Friending Aaron Sorkin

In Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, the screenwriter behind ‘The Social Network’ discovered a subject as compulsive and complicated as he is.

October 13, 2010 21:21
Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg

zuckerberg_311. (photo credit: MCT)


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The buzz about The Social Network and its portrayal of the early days of the world's largest social network in 2003 to 2005 has been building for months, reaching deafening levels in recent days. Early reviews compare it to a modern-day, high-tech Citizen Kane that may be the defining film of its generation.

The portrait painted of Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, is often scathing but also, at times, sympathetic. Despite Zuckerberg’s misgivings, it is likely to do little harm to him or Facebook with its 500 million users and an estimated value of $23 billion. Indeed, it could make Zuckerberg something of a hero in a tech world where being brusque, dismissive and self-absorbed are not necessarily bad things.

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At the heart of the film is the conflict, which resulted in multiple lawsuits over the years, over who really had the idea for Facebook and how much others contributed to its success, only to be frozen out by Zuckerberg. It brings to the big screen an array of characters even most Facebookers have probably never heard of: Eduardo Saverin, who provided the early seed money and later sued Zuckerberg, settling for millions; twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, two wealthy and quintessentially preppy Harvard University students who claimed Facebook was their idea which Zuckerberg stole (they got a $65 million settlement); and Sean Parker, the flamboyant founder of Napster.

“If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I would want the story to be told only from my point of view,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said in an interview earlier this week. “I can understand that completely. But we tell it from Mark’s point of view, Eduardo’s point of view, the twins’ point of view and – to a certain extent – Sean Parker’s.”

Officially, Facebook said in a brief prepared statement that “the story presented in The Social Network doesn’t match reality. It’s a portrayal designed to lure people into movie theaters rather than tell an accurate story.”

Zuckerberg’s only public comments about the film came during an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on the day Facebook broke the 500 million user mark. He called the film “fiction” and said he had no intention of seeing it.

“The real story of Facebook is just that we’ve worked so hard for all this time,” Zuckerberg said in the ABC interview. “I mean, the real story is actually probably pretty boring, right? I mean, we just sat at our computers for six years and coded.”

Sorkin – best known as the creator of television’s The West Wing – sees it much differently:

“The center of this story is an invention that is modern as it gets. But the story, the themes of this story, are as old as storytelling itself: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, class, power.”

Sorkin suggested that “there is no single truth, there were multiple truths” to the Facebook story. “There were two lawsuits brought against him at roughly the same time. The plaintiffs and witnesses all came into the deposition room and they all swore an oath and all told three different versions of the story.”

Much of the early criticism of The Social Network stems from the fact that it is nominally based on Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires. When it was published, the work was widely criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts – not just by Facebook but by reviewers such as the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who said the book was “so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.”

Sorkin and the other filmmakers are clearly aware that Mezrich’s book has become something of a liability for the film and are now distancing themselves from the work. “I know this is how Facebook is pushing back against the movie,” said Sorkin. “Nothing in the movie has been invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing.”

Sorkin points out that he had finished his screenplay for the film before Mezrich had finished his book, doing his own research as he went along.

“You would have to ask Ben about the research he did and the sources he had,” said Sorkin, who noted that the script was vetted by a team of lawyers. “Most of my research was first-person research – speaking to people who are principals in the movie, speaking to other people who were right there.”

“You are aware when you’re writing nonfiction – and, especially, when you’re writing nonfiction about people who are still living – you need to be careful.”

Referring to the roots of Facebook – which started as a networking site for Harvard University students before rapidly spreading to other campuses, including Stanford, before going big time – Sorkin said, “These are young people. I don’t think any of us would want a movie to be made about things we did when we were 19. I was not out to get anybody, to embarrass anybody, to humiliate anybody. I wasn’t playing it fast and loose with the truth.”

At times, in fact, Sorkin and others involved in the film seem rather fond of, or at least sympathetic toward, Zuckerberg.

“The more negative people’s reactions were to him, the more protective I felt toward him,” said Sorkin.

Added actor Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg in the movie and whose cousin works for Facebook: “He is fiercely bright, consumed by his creation, and I don’t think he spent a lot of time self-evaluating. This is a movie about what happens when everyone believes they are doing the right thing and those things are in conflict.”

And as for the very likely possibility that those who see The Social Network are likely to be split on its fairness, Sorkin again stressed that “the movie doesn’t take a position on what the truth is.”

“This isn’t the movie that’s going to tell you ‘Mark Zuckerberg stole Facebook,’ or that he didn’t. We’ll let those arguments happen in the parking lot after the film.”

– San Jose Mercury News/MCT

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