Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is Larry Summers the Key Character in The Social Network?

In my last post I mentioned in passing that Larry Summers is the only likable character in The Social Network. Let's revisit that idea.

I still think I'm right about the Summers character's likability. But as I was discussing the film with my roommate, I realized that this issue might be more complicated than I initially thought.

Your thoughts on Larry Summers in the film--played by Douglas Urbanski--most likely depend on your thoughts on the Winklevoss twins. Are they spoiled brats who expect the world to conform to their expectations or are they the victims of a serious case of intellectual property theft? This, of course, is the main question of the movie.

I initially read the twins as the former, but there's reason to reconsider this approach. After all, Zuckerberg did steal their idea, even if he did all the coding from scratch. The courts agree, to the tune of a $65 million settlement. (I'm talking here only about the universe of the film; I have no idea what happened in real life.) They're honorable gentlemen--or, at least, one of them is--who believe in the ideals of a Harvard code, initially refraining from suing Zuckerberg. They've previously succeeded in business, sending a programmer off to work for Google. They're athletic. They're attractive, no small thing for audiences who love identifying with good looking characters.

So why am I introducing the film's overarching theme through Larry Summers? Because the twins' quick interaction with the Harvard president may be the crucial scene to determining their character. Summers dismisses the Winklevosses and their claim pretty conclusively. If the scene were played differently, it might have added additional support to the idea that their legitimate claims are being ignored by the very people entrusted to safeguard their success. But, as shot, this short scene lends credence to the opposite approach.

Let's start with Summers. As Harvard president, he starts off in a position of authority. This appeal to stature is only strengthened when he mentions that he understands the financial considerations of the case because, after all, he had served as Treasury Secretary of the US. But beyond that, Summers is quick and confident and funny, a likable combination. Compare this to the Winklevosses, who repeatedly lose their cool throughout the meeting. Not as much room for sympathy with them. It only gets worse as the viewer learns that the twins relied upon their father's connections to secure this meeting. Score one for the privileged brats theory. Their petulance and immaturity are again highlighted as one of the brothers breaks the knob off a historic door.

This scene, short as it was, sealed my interpretation of the Winklevoss twins. If it were shot just a bit differently, my entire approach to the movie would have been different. It might not be true, then, that your understanding of the Winklevosses guides your take on Summers: your analysis of Summers just might determine your reading of the Winklevoss twins and, I believe, the film as a whole.


YourRoommateIsRight said...

Summers comes across as snide and dismissive.

Where Sorkin goes to great lengths to paint a picture of college life as something that matters, more outside the classroom than inside, all of the grown-ups--from pedantic professor, to clueless Monaco royalty, to Summers himself-- are outsiders to the real action of intellectual exchange and personal growth.

The Winkelvi have more going for them than they've been given credit for.

Avi said...


Your reading makes me want to re-watch to see how I approach these questions the second time around.

It's good and cool that the film supports multiple approaches. I think that Fincher and Sorkin stacked the deck too strongly--especially in that Summers scene--against the Winklevoss twins, robbing us of just a bit of the nuance and subtlety that the characters and the story naturally possess.