Aaron Sorkin's Anxiety Closet

With the social network, the man behind The West Wing finds something to be cynical about.

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).

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  • Old Mexican||

    [T]he earnest West Wing creator has finally found something that he can be cynical about: the world of start-ups, geeks, and the Internet.

    Yeah, like 20 years too late.

  • ||

    That's nice - apparently he and his Mom have the same eyeglasses prescription.

  • 35N4P2BYY||

    Yeah those look like they are out of the prop closet from American Graffiti.

  • ||

    I find Sorkin an entertaining writer and I enjoyed the West Wing, without any illusion that it portrays anything like reality.

    But I'm reminded of a bit from the days of the West Wing. The show was a hit, and Sorkin found himself the object of adulation on a great many internet sites, including the forums of Television Without Pity (this may have been back when it was still called Mighty Big TV, I forget). He created a forum account and interacted with the community there.

    But, after some time, he came into contact with people on those fora who weren't so admiring of him. And, essentially, lost his shit. And the community saw him lose his shit and weren't so impressed with that, and it snowballed.

    So Sorkin wrote an episode of the West Wing in which Josh Lyman stands in for himself, finds a forum which are fans of his, and then loses their respect. The end of that episode treats the viewer to a few entertaining Sorkin-style monologues about how the people on the internet are all obese chain-smoking muumuu-wearing mouth-breathers anyhow.

    So, yeah. Classy, dude.

    I'm writing this from memory and second-hand reports, so I may be distorting the truth more than usual.

  • ||

    "The end of that episode treats the viewer to a few entertaining Sorkin-style monologues about how the people on the internet are all obese chain-smoking muumuu-wearing mouth-breathers anyhow."

    He forgot the chronic masturbation (I view it as a feature, not bug) and never ending flatulence.

  • ||

    The end of that episode treats the viewer to a few entertaining Sorkin-style monologues about how the people on the internet are all obese chain-smoking muumuu-wearing mouth-breathers anyhow.

    I suppose but in the end it was Josh Lyman who looked like the biggest idiot.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    "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."

    There hasn't been a realistic movie about nerds since "Lucas."

    "Scott Pilgrim" might end up being a favorite for your typical passive-aggressive, fursona-worshipping, beta-male goon, but the chances of it becoming a widely-referenced cult hit on the level of, say, "Office Space" is giving it too much credit.

  • Wally Wonka||

    Milton - the ultimate anti-hero

  • MNG||

    I hated, hated West Wing. It was like a filmed liberal political masturbation fantasy. In the midst of the Bush Presidency liberals had an America with a wise, beneficent liberal President who, unlike Clinton, stood up to those mean Republicans and won over and over! To top it off the two term Democrat is succeeded by...yep, another Democrat! Jesus it was terrible.

  • ||

    Yeah -- I despised West Wing too. Anything that Sorkin's associated with comes across as a live-action Rolling Stone mag article.

    Fincher, on the other hand, is one of my favorite directors.

    Will I see the movie? Nope -- I detest Facebook.

  • Tony||

    They had considered letting the Republican guy win (Alan Alda) but John Spencer's death kind of forced them to give it to Jimmy Smits.

    I kind of needed West Wing therapy during Bush.

  • Wally Wonka||

    The sole fact that Alan Alda was playing a Republican is evidence enough that the show was purely a liberal fantasy. Now, if they had gotten Kelsey Grammar....

  • Tony||

    He was a moderate, principled Republican too. Talk about fantasy.

  • Shmenge||

    or Jon Voight

  • Jorj X. McKie||

    I vote for Ron Silver.

  • twv||

    Jesse found the stupidest line in the movie, to prove that the author is a bit of a dolt. I snickered at the line when I saw the flick, too. But many other lines were quite good, and the "hero" of the story comes off a lot better than PERHAPS the filmmakers wanted. After viewing the film, I looked over the evidence and came down on the side of the thieving bastard who made The Facebook. His best friend and partner, as the film clearly showed, proved to the world's worst CFO, and needed to be booted out. That was quite clear. And the Hahvahd entrepreneurs made a deal with the thief using a nod and not a handshake, and offered no remuneration to speak of. Hardly a contract worthy of respect. So, as far as I could tell, no matter how hard the filmmakers MAY have tried to show the warts of the Net geeks, what they actually gave us was an interesting portrait of single-minded genius versus a bunch of lackluster hangers-on. Triumph of the genius.

    I doubt if that's what Sorkin wanted. But that's what he showed, when all the over-the-topness was stripped away.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    "I doubt if that's what Sorkin wanted. But that's what he showed, when all the over-the-topness was stripped away."

    Sorkin's such a left-wing beta that any male displaying any sort of masculine, aggressive tendencies in his work is typically portrayed as a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing bully.

    The problem is that when Sorkin's not careful, his villians end up being a lot easier to identify and sympathize with than his heroes. Colonel Jessup is the classic Sorkin villian backfire.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Oh, the movie certainly gives you space to sympathize with Zuckerberg. Parker is Sorkin's idea of evil. Zuckerberg is Sorkin's idea of a man whose flaws allow him to be sucked into evil, but who may yet allow his better self to emerge.

  • Jesse Walker||

    My question: Was I supposed to sympathize with Larry Summers when he gave the twins the brush-off? Because I'm not the world's biggest Larry Summers fan in real life, but in that scene he became my favorite guy in the movie.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    I wondered about that too. Because that was pretty awesome.

  • Cata||

    "Oh, the movie certainly gives you space to sympathize with Zuckerberg. Parker is Sorkin's idea of evil."

    so what? he was a side character who contributed fairly little to facebook. the fact that movie made him evil doesn't mean it made facebook evil.

    maybe that was the intention, but it didn't work. i don't use facebook and i knew nothing about zuckerberg before the movie. i had no clue he was a programming genius who wrote most of the code himself. after i saw the movie, i became very respectful of him. people who come off the worst in the movie are the twins (except that he/they look great). ironically, i read one of them saying the movie was accurate.

  • Cata||

    "So, as far as I could tell, no matter how hard the filmmakers MAY have tried to show the warts of the Net geeks, what they actually gave us was an interesting portrait of single-minded genius versus a bunch of lackluster hangers-on. Triumph of the genius."

    completely agree. i came out with from the movie intrigued and respectful of zuckenberg. the twins (according to movie) contributed absolutely nothing, and severin was shown as having zero intellectual and business talent.

  • ||

    I'm still a bit confused about the genius thing. FaceBook, the one Z created was nothing more than a webpage with a database backend. In my career in an R&D lab a built things of that nature a few times a month, in a day or two, to test ideas- and I was the littlest geek in my group. It's the 'idea' was great. Z expanded on it, he didn't even come up with it. It's just a business story, the technology was simple at that point.

  • G Mc||

    A 65 million dollar settlement says maybe that "contract" was worth just a lil' bit of respect.

  • ||

    I think it says that he didn't care about the (loss of) money at that point, and just wanted to end the proceedings so he could move forward with his company. Better to settle for $65 million than drag it out for years of legal fees and bad press.

  • Esteban||

    I must have watched a different movie, because the one I watched did not seem very cynical to me, and while Zuckerberg does come socially awkward, I think he comes out looking pretty good and very smart. It sounds as if Jesse Walker just really hates Aaron Sorkin and was looking for a way to criticize him. I don't really care about Sorkin one way or the other, but I don't think he's a terrible writer.

  • Gabe E||

    Sorkin is a great writer. He's just terribly liberal.

  • ||

    Meanwhile, the social network just topped the weekend box office. Fear sells.

    Probably not the reason this movie sold so well.

    My guess is the coke, the money and the sex along with the implied title "Facebook: The Movie" is what poeple are going to see.

    Plus the Trailer for this movie is really well done. Great song and great visuals.

  • Tony||

    It's a good movie, and I could see it as libertarian friendly. Ingenuity and entrepreneurship and all that.

  • ||

    In the unlikely circumstance that I end up at a party snorting coke off some 20 year old valley girl's tits, I will consider the endless hours mastering the self-pic pose totally worth it.

  • G Mc||

    Yeah... you're thinking too much. I enjoyed it.

  • Kevin Carson||

    The fact that Sorkin wants to "celebrate our institutions" in The West Wing is probably not unrelated to his reasons for hating the Internet.

    I know I'm taking another gratuitous whack at a horse that's already been bludgeoned beyond recognition, but here goes: American establishment liberalism is haunted by the ghosts of Herbert Croly and Joseph Schumpeter. The very idea of a society that's not run by enormous, "Brazil"-style bureaucracies, full of properly qualified professionals following Weberian work rules, is enough to give someone like Sorkin a fit of the vapors.

  • COINTELPRO||

    From what Wired wrote about the movie, it actually played down some of the more questionable aspects, such as that Facebook Illuminati logo Zuckerberg put on a hoodie or those controversial IMs he wrote. If they really wanted to demonize Zuckerberg, they could have included some of this to make him look like some sort of egomanical e-dictator.

  • I Heart Capitalisms||

    Shorter version: Old man yells at Intertubes.

    Yet, I'm still tempted to see it because I like Fincher.
    (This comment written in Interwebs Ink - NOT PENCIL)

  • ||

    For better or worse, things written on the Reason comment boards are here for eternity.

  • I Heart Capitalisms||

    The future generations need to know that Steve Smith liked rape.

  • Some Guy||

    Maybe I'm in the minority in that I don't actually need TV show characters to share my political views, but I thought West Wing was a great show. And government dysfunction was used pretty frequently for comic effect, which is better at pointing such absurdities out than say a condescending 25 page long Ayn Rand monologue.

    Sure, there was the underlying theme that government can actually be competent when good people are in charge, but anyone who mistakes any of the recent or prospective 2012 candidates of competence is lost anyhow.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Maybe I'm in the minority in that I don't actually need TV show characters to share my political views, but I thought West Wing was a great show. And government dysfunction was used pretty frequently for comic effect, which is better at pointing such absurdities out than say a condescending 25 page long Ayn Rand monologue.

    You say this in defense of The West Wing? I didn't dislike it because of its politics (though they didn't help). I disliked it because I didn't like the writing, and one reason I didn't like the writing was because the characters kept speechifying.

  • Some Guy||

    For what, 10 seconds at a time once an episode?

    I thought the characters were very well written, and characters are what makes a show.

  • Rob||

    Thank you, my thoughts exactly.

    I'm hard core libertarian and I loved the show. Truly open minded people can get past politics to enjoy things for what they are.

    I for example have communist friends, and guess what, we just get drunk and play poker, were not there to set a national agenda.

  • COINTELPRO||

    When your communist friends win a hand, do they redistribute their winnings to everyone at the table? If they do, I want in.

  • ||

    I enjoyed the movie and I enjoy everything Sorkin has done. I think my favorite part of this piece is that the hyperlink in the sentence that attacks Sorkin's "self-conscious dialogue" is actually a link a 2002 blog posting on blogspot ripping Sorkin's writing...and also written by Jesse Walker.

    Seriously, how about you just stop watching Sorkin's stuff? I don't like Survivor but I haven't spent 9 years complaining about it on the internet. Hell, I'd get annoyed with the internet too if there were authors who spent the better part of a decade talking about how terrible of a writer I am. Then again, I'd be making millions, getting praise by most viewers and critics, and winning awards...and you'd be sitting at home in your robe complaining about it on the internet.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I also made a snarky comment at Sorkin's expense in this brief blog post in 2003.

    There. Now your chronicle of my nine-year obsessive crusade against Aaron Sorkin is complete. Next time I spend "the better part of a decade talking about how terrible of a writer" someone is, I think I'll go all out and mention the guy four times.

  • ||

    I probably was a little snarky with you. It was late at night, and being a fan of Sorkin's I just found it intriguing that you would continue to watch things from a screenwriter and teleplay author that you so vehemently dislike. Your blog says you had seen Sports Night, West Wing, American President AND A Few Good Men (and I guess I can assume Studio 60 and Charlie Wilson's War, too) already, so why see Social Network if you already know you'll hate it?

    To have an actual discussion, though, I find it interesting that those blogs have been up for 7.5/8 years. But I don't think that was Sorkin's point. I think he was saying that the internet is not a whiteboard in a classroom or an article in a magazine or newspaper. Whiteboards can be easily erased by anyone and are viewed by a select audience. Magazines and newspapers are thrown away and go out of print quickly. Many newspaper websites don't keep everything online, and sometimes you have to subscribe and pay for back issues. Otherwise, you would have to go a library and find back issues on microfiche or order back issues from a publisher. A web posting will stay live--just as yours has--unless the blogger or host removes it. It also isn't for a select audience to see, as anyone with an internet connection, which is almost ubiquitous today, can see it at anytime for free.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I skipped Studio 60 and Charlie Wilson's War, actually. But I watched this because (a) I like David Fincher, and was curious about how his sensibility would mesh with Sorkin's, and (b) I thought it was interesting that a movie being widely touted as a thoughtful story about the Internet had been written by someone who made no secret of his distaste for the Net, and I wanted to see what his take looked like.

    As far as his line about writing in ink goes, all I can say is that I look for old blog posts fairly often -- and in Net terms, "old" can mean it went up less than a year ago -- and I frequently find that they've disappeared. Things are even more impermanent on Facebook, where I've looked for my own old status updates and found that they've been erased without anyone asking me. Which is annoying if you're trying to, say, refer back to a conversation you had with a friend in a Facebook comment thread.

  • ||

    Fair enough

  • Some Dork||

    I liked Sports Night (although I hate sports), but I've never seen anything else by Sorkin. The West Wing just sounded bad to me, so I never bothered to check it out. (I won't criticise it, though, for that reason.)

  • ||

    If you liked Sports Night (and A Few Good Men), the likelihood is that you'll like other stuff from him.

    I understand people's reasons for disliking his stuff, I guess. It's not as "smart", in some ways, at least, as it gets portrayed in the media. I can see where people of "smart" movies find that annoying. On the other hand, I find myself of above-average intelligence, and the scripts he writes, in my opinion, are better than almost anything else right now. They aren't incredible plots, or incredibly deep characters. However, there is a warmth to his motifs of the family atmosphere behind the scenes of the things that American's like (television, politics). I like the idea that the people he normally portrays work together, love their work, and love each other. It's a huge plus that I find his brand of humor very satisfying. I'm not sure what Walker's list of Sorkin lines that are more dumb than they are clever, but I am not looking at Sorkin's stuff for great revelations or social commentary. I am looking to be entertained.

    And at a time where stories and dialogue by George Lucas will make billions, I'd much rather be entertained by a Sorkin script.

  • Nozdordomu ||

    The movie doesn't denounce the Internet, nor does it hate new technology. It denounces misuse of the Internet, and denounces the trivialization of relationships.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I liked Scott Pilgrim as well. I don't think it's at all "bad" if the film topped the box office for 2 weeks. I think it's really, really good.

  • ||

    Were you watching the same movie I was? I felt they didn't focus that much on partying. All the good dialogue comes from elsewhere, nothing important happens in the parties (except one of them). Heck I don't even remember them showing that much.

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