Saying the name “Aaron Sorkin” out loud at any gathering of nerds will provoke a number of different reactions, and at least one of them will be an aggressive, defiant, Liz Lemon-esque eye roll. For all of Sorkin’s success in film (A Few Good Men, Steve Jobs) and television (The West Wing, Sports Night), many people find his work repetitive and obnoxious, a blur of self-indulgent and pedantic mansplaining given an artificial sense of importance by the now-famous Walk and Talk. He’s a tragically un-woke William Goldman wannabe so far up his own ass that he can’t even see how poorly his female characters are written or how few of us in the audience understand his constant Gilbert and Sullivan references. And for sure, there is an arrogant white maleness to Sorkin’s writing that can be absolutely off-putting in certain contexts, and pairing him with an obsessive-compulsive sociopath like director David Fincher to tell the (mostly fictional) story of an even greater obsessive-compulsive sociopath like Mark Zuckerberg seems like the worst idea ever. Instead, it gave us The Social Network.
The thing you have to remember about Aaron Sorkin is that he is a musician. He composes with syllables rather than notes — and I’m aware of how douchey that sounds — but he’s a musician all the same. Yes, he can write artsy monologues and bombastic tirades for Martin Sheen to deliver in Latin, but what really distinguishes his work is the way he creates rhythm and percussion out of dialogue exchanges between multiple characters. There is a sing-songy reflexivity to his best writing that evokes the verse-chorus structure of popular music. Melodies will compete, find harmony, and then resolve at the end of a measure before moving to the next one. Not only that, but each of these exchanges has its own little act structure: a number of problems and ideas are introduced, complicated, and brought to a climax at the most resonant moment. When properly directed and performed, these exchanges can carry the same weight and action as the most visually-driven sequences (sometimes it’s okay to tell and not to show), developing narrative and character at once.
Anyway, The Social Network. Pop it in and go to the first scene, which you’ll notice begins with a blank screen and some dialogue set against the din of a crowded bar. It’s a full nine seconds before we fade in on that bar, which means we’re being told right away that listening to this film is going to be as important as watching it. They don’t make it easy for us, either; it’s actually really hard to hear what Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara) are saying at first. The music and bar noises gradually fade down a bit, though, as Mark gets into his desire to distinguish himself amongst a crowd (we see what you did there, movie). Note the way Fincher stages the conversation in classic shot/reverse shot style until we come to the idea of Final Clubs and he hits us with two close-ups. It’s almost visual punctuation, a way to put a stamp on the importance of that one moment in what is, frankly, a bizarre and confusing conversation between two people we just met. But again, it’s melodic: China, Final Clubs, SATs, a capella, crew — each is introduced on one side and then passed to the other, like a back-and-forth game of ping pong.
Special thanks to writer/podcaster Lani Diane Rich for helping inspire this column and contributing some key points. Check out her great work at chipperish.com!