Jesse Eisenberg looks distracted as he slides into a booth in the Thirsty Scholar, a divey Harvard hangout just up the street from campus. Maybe it’s because he’s at the weary end of a cross-country college tour promoting his new movie, The Social Network, in which he plays Facebook founder — and former Harvard student — Mark Zuckerberg. It could also have something to do with the small crowd of fans loitering outside the pub, tipped off that the 27-year-old star is inside. (Eisenberg is puzzled by the attention, wondering aloud, ”What am I supposed to do?”) Or perhaps it’s because the last time Eisenberg was at this bar, he got dumped.
”It was right over there,” he says, pointing with his beer-free hand at an empty spot where, in The Social Network‘s scorcher of a first scene, Zuckerberg gets the shove from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). It’s just the first of many gut punches for Zuckerberg in the movie, most thrown by friends and colleagues who get burned as Facebook explodes into a global phenomenon. The irony isn’t lost on Eisenberg that the man who turned the word ”friend” into a verb wasn’t very good at making them. ”I had the unique job on set of being the only one to defend my character,” the actor says between swigs of a Hoegaarden. ”Even though he does some things that hurt other characters, I could only view him as sympathetic. I developed a great affection for him.”
Whether audiences will too is the question at the heart of The Social Network, a PG-13-rated drama depicting the creation of Facebook from the extremely conflicting perspectives of the different people involved. There’s Zuckerberg, the Harvard sophomore who invented the site in 2004 and soon became the world’s youngest billionaire. There’s Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend, who gets pushed out of the company after Zuckerberg falls under the spell of Napster cofounder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). And then there are the WASPy, intimidating Winklevoss twins (played by Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, with Hammer’s face and voice digitally superimposed onto Pence’s body), who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea. As Facebook takes off, Zuckerberg defends himself in two lawsuits — one filed by Saverin, one by the Winklevoss twins.
Depending on whom you believe, Zuckerberg was either a driven visionary or a thieving jerk, or a little bit of both. The story’s drama is fueled by fights over what’s true and what’s not — the same kinds of arguments that viewers are bound to have about the movie itself. By taking an of-the-moment story and turning it into a tantalizing puzzle of fact and fiction, director David Fincher (Fight Club) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) have made one of the fall’s buzziest movies — not to mention a likely Best Picture nominee at next year’s Academy Awards.
Spend enough time talking to the people behind The Social Network and you feel as if you’ve fallen down the movie’s rabbit hole of conflicting truths. Fincher says the movie is fiction; Sorkin calls it nonfiction. Eisenberg views Zuckerberg as an antihero, while producer Scott Rudin insists he’s more complicated than that. According to Fincher, ”It’s never been our intention to embarrass the participants.” Yet according to Fincher just two minutes earlier in the same conversation, ”if we do our job correctly, we will be disowned by everyone involved.” If anything, these differing opinions are proof of the movie’s richness — it’s not a story to be understood so much as a document to be interpreted. ”What’s wonderful about the movie is there is no right and wrong. Every character has justification for what they do,” says Andrew Garfield. ”It’s up to the audience to decide who they trust.”
Telling a story without clear-cut morals was an enticing challenge for Sorkin, who was tapped by Sony to write a film based on an early outline of Ben Mezrich’s 2009 Facebook exposé, The Accidental Billionaires. Sorkin and Rudin initially reached out to Facebook for cooperation, but pulled back when the company demanded too much control over the movie’s content. Instead Sorkin waded through ”cartons and cartons” of legal documents and conducted interviews of his own — including one over dinner with Harvard alum Natalie Portman, who dished about the school’s elite final clubs. When asked whether he had access to any of the main players or the actual deposition transcripts, Sorkin replies with an anecdote: ”If we know what brand of beer Mark was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room, it should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and to the events.” Asked about the movie’s overall truthfulness, Rudin offers a carefully worded reply: ”You can’t make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued,” he says. ”Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.”
Following strict orders from director David Fincher, the actors avoided impersonating their real-life counterparts. Garfield says he based his character on just two photos of Saverin, while Justin Timberlake met Napster cofounder Sean Parker only in passing, outside a bar. For his part, Eisenberg dove into Zuckerberg’s life, reading a leaked copy of his college admissions application, watching YouTube clips, and even studying fencing, Zuckerberg’s sport of choice in high school. The actor also consulted his own first cousin, a computer programmer who began working alongside Zuckerberg at Facebook while the movie was in production. Initially Eisenberg considered dyeing his brown hair to match Zuckerberg’s, but Fincher reminded him of what his real priorities should be. ”My primary goal was not accuracy in terms of body language and voice and appearance,” says Eisenberg. ”The most dramatically interesting aspect of the character is how potent his crisis is, not how similar he is to the real guy.”
The real guy in question stayed largely silent about the movie leading up to its release date. Then came a surprise appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show on Sept. 24 — the same day as The Social Network‘s world premiere at the New York Film Festival. After announcing a $100 million donation to the public schools of Newark, Zuckerberg, who has said he doesn’t plan to see the film, took a moment to address the elephant in the room. ”It’s a movie,” he said with an awkward shrug. ”The last six years have been a lot of coding and focus and hard work. But, you know, maybe it would be fun to remember it as partying and all this crazy drama.” But the Winklevoss twins — or ”the Winklevi,” as Zuckerberg calls them in the movie — insist that the script actually gets most of the facts right. ”We thought it was an excellent movie. It portrayed the reality of what happened,” says Tyler Winklevoss, who attended the film’s premiere with his brother. ”It’s very much a true story.”
Despite its growing buzz, The Social Network is still a talky, brainy movie about computer nerds — not exactly an easy sell at the multiplex. The first trailer featured moody images and a grown-up tone. But the ad campaign appears to have course-corrected recently, targeting the 25-and-under set with upbeat TV spots on shows like Jersey Shore. Meanwhile, two of the film’s young stars have become blog fixtures after scoring parts in big-name projects: Andrew Garfield will play Spider-Man in the franchise reboot, and Rooney Mara is currently shooting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Still, Fincher is candid about the movie’s uphill battle to appeal to America’s youth. ”I hope it’s not just a middle-aged take on Harvard five years ago,” he says. ”I could see myself at 18 wanting to see this movie. And expressly because nothing explodes, not in spite of the fact that nothing explodes.”
A few hours after Eisenberg leaves the Thirsty Scholar, a group of 200 or so lucky Harvard students are watching him on screen in a sneak preview of The Social Network in a campus lecture hall. Later they’ll be treated to a post-film Q&A with Eisenberg, Hammer, and Sorkin. For now, they’re chuckling knowingly at the movie’s references to their school while the man who wrote those lines waits patiently next door in a small classroom. With his round, professorial glasses and schoolboy haircut, Aaron Sorkin, 49, looks right at home. ”I’m not going to lie, I’m nervous about this crowd,” he admits.
Chalk it up to being on the real Zuckerberg’s home turf. The famously fast-talking Sorkin turns almost somber as he discusses the harm his movie could do to the 26-year-old tech tycoon’s reputation. ”I’ll be honest with you, there were times when I had misgivings, when I felt like, he’s just too young, and a movie fires such a loud cannon shot, that maybe I shouldn’t do this,” says Sorkin. Then, sounding surer, he adds, ”It’s not my job to help his image. I’m not his press rep or his rabbi. But in the end, I didn’t feel like I was damaging him. I felt like I was painting a painting of him, as opposed to taking a picture of him.”
As Sorkin preps to greet the students next door — one of whom could well be the next Mark Zuckerberg — a hint of remorse creeps into his voice. ”I know Mark’s got to have an Aaron Sorkin dartboard someplace. So I feel bad,” he sighs. ”I — I wanna buy him a beer.” He considers the idea for a moment, then, smiling, takes back the invitation. ”I think I should leave Mark alone now. Don’t you?”