On the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was leading a meeting in the Aquarium, one of Facebook's conference rooms, so named because it's in the middle of a huge work space and has glass walls on three sides so everybody can see in. Conference rooms are a big deal at Facebook because they're the only places anybody has any privacy at all, even the bare minimum of privacy the Aquarium gets you. Otherwise the space is open plan: no cubicles, no offices, no walls, just a rolling tundra of office furniture. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, who used to be Lawrence Summers' chief of staff at the Treasury Department, doesn't have an office. Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO and co-founder and presiding visionary, doesn't have an office.
The team was going over the launch of Facebook's revamped Messages service, which had happened the day before and gone off without a hitch or rather without more than the usual number of hitches. Zuckerberg kept the meeting on track, pushing briskly through his points no notes or whiteboard, just talking with his hands but the tone was relaxed. Much has been made of Zuckerberg's legendarily awkward social manner, but in a room like this, he's the Silicon Valley equivalent of George Plimpton. He bantered with Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, a director of engineering who ran the project. (Boz was Zuckerberg's instructor in a course on artificial intelligence when they were at Harvard. He says his future boss didn't do very well. Though, in fairness, Zuckerberg did invent Facebook that semester.) Apart from a journalist sitting in the corner, no one in the room looked over 30, and apart from the journalist's public relations escort, it was boys only.(See pictures of Mark Zuckerberg's inner circle.)
The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in it's the only way to describe his entrance trailed by a couple of deputies. He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to stop in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you.
They shook hands and chatted about nothing for a couple of minutes, and then Mueller left. There was a giddy silence while everybody just looked at one another as if to say, What the hell just happened?
It's a fair question. Almost seven years ago, in February 2004, when Zuckerberg was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, he started a Web service from his dorm. It was called Thefacebook.com, and it was billed as "an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges." This year, Facebook now minus the the added its 550 millionth member. One out of every dozen people on the planet has a Facebook account. They speak 75 languages and collectively lavish more than 700 billion minutes on Facebook every month. Last month the site accounted for 1 out of 4 American page views. Its membership is currently growing at a rate of about 700,000 people a day.(See a Zuckerberg family photo album.)
What just happened? In less than seven years, Zuckerberg wired together a twelfth of humanity into a single network, thereby creating a social entity almost twice as large as the U.S. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest, behind only China and India. It started out as a lark, a diversion, but it has turned into something real, something that has changed the way human beings relate to one another on a species-wide scale. We are now running our social lives through a for-profit network that, on paper at least, has made Zuckerberg a billionaire six times over.
Facebook has merged with the social fabric of American life, and not just American but human life: nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account, but 70% of Facebook users live outside the U.S. It's a permanent fact of our global social reality. We have entered the Facebook age, and Mark Zuckerberg is the man who brought us here.(See pictures of Facebook's overseas offices.)
Zuckerberg is part of the last generation of human beings who will remember life before the Internet, though only just. He was born in 1984 and grew up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., the son of a dentist Painless Dr. Z's slogan was, and is, "We cater to cowards." Mark has three sisters, the eldest of whom, Randi, is now Facebook's head of consumer marketing and social-good initiatives. It was a supportive household that produced confident children. The young Mark was "strong-willed and relentless," according to his father Ed. "For some kids, their questions could be answered with a simple yes or no," he says. "For Mark, if he asked for something, yes by itself would work, but no required much more. If you were going to say no to him, you had better be prepared with a strong argument backed by facts, experiences, logic, reasons. We envisioned him becoming a lawyer one day, with a near 100% success rate of convincing juries."Learn more about the extended version of this article, available exclusively on Amazon Kindle.Picture yourself as TIME's Person of the Year. Create and share your TIME Person of the Year cover.
We learn from the Book of Job: Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. Such a man is Larry Gopnik. He lectures on physics in front of a blackboard filled with bewildering equations that are mathematical proofs approaching certainty, and in his own life, what can be sure of? Nothing, that's what.
His wife is leaving him for his best friend. His son is listening to rock 'n' roll in Hebrew school. His daughter is stealing money for a nose job. His brother-in-law is sleeping on the sofa and lurking in unsavory bars. His gun-nut neighbor frightens him. A student tries to bribe him and blackmail him at the same time. The tenure committee is getting unsigned libelous letters about him. The wife of his other neighbor is sex-crazy. God forbid this man should see a doctor.
"This is the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar," writes Todd McCarthy in Variety. I cannot improve on that. After the seriously great "No Country for Old Men," the Coen brothers have made the not greatly serious "A Serious Man," which bears every mark of a labor of love.
It is set in what I assume to be a Minneapolis suburb of their childhood, a prairie populated by split-level homes with big garages but not enough trees around them. In this world, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) earnestly desires to be taken as a serious man and do the right thing, but does God take him seriously? "I read the book of Job last night," Virginia Woolf said. "I don't think God comes out well in it." Someone up there doesn't like Larry Gopnik.
Beginning with a darkly comic prologue in Yiddish, "A Serious Man" inhabits a Jewish community where the rational (physics) is rendered irrelevant by the mystical (fate). Gopnik can fill all the blackboards he wants, and it won't do him any good. Maybe because an ancestor invited a dybbuk to cross his threshold, Larry is cursed. A dybbuk is the wandering soul of a dead person. You don't want to make the mistake of inviting one into your home. You don't have to be Jewish to figure that out.
Much of the success of "A Serious Man" comes from the way Michael Stuhlbarg plays the role. He doesn't play Gopnik as a sad-sack or a loser, a whiner or a depressive, but as a hopeful man who can't believe what's happening to him. What else can go wrong? Where can he find happiness? Who can he please? In the sex department, why are even his wet dreams, starring his brazen neighbor (Amy Landecker), frightening? Why does Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his so-called best friend who is taking away his wife, speak to him in terms of such sadness, sympathy and understanding? Does Fred know Larry is doomed?
Why do his children dismiss him? Why is his no-account brother-in-law (Richard Kind) such a shiftless leech? Why can no rabbi provide him with encouragement or useful advice? Why would a student (David Kang) clearly fail an exam, leave bribe money on his desk and then act to destroy him?
Why, why, why? I'm sure you've heard the old joke where Job asks the Lord why everything in his life is going wrong. Remember what the Lord replies? If you don't remember the joke, ask anyone. I can't prove it but I'm absolutely certain more than half of everyone on Earth has heard some version of that joke.
Have I mentioned "A Serious Man" is so rich and funny? This isn't a laugh-laugh movie, but a wince-wince movie. Those can be funny, too. The Coens have found mostly unfamiliar actors, or those like Stuhlbarg, Kind and Melamed you've seen before, but you're not quite sure where. I imagine (but do not know) that Joel and Ethan have been kicking this story around for years, passing time by reminding each other of possible characters, seeing an actor and observing, "There's our Mrs. Samsky." Their actors weren't cast, they were preordained.
In some ways my favorite is Melamed as Sy Ableman. It's not a big role but he's so good, he establishes a full presence in his first scene, when he's only a voice on the telephone. This is the traitor who has stolen away Gopnik's wife, and he believes it will be good if they have a long, helpful talk. Ableman is not only the grief, but the grief counselor. Such chutzpah, you have to admire.
Amy Landecker, too, is perfect as Mrs. Samsky. She makes the character sexy in a strictly logical sense, but any prudent man would know on first sight to stay clear. Judith Gopnik, as Larry's wife, is able to suggest in only a few scenes that she's leaving him not for passion or out of anger, but because she senses his ship going down and Sy Ableman is a lifeboat.
There is a story told in "A Serious Man" that may seem out of place. I believe it acts as a parable reflecting the film, Gopnik's life, and indeed the Book of Job. It's the one about the Jewish dentist who discovers the words "help me" naturally occurring in Hebrew on the back of a gentile's lower front teeth. Remember that many parables contain their message in their last lines.