a silver-tongued tempter. Parker's persona incorporates youth, sex, the Net, and the creative destruction of the marketplace—everything the film seems to fear. In Sorkin's account, Parker is driven less by money than by a desire to tear down anything larger than himself. (Napster may not have turned a profit, he announces at one point, but it still was a success. After all, it killed Tower Records.) Parker is portrayed as promiscuous, ruthless, egotistical, and, in an interesting bit of projection, paranoid; he thrives on chaos and cocaine. He is also Zuckerberg's guide to the world of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, which Sorkin regards with about as much respect as he has for the Web. (When Parker and Zuckerberg meet with the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the screenplay describes the setting as "the offices of a guy who's [sic] hero is Gordon Gekko." As if to stress the sense that America's old establishment is collapsing, Parker casually mentions that The Towering Inferno was filmed there.)
The Internet itself mostly stays in the background. It's visible in the opening scenes, of course, but once Facebook is up and running we see surprisingly little of people actually using the site. Instead we get the aforementioned debauchery: a panicky parent's concept of his kids' online activities. In case we miss the connection, Parker rhapsodizes about a coming day when "you don't just go to a party anymore, you go to a party with your digital camera and your friends relive the party on Facebook." Naturally, he offers this forecast while snorting coke off a young woman's chest at a party.
The script does discuss the Internet, but it does so with all the expertise of the title character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin declaring that breasts feel like bags of sand. At one point Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend, wounded by his comments on his LiveJournal, declares that "the Internet's not written in pencil...it's written in ink." Like many of the lines Sorkin has composed over the years, it's easy to imagine the author pausing after typing those words to pat himself on the back. And like many of the lines Sorkin has composed over the years, it's actually pretty stupid. As anyone who spends time using the Net should know, few forms of literature are as prone to vanishing as an old blog post.
The result is a movie that isn't about online social networks so much as it's about the anxieties those networks have provoked. For a ground-level view of life in the digital era, you'd be better off watching a picture released earlier this year, Edgar Wright's clever comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Wright's playful tale of love in the age of video games manages to convey both what's new about our digitized lives and what hasn't changed much since Sorkin was a kid. The movie might not be "realistic," but its young characters still manage to please and mistreat one another in ways that carry far more truth than anything in Fincher and Sorkin's didactic drama.
Scott Pilgrim has a long life as a cult movie ahead of it, but when it appeared in theaters this summer, it flopped. Meanwhile, the social network just topped the weekend box office. Fear sells.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.