The Social Network is as taut a drama as any murder mystery. Its dark campus shots and broody soundtrack with nary a short-short co-ed or frisbee in sight announce a break from the college movies the old era. It’s a fictionalized account of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, from neophyte tech student at Harvard to billionaire business man.
Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for Moneyball and creator of The West Wing, likes to begin his scripts on tilt, a staccato of dialogue, forcing the viewers to listen in order to catch up. His characters often speak past each other, responding with zags to zigs; ignoring one thread only to veer back to it a few seconds later. In The Social Network, he begins the story with nine pages of dialogue between the principal character, Mark Zuckerberg, and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. It is an unorthodox amount for an opening scene, but it establishes the themes of the movie as well as character of Zuckerberg.
MARK: Did you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?
ERICA: That can’t possibly be true.
MARK: It is.
ERICA: What would account for that?
MARK: Well, first, an awful lot of people live in China. But here’s my question: How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?
ERICA: I didn’t know they take SAT’s in China.
MARK: They don’t. I wasn’t talking about China anymore, I was talking about me.
Zuckerberg is clearly not following the words of Erica. Even if we assume his claim is correct (it isn’t), the most straightforward way to take her question would be to address education in China, rather than assume that she’s unaware of the population difference. He then leaps to the purpose of his comment, which was to introduce his dilemma. The narcissism in this snippet is thick, assuming that she would follow his non-sequitur, or that the regular conventions of conversation do not apply to him. Note how his use of “you” is intended to mean him. The conversation continues:
ERICA: You got 1600?
MARK: Yes. I could sing in an a Capella group, but I can’t sing.
ERICA: Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?
MARK: I can row crew or invent a 25 dollar PC.
ERICA: Or you can get into a final club.
MARK: Or I can get into a final club.
ERICA: You know, from a woman’s perspective, sometimes not singing in an a Capella group is a good thing?
MARK: This is serious.
Mark deigns to respond to her first question, but ignores her until she returns to the subject he wishes to address. As a side note, ladies love to hear how a woman’s perspective isn’t serious. It seems at this moment that Erica decides to take the offensive; she’s tired of his games and pushes against his ego:
ERICA: On the other hand I do like guys who row crew.
MARK (beat): Well I can’t do that.
ERICA: I was kid–
MARK: Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.
ERICA: Have you ever tried?
MARK: I’m trying right now.
ERICA: To row crew?
MARK: To get into a final club. To row crew? No. Are you, like–whatever–delusional?
ERICA: Maybe, but sometimes you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to be aiming at.
MARK: But you’ve seen guys who row crew, right?
MARK: Okay, well they’re bigger than me. They’re world class athletes. And a second ago you said you like guys who row crew so I assumed you had met one.
ERICA: I guess I just meant I liked the idea of it. The way a girl likes cowboys.
MARK: (beat): Okay.
Erica begins poking at Zuckerberg’s confidence by expressing an attraction to physical attributes, knowing full well that he measures poorly by this standard. Feeling inadequate, he attempts to draw it back to his strengths, that of intellectual prowess, by answering her previously ignored question: “Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.” He again attempts to draw the conversation back to his preferred topic of final clubs, but Erica persists.
Zuckerberg tries to put her on the defensive, striking out with a measured “Are you, like –whatever– delusional?” He tries to cow her, but she remains unfazed, defending herself by comparing cowboys to rowing crew. Zuckerberg grudgingly admits defeat. After this, they start over, and director David Fincher resets the scene by showing both characters from the side before returning to corresponding over-the-shoulder cuts:
ERICA: Should we get something to eat?
MARK: Would you like to talk about something else?
ERICA: No, it’s just since the beginning of the conversation about finals club I think I may have missed a birthday. (can’t get over it) There are really more people in China with genius IQ’s than the entire population of–
MARK: The Phoenix is the most diverse. The Fly Club, Roosevelt punched the Porc.
ERICA: Which one?
MARK: The Porcellian, the Porc, it’s the best of the best.
ERICA: Which Roosevelt?
ERICA: Is it true that they send a bus around to pick up girls who want to party with the next Fed Chairman?
MARK: You can see why it’s so important to get in.
Here Zuckerberg shows that he’s not completely incapable of listening. He’s (finally) realized that she’s not interested in talking about final clubs so he asks if she wants to talk about something else. Unfortunately he listens only so far as the first word, “No”, and launches back into his self-absorbed bubble. Erica refuses to back down, she refuses to allow him to talk past her now so she tries to dissuade him from the importance of the clubs by revealing the crass, misogynistic practice of the “Porc” a comment he, once again, totally misinterprets. Skipping ahead to where Erica speaks in unmistakable language:
MARK: I want to try to be straight forward with you and tell you that I think you might want to be a little more supportive. If I get in I’ll be taking you…to the events, and the gatherings…and you’ll be meeting a lot of people you wouldn’t normally get to meet.
ERICA (smiles): You would do that for me?
MARK: We’re dating.
ERICA: Okay, well I want to try and be straight forward with you and let you know that we’re not anymore.
MARK: What do you mean?
ERICA: We’re not dating anymore, I’m sorry.
MARK: Is this a joke?
ERICA: No, it’s not.
MARK: You’re breaking up with me?
ERICA: You’re going to introduce me to people I wouldn’t normally have the chance to meet? What the fff–What is that supposed to mean?
MARK: Wait, settle down.
ERICA: What is it supposed to mean?
MARK: Erica, the reason we’re able to sit here and drink right now is cause you used to sleep with the door guy.
ERICA: The door guy, his name is Bobby. I did not slept with the door guy, the door guy is a friend of mine. He’s a perfectly good class of people and what part of Long Island are you from–Wimbledon?
ERICA: I’m going back to my dorm.
MARK: Wait, wait, is this real?
MARK: Okay, then wait. I apologize, okay?
ERICA: I have to go study.
Zuckerberg has shown a complete inability to pick up on social clues and is unable or uninterested in following the conventions of communication and having insulted her upbringing, she breaks up with him. Instead of getting to assert his dominance, both morally and fiscally, Erica cuts him off, rebuts his claim and shows that the power of her feminine mystique outweighs his earning potential.
What’s striking is that she censors herself (“What the fff–What is that supposed to mean?”). Aaron Sorkin is no prude when it comes to foul language, but unlike many purveyors of crassness, he is aware of the impact these words have. When Erica swallows the obscenity, her innocence is highlighted and Zuckerberg remains the aggressor. A lesser screenwriter would’ve had Erica unleash a barrage of foul speech in order to (rightfully and to the delight of the audience) bury Zuckerberg, but Sorkin opts to set up a greater coup de grace. Skipping ahead again (after he’s insulted her education too):
ERICA: I think we should just be friends.
MARK: I don’t want friends.
ERICA: I was being polite, I have no intention of being friends with you.
MARK: I’m under some pressure right now with my OS class and if we could just order food I think we should–
ERICA (takes MARK’s hand and looks at him tenderly): You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.
David Fincher has been very deliberate with his cuts relying on standard over-the-shoulder shots for dialogue. There are two times he uses a close-up to punctuate the dialogue. The first is when they utter the magical topic of Final Clubs (ERICA: “Or you can get into a final club.” MARK: “Or I can get into a final club.”), and the final time is for this last line Erica delivers.
By showing Erica choosing her words carefully, we learn that she does not use coarse language lightly and when she drops her final assessment it explodes in a way that would not be possible had Sorkin elected to use the more potent expletive earlier. Slowly Erica takes over this conversation and crushes Zuckerberg. Toward the end he is reeling and scrambling to get control of the conversation again. It is devastating and total and it is this event that sparks his invention of a social network, and drives his passion to bury his social shortcomings in wealth.