When we think of the Oscars, we inevitably think of swelling music, the gutsy underdog of Slumdog Millionaire, the powerful real-life heroes of Gandhi or Schindler’s List, or even the ordinary heroes of Rainman and Forrest Gump. The Academy, or so the common wisdom goes, favors stories of truth, justice, and the noble, courageous way. And though Oscar heroes are also sometimes tragic or flawed, they are rarely as downright unsympathetic as the “hero” of The Social Network, a film that’s one of the frontrunners of the 2011 season.
Whatever you think of The Social Network’s ultimate chances at the Academy Awards, it’s generally conceded that it took kickass writing (not to mention top-of-the-game directing and fearless acting) for this story of an antihero to make it quite this far. Antiheroes pose a unique challenge for writers—and for audiences. How to imbue with sympathy a character we’re also asking viewers to dislike? In my second post on some of the screenwriting talent behind this year’s Oscar nominees (see here for previous post), I take a closer look at some of the techniques Aaron Sorkin uses to bring The Social Network’s antihero, Mark Zuckerberg, to vivid life.
“You should definitely come and live with us.” In just eight words Sorkin communicates Mark Zuckerberg’s shattering decision to admit Sean Parker, the flamboyant and well-connected co-founder of Napster, to his inner circle. It’s at this moment that we know that Mark’s best friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin is already on his way out. Never mind that Facebook has succeeded so wildly that it’s soon to be a billion dollar company. What’s key is that Mark makes the crucial decision without ever consulting Eduardo. By the time the two finally talk, Eduardo’s prolonged absence and his inability to drum up the kind of VC interest that Sean has gotten for Facebook are stated as simple facts. As he does with the Winkelvoss twins, Mark avoids a direct confrontation or explanation for the break. We’ve already seen an arrogant Mark treat his girlfriend like crap. Now we know he’s a complete jerk. Yet we remain glued to the screen. Why? What keeps us riveted on this unsympathetic character?
We’ve seen the devil and he is us. [And he often prospers.] It’s easy to side with Eduardo or even the Winkelvii and claim that if it were us, we’d have been more chivalrous. But Mark’s calculated decision making is, as many can attest, quite common in business. Do Zuckerberg’s actions and conflicts make him an asshole? Or is he just one of the few founders smart enough to survive—and prosper--through a young company’s fraught transitions? We may not like the way Mark carries out his decisions, but his judgments and choices come across as real and inevitably complex. Complicating our sympathies, Mark’s choices are inextricably linked to his business success as much as to his personal failures. What would we do in Mark’s shoes? How far would you go to ensure your startup’s triumph?
Flawed characters can attract the sympathy vote. Mark Zuckerberg is rude to his girlfriend and awkward in most social settings. He’s annoying, obsessive and catty. But we also feel sympathy for this familiar uber-nerd who lacks basic social skills. His girlfriend dumps him with a vicious line, the clubs he wants to join are out of his reach, and coding is the only way he knows to compete. Sorkin has said that the Zuckerberg character is “an anti-hero for an hour and 55 minutes of the movie, and a tragic hero for the final five minutes of the movie.” It sounds great, but as an accomplished screenwriter, Sorkin knows better. We’re set up to sympathize with and see some nobility in this brilliant yet fatally flawed Shakespearean figure from the get go.
There’s always more than one side to a story. The smart screenwriter uses supporting characters to complicate the protagonist’s arc. In The Social Network, no one is completely selfless. The Winkelvii clearly want to use Mark’s talents for their own purposes. And what actually drives their lawsuit? A quest for fair compensation? Or envy that that Mark succeeds where the twins don’t? Eduardo is sympathetic, sure, but he lacks business acumen and his actions often suggest that he is motivated by long-held grudges or disappointments Then there’s Sean Parker. Mark wants Sean’s magic investor dust but what, besides the money, does Sean want exactly? With all the mixed motives floating around, Mark often looks good if only by comparison.
Lack of physical attractiveness. It’s an obvious but still effective ploy. We are both physically attracted to the righteous and yet have some sympathy for their less well-endowed counterparts. How much can we really hate Mark when he stands next to the stunning Winkelvii?
If there’s a gun on the mantle, make sure it goes off. One of the many fun things about reading a Sorkin script is trying to spot its early clues. Sorkin often sneaks in a crucial bit early in Act I, lets it fade from view, and then ties the whole shebang together only in Act III. The puzzle’s resolution at movie’s end reinforces both plot and theme. In the opening to Sorkin’s script for The American President, the President has just given a speech and left out a few sentences on handgun restrictions, a controversial issue that he campaigned on. Lewis, an aide, can’t let the omission go. The President, however, won’t bend. There are reelection realities to consider. Instead of gun control, they will now champion crime control, an issue that will help his standing in the polls. And though passing the crime bill becomes a major plot point, most of us forget about the omitted paragraph. It isn’t until the final act of the movie, when Sydney Allen Wade confesses to also noticing the omitted paragraph that we realize how well we’ve been set up: Sydney and the President are the perfect match. It is Sydney who helps the President stand up for the issues he believes in. By movie’s end, the President is embracing not only Sydney, but also the pro-environment energy bill she’s been pushing. The final coup de grace? He’s throwing out his crime bill and rewriting it to include what he’d omitted, the ban on assault weapons and handguns. In the pilot for The West Wing, which Sorkin also wrote, he pulls a similar thematic hat trick with the opening and closing bicycle story (I’ll leave it to the adventurous to hunt down details). In The Social Network, that bit of business is Erica’s dumping of Mark Z. It isn’t until the final scene of the film when Mark stabs the computer refresh key over and over that we fully grasp how driven Mark’s been by his failure with Erica. For all his success in connecting others via Facebook, Zuckerberg is friendless. Now, I didn’t love this element as it’s not only completely false to real life (Mark Z has a long time girlfriend) but sent me slightly off track. The coders revolutionizing our lives aren’t just trying to fill personal holes. Techies I know have very cool positive visions for our online future. For them, it’s about the possibilities of communication, not about failures with eating clubs or hot girls. But, no matter, as a writing technique, Sorkin’s move is brilliant. He offers an “aha” moment while enhancing our sympathy. We walk out of the theater having solved one riddle yet with the larger relationship theme to puzzle over.
Confession is good for the soul—and increases our sympathy. A truthful “confession” is always moving. As a resolution, it’s distinctly powerful. Mark, in one of the last lines of the movie, acknowledges again that he “was drunk and angry and stupid” when he wrote about wanting to compare women to farm animals. His glimmer of self-awareness powerfully resolves an unsympathetic character’s journey.
Use “American” themes that resonate. Mark Zuckerberg comes from a well-off family, but Sorkin and Fincher’s decision to play up the WASPy powers-that-be at Harvard and the Winkelvii’s elite status is effective. It makes Mark a clear underdog in this portrayal of “class” antipathy in America. For Sorkin, Facebook hasn’t just revolutionized our social life. It’s effected a much larger social transition in which the East Coast establishment has lost ground. Yes, the outsider banging down the gates, demolishing class barriers is a familiar theme. It also continues to be a powerful one for American stories.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to cram into this post all the techniques that Sorkin uses to create interest in his antihero. The hyper-articulate, witty dialogue that makes Mark attractive; the propulsive forward motion the film’s banter creates that helps win us over. We see much to admire about Mark—he’s good at business and a brilliant coder. He lacks things that we value highly: friends, a social life. We even see him fail—with Erica and Eduardo. All these attributes help viewers identify with this fundamentally flawed character.
In a few weeks, we’ll know if The Social Network’s unsympathetic characters have prevailed over the clearer cut heroes of The King’s Speech at the Academy Awards. However things turn out, we should celebrate Sorkin’s screenwriting art. It is Sorkin’s muscular writing, after all, that put an antihero into a contest usually dominated by characters whose heroic deeds, more easily perhaps, win our hearts.