On Sorkin, On Strindberg

by Seth Colter Walls


One of the pleasures to be found in Aaron Sorkin’s writing is how utterly unburdened it is with the weight of meta or pomo or, really, post-anything. He’s terribly, incurably Romantic. And if you don’t want epically smug, pro-elitism rants, precious literary references or the big syrupy love notes between professional narcissists, it’s not as though you can ever claim you weren’t warned in the first five minutes of whatever you started watching.

Even if you managed to overlook how every hyper-articulate character he’s ever created on his own — whether on “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” or in The American President — has not only taken a dim view of the online world, but has also perceived its very existence as some kind of personal slight, the screenwriter recently put the words into his own mouth for New York magazine. “I’m going to give you a rant,” Sorkin said, “I don’t like the Internet.”

The problem with his taking the assignment for The Social Network flows from the fact Sorkin also happens to be one of the most painfully earnest screenwriters of his generation. Which means here he is forced to create narrative tension out of the initial rise (and then the further, sharper rise, and then really only a very-minorly-sidetracked rise to billionaire status) of a character for whom Sorkin feels so little — and who is only glumly, clunkily put in his place by the Screenwriting Voice of Morality in the movie’s final seconds, by way of a tertiary character, no less, who stands in for the consistent point of view the movie wanted to pretend it had all along even as it was making you root for the company whose plucky advancement wound up being a discredit to its era.

How we do know that Sorkin doesn’t care so much about his movie-Zuckerberg? There are some clues. The balance of his past work reveals that Sorkin believes moments of creativity are next to (secular) godliness — and that as such, they’re best dramatized as the outputs of many a tortured night. (“The West Wing”’s cadre of martyred staffers labors over the tiniest speeches, past the point of exhaustion. The sketch comedy writers and performers on “Studio” 60 invoke Moliere and Strindberg as they’re crashing a live broadcast.) And, prior to this movie and Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin has also obviously enjoyed writing about groups of people who treasure the experience of working together.

Now he’s written a movie about the creation of an Internet business, achieved by people who can’t stand one another or really even feel things, for the most part. This is all going against Sorkin’s muscle memory as a writer, and it shows, not least in the telling of Facebook’s origin myth. Zuckerberg’s act of creation — the coding of the algorithm that’s meant to be the inspiration for the later site (but really wasn’t) — is done in five minutes, while sipping on a beer. Untroubled and anti-poetic — it’s not the stuff of destiny. And it makes Zuckerberg a strange delivery mechanism for the archetypal Sorkin scenes that follow. Sure, we’re meant to understand the Winkelvi as contemptibly privileged, muscular and blond, but when movie-Zuckerberg does some dirt to his best pal — though maybe only at the behest of Justin Timberlake’s Mephistopheles — the moral ground isn’t firm enough for anyone to get off on the orgasmic self-righteousness that is Sorkin’s stock in trade.

Sorkin’s confusion is never anything but zippy as hell. It’s the mark of a pro, that he can keep you entertained even as he’s flailing and stalling for time. “I’m happy we didn’t take a position, and I’m happy for audiences to come out of the theater arguing about it,” Sorkin told David Carr

at the Times — but I’m not buying it, not from a guy who likes his sermons this much. Absent the self-certain fire that moves its writer, this script feels like the first rug-pulling effort from someone who has thus far resisted the urge to make you read things outside the margins of his script in order to get the full story.

The Social Network is nothing so much as a divertingly stylized recap of something that a lot of us saw in real time — with, as in recap writing, some of the particulars blown out of proportion for effect — which then asks, like a good blog post, “but what do you think?” It pretends to be of two minds regarding a strategy of media it’s firmly resolved about emulating: namely, the usefulness of driving you into a controlled frenzy of confusion, so that you’ll talk about it all the more.

The media — with its flexible desire to see two sides to every story (you know, that trait all of Sorkin’s self-assured characters despise) — was ready to help him out, as in: How People of Different Ages View a Thing Differently. The virtue of legible penmanship, the first black president, pre-marital/gay/multi-partner sex: all of these things are viewed differently by different generations, and, also, the intersection of this movie and its moment has us ready to treat that truism like a revelation. Usefully, its familiarity allows it to get away with nothing in the way of quantitative support. “The movie could well serve as a referendum….” Could it, now? Very much like so: “Many older people will watch the movie, which was No. 1 at the box office last weekend, and see a cautionary tale about a callous young man who betrays friends, partners and principles as he hacks his way to lucre and fame. But many in the generation who grew up in a world that Mr. Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands…”

Someone who freely confesses to not understanding the Internet, as Sorkin has, won’t be capable of giving the new, imperfect medium credit for standing in opposition to the mainstream media values that he also hated before there ever was a Facebook. (Also, um? Nobody used to watch “Dallas”? And before millennials came along, Americans never warmed to innovative mavericks who “played by their own rules”?)

There is one person who can confirm these premises. It’s just the guy whose job happens to be selling The Social Network as a movie with appreciable arcs, instead of a ton of friggin’ lasers. “When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films,” said Scott Rudin, who can take comfort in maybe being half right. When you talk to people afterward, it’s clear that they have each seen two different films — both of them well-lit, smartly edited and attractively performed — which don’t make any sense together, and probably on purpose, just to cover all the bets.

Following best Internet practices, they’ve made sure to curate all the appropriate outs for themselves. One day they’re carefully researching the facts, the next day their fidelity is to storytelling, not the truth. They’ve got thesis and antithesis covered. But the synthesis? That’s all up to you. Why don’t you go on the Internet and let the anti-Internet movie know about it?

Back when he was engaged enough with his characters to know what he thought about them, Sorkin hinted — via a character from “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — that the “scariest play” he himself knows is Strindberg’s The Father. Since The Social Network is reputed, by its creators, to be a jaundiced piece of work, it’s not unreasonable to give it a quick thumbing through. And indeed, near the close of the piece — which concerns the insanity that descends among loved ones after a dispute over the rights of parentage — the protagonist responds to a request for his forgiveness by saying the following:

“But how does it help me? And who’s to blame? Perhaps our spiritual notion of marriage? In the old days, a man married a wife; now he forms a business partnership with a career woman or moves in with a friend. — And then he seduces the partner or rapes the friend. Whatever happened to love, healthy sensual love? It died somewhere along the way. And what’s the issue? Shares, dividends, placed with the bearer, with no joint liability. But who’s the bearer when the crash comes? Who’s the physical father of the child?”

There’s nothing in the reputed dark-night-of-your-Facebook-soul that moves the needle of human drama further than in Strindberg’s time. The same human-on-human dishonesty (and brutality) applies, regardless of whether your mom knows how to big-up your status updates or not. What is different is the purpose of the author — whether he’s really ready to tell us anything about why exactly it’s so terrifyingly tempting to leave other people cold, or if he’s just in it to collect likes on a whole other level.

Seth Colter Walls is The Awl’s chief correspondent for the difficult arts. And he wants you to buy tickets to this.