Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

“There’s a difference between being obsessed and being motivated”
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

“Yes, there is
Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in The Social Network

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

Chapter 3: Zodiac
Chapter 4: The Social Network

The Social Network aims to show the multifaceted influences and repercussions of the construction of social-networking website Facebook. The film focuses on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), beginning in 2003 before Facebook was established continuing through to when it is a phenomenon and Mark is being sued by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the co-founder of the company, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

The Social Network begins with a fiery conversation between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), sitting together in a crowded Boston bar. The sense of pressure is immediately presented with the crowded, loud, and dark setting of the bar along with the sense of obsession developing from Mark’s chatter about exclusive clubs that he is desperate to get in to. In his stream-of-consciousness prattling, he accidentally insults Erica’s education and loses his relationship in a mere few seconds. The relationship Mark shared with Erica was a way to keep him connected and sociable – losing it prompts his desire to find an alternate means of interacting.

In many reviews and studies of the film, there are regularly two perspectives on Mark’s character; many either see him as cruel or misunderstood. Both opinions are valid and the disparity in our perception of Mark endorses the film’s investigation of complex emotions. Aaron Sorkin’s taut script propels the audience into an environment of capricious and stressed young-adults where tuning into the conversations is just as difficult as assessing the characters’ reasoning. Fincher ‘is interested in obsessives and sociopaths who overpower normality, and, despite Sorkin’s super-articulate, quickfire dialogue, it’s pretty much one of Fincher’s freaks that Zuckerberg ends up looking like’.[1] Zuckerberg is not just seen as an outsider and the ‘reoccurrence of the title track at certain points in the film, when you’re seeing Zuckerberg reduced, and coming back in a diminished fashion… add[s] a level of humanity’.[2] Hand Covers Bruise”, the film’s main theme, is utilised frequently in the film to show that Zuckerberg’s obsession has, to an extent, corrupted part of his soul – the scratchy effect of the score reflecting volatility. However, it also serves to remind us that he is still a young man and socially awkward, connotations of this are reflected by the light, solemn piano notes. The use of the theme right at the beginning as Mark jogs back to his campus accommodation supports the notion that he is running away from his problems and aptly returning to a more comfortable environment. As well as showing Mark’s cowardice, it also illuminates his unadorned sorrow that can at times eat away at him.

Unlike the remaining characters, once problems become too overwhelming or cause irritation, Mark completely closes in on himself. The hermit persona is both a result of his constant ruminations on Facebook and from a fear of failing in the real world. Zuckerberg lives in his own world, concerned with only his thoughts. Much like Graysmith in Zodiac, Fincher provides a great deal of close-ups in order to try and explore the mentality of the obsessive character (Gyllenhaal and Eisenberg’s reflecting a lot of emotion in their eyes – both tired and wide-eyed a recurring result of the diligent attention to their work). Nevertheless, unlike Zodiac, Mark Zuckerberg is an enigmatic reflection of a human being. Fincher aims to show the young entrepreneur as determined and cut-off from the everyday aspects of life – the social networking enterprise often being cited as a virtual representation of the world and one in which Zuckerberg spends more time in than reality.

2010. The Social Network 01“You have part of my attention. You have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook”

One comment from Andrew Garfield on the film’s DVD commentary about the Phoenix club’s party being something of Mark’s imagination urges a different reading of Mark’s “reality”. Furthermore, Fincher notes how ‘it was contextualized interestingly…that here is somebody hard at work fucking with the fabric of the outside world, and here’s his fantasy of what the outside world is going through’.[3] The idea of fantasy brings another element to Zuckerberg’s often unaware persona. Zuckerberg is strikingly ignorant to social norms and institutional rule. As David Cox writes, ‘[h]e’s wrapped up in his own grievances and ambitions. For him, other people are merely obstacles or stepping stones. The only world he’s interested in is the one he’s building himself’.[4] In doing “something substantial” Mark completely alienates himself for entirely selfish reasons.

The only character to alter Mark’s reclusiveness is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Sean becomes an important figure for change in the narrative and a catalyst for the dramatic disruption of Mark and Eduardo’s principles and friendship. Sean’s introduction to both characters takes place in an upmarket restaurant – an environment very different to the archaic Harvard campus. By the end of the dinner Mark is completely under the Napster’s spell; or as Eduardo states, Sean “owned Mark after that dinner”. As Mark becomes a commodity himself in a new world of trade, the pressure builds on how much money, fame and status will distort the status quo. Sean integrates himself within the Facebook hub and manipulates Mark, wrapping him around his finger and pushing Eduardo out of the circle. As Mark and his team of students working on Facebook move into a Silicon Valley condo so does Sean (much to Eduardo’s initial unawareness and subsequent annoyance). Eduardo, being the most forthright and socially-smart one of the pair, notices Sean having a grievous impact on Mark and freezes the company’s account. This is his first step in distancing himself from Mark and Sean. By the end of the film, Mark also realises the unpredictability of Sean (his illegal actions at a fraternity party illuminate his many flaws); Fincher shows their division by positioning them at opposite ends of the frame to each other. When Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones) asks, “What happened to Sean?” Mark gives a short response about Sean still owning 7% of the company, yet does not elaborate on the relationship any further. Mark’s final position, alone in the deposition room, is one that had been destined for him as soon as Erica left him; even Parker who once seemed to be able to drag Mark out of obscurity fails to change his fate.

2010. The Social Network 02
“I will call someone and see what the next move is”

2010. The Social Network 03
“It was just a party”

It is a common trope in Fincher’s films that the world and relationships are seen as extremely unsound and, like the celluloid flashing abruptly at points in Fight Club, reality often appears unmanageable. Devin Orgeron’s point that Fincher has an ‘interest in the American family, its dissolution and decay’, despite being focused on the familial circle, can be attributed equally to the director’s interest in friendships corroding.[5] Obsession in many of Fincher’s films is focused on aspects of control and the understanding of vulnerable relationships, investigations and emotion. All of the quarrelling characters in The Social Network are attempting to maintain control over a situation yet are constantly facing hindrances. Despite the Henley Regatta scene being deemed by many critics as superfluous (‘a sequence of [literal] showboating… a ravishing but quite unnecessary scene’) I would argue that, with the scene coming after Mark and Sean’s meeting in a club and prior to the Winklevoss’ decision to sue, it epitomizes the growing tension in the narrative.[6] The haunting, jagged rendition of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” creates a tremendously disconcerting feeling of pressure and rage building up within the litigants.

The latter half of the film becomes increasingly more kinetic in terms of cutting; Fincher reflecting ‘the issue of being connected’ and on the growing tension triggered from the mass of various characters’ agendas.[7] Much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher notes on how a series of incidents can alter the way people think about themselves, and how it can often lead to an indefinite understanding of the person. The Social Network has been compared to Orson WellesCitizen Kane (Orson Welles, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941) with both films dealing with issues of fame, betrayal, and as James Berger argues, ‘the underlying catastrophe of American culture: the end of the possibility of social reform, its dissolution into greed, egotism, vested interests, celebrity culture – and the confusions of representation’.[8] Berger’s point about “confusion of representation” is certainly an aspect of The Social Network, and with the series of intertwined plot-points (concerning each character involved in the court case) that adds to the atmosphere of pressure. The film builds up to an irresolute ending where friendships remain broken and settlements are uneasily met (our brief knowledge of pay-offs coming in the form of subtitles that can only slightly inform of us the characters’ futures).

As Eduardo and Mark’s friendship has been focalised throughout most of the film, it becomes important to conclude on their relationship. From the moment Eduardo comes into the film, we acknowledge him as a caring and reputable character. He mistakes Mark’s “I need you” as a heart-broken appeal when really Mark just “needs the algorithm”. Immediately Mark sets him straight, avoiding any sense of platonic care. Eduardo questions the “FaceMash” idea yet his friendship overrules his worry and he helps Mark complete the programme. Whereas Eduardo regularly acts altruistically towards his friend, Zuckerberg continually uses his friend for his own benefit. The emotional impact comes from seeing, from a variety of perspectives, Zuckerberg’s betrayal; ‘It’s in Eduardo—in the actor Andrew Garfield’s animate, beautiful face—that all these betrayals seem to converge, and become personal, painful. The arbitration scenes—that should be dull, being so terribly static—get their power from the eerie opposition between Eisenberg’s unmoving countenance (his eyebrows hardly ever move; the real Zuckerberg’s eyebrows never move) and Garfield’s imploring disbelief’.[9] Zuckerberg’s robotic, unemotional persona is juxtaposed with Eduardo’s in such a way that Eduardo’s break-downs (him smashing Mark’s laptop and shedding a tear in the case hearings) appear overpoweringly poignant. By the end of the film, Mark sitting by himself is a deserving result of his obsession and his coldness towards a benevolent friend. Fincher is questioning the impassive personality in conjunction with the socially-orientated creation of Zuckerberg’s (in that the two should not corroborate), as much as Eduardo should not realistically continue being friends with Mark.

The irony of the film’s story – a ‘social leper’ creating a social networking website – is remarked upon by the use of The Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” at the end of the film.[10] The lyrics sardonically critique Mark as the ‘computer nerd… [and] social “autistic”’ that he always has been.[11] The song could also be seen as a track running through Mark’s mind as he sits at his computer looking at his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page (a sign that even an enemy has come to endorse his creation); his work has in a sense corrupted his mind, creating a delusion of grandeur. The god-like paradigm of Zuckerberg’s power elaborated on by Zadie Smith who sees Mark ‘too hyped on the idea that he’s in heaven to notice he’s in hell’.[12] Thinking he is above the testimonies and accusations does nothing to enable audience and characters’ empathy for him. As Lennard J. Davis asserts in his book on obsession, ‘obsessive comes with the labelling of those thoughts as repugnant and unacceptable’ – which complements the outsider quality of Zuckerberg.[13]

Fincher develops the topic of obsession and shows the corroding effects of friendships and trust due to an individual’s unyielding devotion to an idea. The presentation of obsession is, as Richard Corliss writes, ‘closest to the serial-killer docudrama Zodiac. The muted tones and prowling camera make The Social Network a neo-noir, stalking the truth. Make that Rashômon [Akira Kurosawa, Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1950] versions of various truths. Again, like films of the ’70s, this one ends with a question mark. To the rapt viewer, Fincher and Sorkin say, “You finish the movie”’.[14] The ending is similar to Zodiac’s, Seven’s and Fight Club’s where not all the scenarios are concluded upon and the audience is left with a feeling of uncertainty. One thing that detaches The Social Network from his other films is the absence of death. Fincher said at the time of Benjamin Button that, ‘Death is the core of everything… of all my movies’.[15] This film is not a movie involved with death at all and Fincher is very reliant on the intertextual references to past work to highlight how much the film is observant of technology, law and friendship rather than anything else. The scene of Mark looking outside of the court room to a rainy cityscape is reminiscent of 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, Orion-Nova Productions, 1957), along with reference to the development of a business like that of Citizen Kane and explorations into friendship like teen-orientated film, American Graffiti (George Lucas, Universal Pictures, 1973). The absence of one of the director’s key motives does cast doubt on Fincher’s title as an auteur.



1. David Sexton, “The Social Network is Must-See Story of Facebook Friends and Enemies”, London Evening Standard, 15 October, 2010
2. Trent Reznor interviewed by Todd Martens, Pop & Hiss: The L.A Times Music Blog, 28 February, 2011
3. David Fincher interviewed by Lev Grossman, “The Making of the Facebook Movie: A TIME Roundtable” in Time Magazine, 23 September, 2010
4. David Cox, “And Zuckerberg Created Man…and The Social Network”, The Guardian, 18 October, 2010
5. Devin Orgeron in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Yvonne Tasker (ed) (London: Routledge, 2002) p.157
6. Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?”, The New York Review of Books, 25 November, 2010
7. Pierce, email correspondence with the author, 8 February, 2010, 17:50
8. James Berger, After the End: representations of post-apocalypse (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999) p.xi
9. Smith, “Generation Why?”
10. Michael Dalton, “Cinema: The Social Network” review on Media Culture, 1:11, 2010
11. Smith, “Generation Why?”
12. Ibid.
13. Davis, Obsession: A History, p.14
14. Richard Corliss, “The Social Network: A Pie in the Face for Zuckerberg”, Time Magazine, 24 September, 2010
15. David Fincher interviewed by Nev Pierce, “History in the Making”, TotalFilm Issue 149, December 2008

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