The new film The Social Network has earned all manner of praise for its depiction of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as a socially disengaged, comeuppance-minded savant. While maybe the valences to contemporary culture that we’d been promised aren’t there or are too heavy-handed for comprehensibility, everyone likes it! The film’s Zuckerberg isn’t hero or villain – he’s as much a cipher as the real Facebook creator, whose image we’ve lived with since the site reached saturation point.
Zuckerberg, though, isn’t the point, really. The release, a week before The Social Network, of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps, indicates the rise of a new sort of cinematic – if not hero, or even protagonist, then central point around which a maelstrom of power, influence, and narrative swirls.
Let’s begin with the wholly fictional character, on whom far less intellectual energy has been expended. Shia LaBeouf plays Jake Moore, an Wall Street wheeler-dealer-whatever-name-these-people-have (not consultant, right?) we know to be incredibly promising because he looks 17 (LaBeouf is 24, but not, evidently, a hard 24) but is the most vocal participant at a boardroom meeting where vast sums of money are being discussed. Before that, even, we see Jake on a motorcycle, discussing via earpiece vast infusions of money to be pumped into an energy concern whose turbines are shown in split-screen. Got it, Stone – Moore is young! And has power not perhaps equivalent to his youth! And he’s nicely amoral, a product of his times; he tells his sweetly naggy “liberal blogger” fiancée, regarding his investments in green energy, “the only green is money, honey.”
Moore, like the unformed and undeniably lucky Zuckerberg in a situation beyond his pay grade, is vulnerable to the influence of a guru – and here is the point at which Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Social Network grow intriguingly congruent. In Stone’s film, that guru is Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, a character who in the years since Wall Street’s 1987 release has grown into legend, a human Darth Vader whose Death Star is the stock market. The Social Network’s character along these lines is Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker, who has no similar cinematic baggage but is introduced with a heavy load of exposition indicating that he’s a brilliant, amoral computer pioneer (he’s told as much, in flattering tones, by a Stanford girl he’s just bedded).
Both Gekko and Parker come into contact with their targets after initial exposition has been disposed of – Moore’s firm, and mentor, have vanished into the ether; Zuckerberg’s site has exploded but he doesn’t know how to maintain it. And they both deliver lengthy diatribes that cut to the respective hearts of Oliver Stone and Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network was directed by David Fincher, but for better or worse, it’s Sorkin’s movie) visions of America. Douglas, in an interminable talk designed in the narrative to sell his book and in the film’s structure to sell Jake an ideology, declares, “You’re all pretty much fucked.” It seems that it is up to Jake – soon, with Gordon’s help – to build a new economic order, one where an exceptional youth can rise to the top despite the missteps of Gekko’s generation.
This is Gordon Gekko, though, and Stone is high on the fumes of his character’s notoriety, so of course a betrayal is in the offing – Gekko uses Jake’s intrapersonal skills, and Jake’s engagement to Gekko’s own daughter, to embezzle money out of a trust he’d set up and to restart his own career. Parker, in more subtly drawn ways, edges out Zuckerberg’s closest collaborator in order to gain a stake in the meteoric company and restore his reputation – and to use Zuckerberg’s stature to humiliate old enemies. In a turn of phrase that could have come from either movie, Gekko tells Jake, of investing, “It’s not about the money. It’s about the game. The game between people. That’s all it is.” Jake seems to agree, and so would Mark, surely, because both think they’ve won, though they’ve yet to really play on their own.
Both Gekko and Parker are burdened with memories of lost money and reputation, and with living humbly in a world they used to run. There is no easier way for them than to exploit those who will happily be exploited – young men, in finance and technology, who have yet to be presented any compelling reason beside money or adulation to continue their work. Jake and Mark are unfulfilled – and they leave the viewer unfulfilled. Their costars steal the show. At the end of The Social Network, Mark has cut ties with Parker – among many others – and sits alone, looking at the system he has created for quantifying and measuring friendships. His is an extraordinary case, but his personality type – grasping for connection and, even more unsteadily, towards financial and socially measurable reward – is a common one. Spurred on by Gekko, Jake betrays his fiancée, inadvertently jeopardizes the energy projects he doesn’t really care about, and would be left alone but for a bizarre, unexpected happy ending. Genius or simply callously immune to the rules that constrain members of society, these young men are – still! – stuck in older men’s games.