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Fincher Moments: Mark Zuckerberg Walks Into a Bar

The first few minutes of David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ is a thesis statement on its protagonist—and a harbinger for a decade defined by assholes

Sony/Ringer illustration

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs the next five days David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

“The scene is stark and simple,” reads the first page of the screenplay. A young couple sits bickering at a campus pub, a tale as old as time. They speak quickly and sharply about pressing student concerns: SAT scores, summer jobs, a cappella groups, and whether one of them used to sleep with the establishment’s bouncer. (He’s just a friend named Bobby, she insists.)

Each character feels increasingly insulted by the other. By the end of the conversation, their relationship is through. “A fuse has just been lit,” notes the script at the scene’s conclusion, describing a dynamic—college breakup as launching pad—that is broadly familiar to audiences yet is also, in this telling, a portal to a great and eventually unrelatable unknown. That’s because this movie is no rom-com; it’s The Social Network, the 2010 deep dive into the hectic and ultimately litigious early days of Facebook that was written with snide perceptiveness by Aaron Sorkin, directed with bold ambition by David Fincher, scored with staccato generosity by Trent Reznor, nominated for eight Oscars, and received by audiences worldwide to the tune of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

That fuse being lit in the opening scene? It belongs, in this film, to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, the guy responsible in real life for shepherding his website from a bitter dorm-room breakthrough in the fall of 2003 into the mighty (and mightily controversial) $719 billion global enterprise it is today. The on-screen bar where Zuckerberg, portrayed with cold-eyed, chip-on-shoulder precision by Jesse Eisenberg, engages in exhausting rapport with his poor girlfriend Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara? It’s a real place near Harvard called The Thirsty Scholar, a name that also describes Zuckerberg’s behavior.

Self-conscious yet unsubtle, speaking in Sorkin’s merry-go-round patter, Zuckerberg fixates upon (yet can’t quite figure out) how to differentiate himself by doing “something substantial, whatever that may be.” Within a five-minute conversation (conversation?), he obsesses over getting chosen for one of Harvard’s final clubs; implicitly compares himself to Teddy Roosevelt; tells Erica she doesn’t need to study because she merely goes to Boston University; makes the aforementioned assumption about her connection to the doorman; can’t take a joke about rowing crew; and can’t take a hint when Erica informs him that they aren’t dating anymore. On the other side of the table, meanwhile, Mara as Erica positively glows, first with effortful politeness, then with can-you-believe-this-guy restraint, and finally with a righteous clarity of mind.

“ERICA takes MARK’S hand and looks at him tenderly,” the script directs. “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person,” Erica begins. “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.” Her delivery is seething. Watching it now, with the benefit and burden of hindsight, it feels almost soothing.

“The first scene in a movie,” Fincher told TimeOut in 2011, “should teach the audience how to watch it.” In that regard, the start of The Social Network—adapted from Ben Mezrich’s dishy book The Accidental Billionaires—is like a social network itself: requiring and rewarding one’s attention, setting up and teasing the future content to expect. “It’s shut-the-fuck-up-time,” the director continued in that interview. “Pay attention, or you’re going to miss a lot.”

Erica and Mark talk in circles around one another as if they’re two strangers arguing politics in the comments of a mutual friend’s Facebook post. “Sometimes you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to be aiming at,” Erica says to Mark. “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster,” she adds. And while they are speaking face-to-face, they are also foreshadowing a divide between courtesy and clarity that these days is familiar to anyone who spends time online. (“Literal to the point of offense, pedantic to the point of aggression,” was how Zadie Smith described this vibe in the New York Review of Books in 2010.)

When Erica tells Zuckerberg near the end of the opening scene that she thinks perhaps they should just be friends, he says: “I don’t want friends.” Erica grits her teeth. “I was being polite,” she says. “I have no intention of being friends with you.”

The scene goes round and round like this for seven minutes. In Sorkin’s script, it spanned six pages. (Fincher visited the writer and had him read it all out loud to him at the relentless cadence Sorkin envisioned, and remained pretty faithful to that pace.) In a 2011 documentary about the making of The Social Network, it is mentioned more than once that the scene was shot in 99 takes. But as with so many statistics shared by, for, about, and on Facebook, that number benefits from a bit of context.

Eisenberg, for example, says in the documentary that filming the opening scene of the film was his “greatest experience as an actor” and that the process left him “sated at the end of the day.” This was less a grueling boot camp run by a feared dictator-auteur as it was a session of Pilates led by an exacting guru homing in on just a few small, vital degrees of performance range. “People talk about him shooting a lot of tapes,” says Angus Wall, who along with Kirk Baxter won the Oscar for Best Film Editing for The Social Network, in a phone conversation, “but really he’s aiming for a very specific thing.”

Over the years, Wall and Baxter have learned to process Fincher’s material by viewing his last shots—typically the close-ups—first and working their way back to the earlier, wider footage. That way, they can begin by seeing what the director had himself decided to notice during the shoot. “You’re looking for these really exquisite nuances and performances,” Wall says, “and I think that’s one of the things that makes his movies so fucking good. It’s this incredible accumulation of like, tiny little details, and tiny little choices.” It took Wall, who has collaborated with Fincher since he worked on the title scene for Se7en in 1995, three whole weeks to edit The Social Network’s opening scene alone. To this day, he says, when he hears any news about the CEO of Facebook, it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s face he sees in his mind’s eye, and not Mark Zuckerberg’s.

“It’s one of those things that is completely immersive,” he says of the editing process. “And you lose track of time. If you’re really into it, a day goes by like a blink … It’s like when you’re a kid and you go to school and you come home and your parents go: So, what happened? And you’re like, I don’t even know.” Wall may not have a Facebook account of his own, but when he puts it that way, cutting film sounds a whole lot like browsing the social network. The difference is that at the end of the day, not only does he wind up with something tangible to show for all of the time and energy he invested, we all do.

By the time audiences sat down to take in The Social Network’s opening scene for the first time in 2010, the movie had already been through the entire rise and fall of a standard hype cycle. Or, in this case, it was more of a fall and rise: When news first came out in 2009 that Mezrich’s book was being adapted for a movie, much of the reaction was skeptical and even preemptively bored. Headlines from the time included “No, You Cannot Turn Facebook into a (Decent) Movie,” and “The Facebook Movie Puts the zZzZ’s in Zuckerberg.”

But when the first trailer appeared—with its childrens’ choir rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” over footage of real people’s Facebook pages—the perception of the film’s potential changed. (And a whole lot more movie trailers started being set to the cursed-angel voices of singing kids.) One critic said the glimpse gave “the sense that director David Fincher has some really grand ambitions with this project.”

And why wouldn’t he? Last week, the New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, who covers online culture and frequently writes about the social network du jour, TikTok, expressed frustration about the way her beat was sometimes looked down upon. “Like, yes,” she wrote. “We are ‘only’ writing stories about the impact of a massively powerful $50bn tech company owned by an influential Chinese conglomerate upending the entire music and entertainment industry.” Facebook was once similarly known to be just some place where college kids posted Wednesday night party photos in between changing their relationship status or wondering what to get for lunch. Then it became known as the company that caused close friends to sue one another for billions of dollars in a legal battle that piqued the interest of Hollywood.

“You know, in a lot of ways, the film’s a meditation on what it means to be a friend,” Wall says. “And on the sort of bastardization that social networks have imposed on the actual word. I mean, it just doesn’t mean what it used to mean before Facebook, which is too bad.”

In 2020, Facebook’s footprint and influence—on culture, on politics, on family, on the economy, on modern freakin’ warfare—is hard to even wrap one’s mind around. It makes rewatching The Social Network feel quaint, but also vital. Quentin Tarantino recently declared the film the best of its decade, saying that it “crushes the competition.” (But enough about Silicon Valley monopolies, amirite?) In today’s world, with a future that looks like a question mark, The Social Network increasingly feels like a relic of the past, a period piece.

If Mark Zuckerberg and Erica Albright were to have their opening scene argument in public these days, they’d have a good chance of ending up in someone’s funny Instagram story or viral, schadenfreude-delivering tweet. (“omg you guys these people next to me are breaking up and im SCREAMING!!! [skull emoji]”) But all this happened in 2003, which doesn’t sound like too long ago but nevertheless was; it was a time before YouTube, and Gmail, and iPhones, and, it goes without saying, Facebook.

Like all the best quasi-historical tellings of momentous world events, the opening scene of The Social Network prompted me to turn to Google with a pressing question, in this case: “Is Erica Albright real? The answer, in OG Facebook parlance, could best be described as: “It’s Complicated.”

On the one hand, there is no one actually named Erica Albright who dated and dumped Mark Zuckerberg. On the other hand, the movie’s second scene—in which that thirsty scholar Zuckerberg, his fuse lit, sits angrily in his dorm room and writes on his blog that “Erica Albright is a bitch” before proceeding to hack into various mainframes to create the Hot-or-Not knockoff FaceMash that would turn into Facebook—well, that detail does come from a kernel of truth.

According to HTML records of Zuckerberg’s LiveJournal from October 2003 that are reproduced in Accidental Billionaires, he did refer to a woman as a bitch, adding “I need to think of something to take my mind off her,” immediately before launching his empire. “I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people,” Sorkin explained in the comments of a TV writer’s blog in 2010 when asked about Zuckerberg’s demeanor toward women in the movie. “These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the ’80s.”

Composite character or not, though, it is Erica who has one of the film’s most essential lines: that you’re-not-a-nerd-you’re-an-asshole bit of real talk delivered at the end of the opening scene. It sums up the ethos of not only the founders featured in the film, but also of so many of the imitators who have sought to follow in their shoes since, moving fast and breaking things as they go. You know it’s a particularly savage line because, as shown in the documentary about the making of the movie, Fincher counseled Rooney Mara to deliver it with total calm. “That last thing,” he tells her, “You’re an asshole—it should be almost the quietest thing you say.” Anyone who has ever been in real trouble knows that’s exactly how it sounds.

The line is also, ultimately, a bookend. Near the end of the film, exhausted but unruffled after intense litigation against the people who used to be his peeps, Zuckerberg sits alone in a deposition room, checking out Facebook and searching Erica Albright’s name. He friends her, then refreshes to see if she’s accepted. (She hasn’t.) Right before that, though, Zuckerberg talks to a young lawyer played by Rashida Jones. “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells her.

“You’re not an asshole,” she concludes, gathering up her coat. “You’re just trying so hard to be.” A decade after The Social Network premiered and 17 years since Facebook launched, this line ultimately didn’t age nearly as well as the one voiced by Erica at the beginning of the movie. Knowing what we know now, it’s clear that there never really was much of a distinction.