Film Version of Facebook CEO Zuckerberg Divides Generations

David Carr|The New York Times

At what point does ambition, a cornerstone of American commerce, morph into something darker and less celebrated? Over the weekend, people who saw “The Social Network,” the movie about Facebook and its principal creator, Mark Zuckerberg, were left to ponder that question on the sidewalk.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Getty Images

As for the movie’s relationship with the truth of Facebook’s origins, let’s just say it’s complicated. Full of compressions, inventions and cinematic plot twists, this is not a film about the “real” Facebook: it’s just a really good movie. But the movie could well serve as a referendum on business aggression and ambition that breaks along generational lines.

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 Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands, mostly by placing them on the keyboard and coding something that no one else had.

By the younger cohort’s lights, when you make an omelet this big—half a billion users—a few eggs are going to get broken. Or as the film’s artful tag line suggests, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies along the way.”

“When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films,” said Scott Rudin, one of the producers. “The older audiences see Zuckerberg as a tragic figure who comes out of the film with less of himself than when he went in, while young people see him as completely enhanced, a rock star, who did what he needed to do to protect the thing that he had created.”

The actual Facebook has been playing clumsy defense against the film, including having the real Zuckerberg pop out of nowhere on “Oprah” to donate $100 million to the schools of Newark, but my hunch is that the company doesn’t have much to worry about.

Regardless of what the courts, the media or former partners say, Zuckerberg’s reign as boy-king of America’s new capitalism will only grow. (Perhaps the company realized as much. On Friday, Zuckerberg made the smart move and attended a screening with other employees from Facebook. Why pretend?)

However lacking Zuckerberg may be in the social graces that drive civil society, he embodies the optimism and creativity of millennials. To many who will see the film, the spectacular ends make the means seem beside the point.

As played in the film by Jesse Eisenberg and written by Aaron Sorkin, Zuckerberg is a social autistic who pivots between brilliance and hubris on his way to becoming the youngest billionaire the world has seen.

As the characters around him chatter and amble about, Zuckerberg is often seen looking away, into a future that only he can see. And when people don’t come around to that vision, he runs them over or blows past them. Whether you see those people as victims or impediments probably says a lot about whether you are looking at life in the rearview or through a front windshield rife with possibilities.

Eisenberg said that after screening the film and listening to audiences, he sensed a bifurcation in how people saw the movie, and by extension, Zuckerberg.

“I was asked by older people again and again how I could play a character who is capable of being so mean, as if I were almost condemned by this role,” he said in a phone call. “But young people never had that reaction. They kept saying, ‘This guy was a genius. Look what he has created.’ ”

Aaron Sorkin on Writing "The Social Network"

“For a lot of people my age”—Eisenberg is 26, the same age as Mr. Zuckerberg—“the message is that technology allows you to create something that can change things from a single computer. You don’t need a secretary, you don’t need an office building and you don’t need employees.”

It’s not as if the archetype of the ruthless entrepreneur is unique to “The Social Network” in pop culture. In fact, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which is also in theaters, features not one but two vivid exemplars of the genre: Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, and Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin, who spend time piling up personal wealth and plotting payback. But they play characters who never invented anything other than obscure, ultimately worthless financial instruments to enrich themselves. The only time they reached a half a billion, it had a dollar sign in front.

Perhaps what animates “The Social Network” and makes it of the moment is not whether the movie version of Zuckerberg is a jerk—with a face pinched into prickliness and a tendency to staple people with his mouth, he was clearly no picnic to be around—but the kind of jerk he was.

“The fact that he was hard on the people around him is not really new, or generational,” said Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker. “What may be different is that in the past, those people have been far more colorful and charismatic. They have embraced that side of themselves. But for people like Zuckerberg, it’s more like Asperger’s, that they lack something essential and don’t have an instinctual understanding of human behavior. That’s why he ended up creating algorithms to explain it.”

“I think the movie raises the question of whether it is possible to be successful without being at least a bit” of a brute, said Denton, who has been called worse on his way to building his digital media empire. “Much of the movie seemed to be about the virtues of stubbornness, about not listening to what was said by others around you.”

Sorkin noticed the different reactions as he screened the movie early around the country, and he couldn’t be happier.

“I’m happy we didn’t take a position, and I’m happy for audiences to come out of the theater arguing about it,” he said. “Regardless of what they conclude about who invented Facebook, there is no question that Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. He doesn’t just have brains. He created something.” (Speaking of global ambition, Sorkin was fresh out of a private screening of the movie for Lady Gaga. She “liked” it, by all accounts.)

For a guy who is on his way to making many billions, the Zuckerberg in the movie sounds less like a capitalist than an artist lost in his work. Early in the film, the Eduardo Saverin character, a co-founder, who will end up run over by lawyers and his former friend and partner, presses  Zuckerberg on coming up with a completed project and a business model to go with it.

“When will it be finished?” Saverin asks.

“It won’t be finished,” Zuckerberg says, and, ever the jerk-visionary, adds, “That’s the point.”