Ever since it was first announced, The Social Network has been dismissively called hat Facebook movie. I guess this reaction was understandable at first, around the time of the film’s announcement there was story after story of Hollywood studios buying up the rights to every comic book, TV series, and board game and it kind of made sense to assume that this was one more brand name to inexplicably have its own film out of some braindead assumption that because the people like something they’ll go to a movie about it. I stopped thinking about the project in those terms the minute I learned that it was being written by Arron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher and that it would be about the corporate intrigue behind the site’s creation rather than about the site itself, but this hasn’t stopped the internet’s masters of snark from making fun of the project. It’s officially time to cut that silliness out; it should be clear to everyone by now that this film, like it or not, is a serious work about a modern phenomenon.
The film tells the true, and often unflattering, story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the creator and CEO of Facebook (the names have not been changed to protect the “innocent”). Zuckerberg is currently the world’s youngest billionaire because he was able to start a major site from a young age along with a number of his peers, many of whom (as we quickly learn from the film’s frame story) would go on to sue him. Like many revolutionary ideas, Facebook was born on the Harvard campus; where Zuckerberg drunkenly sets up a website allowing Harvard students to vote on the hotness of various female students and the site goes viral (this was shortly before anyone was saying “viral”). The site he set up was so popular so fast that the very night it’s unleashed it overloads the Harvard servers. If anything, this site showed him the appeal of a site where people can have contact with their friends. Soon Zuckerberg would use this realization to create a social network to end all social networks along with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), but only after he’s approached by two extremely wealthy and popular students who suggested a similar idea themselves.
Zuckerberg himself is a cipher, a quiet, socially awkward young man who’s clearly a genius at what he does but with a ruthlessness hidden beneath the surface. We see him sitting bored in deposition hearings, he knows he has a personal stake in the proceedings but he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the money at stake, which will be a small fraction of his fortune. What Zuckerberg really wants is the independence and success that he sees other people falling into almost as a birthright. He says that the two of the people suing him the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), who were both athletic wasps from old money, weren’t suing him for “theft of intellectual property” but rather because “this is the first time things haven’t worked out for them exactly as they planned.” In the past these upper-class jocks would have been the ones happily screwing over people like Zuckerberg and he’s happy to turn the tables on them, to beat them at their own game and hand them a business card that says “I’m C.E.O., bitch!” Of course this doesn’t make Zuckerberg any less of an asshole than they would have been, but it’s only their privileged disposition that makes them think they’re any different in the first place.
That’s what drives him anyway, but the skill that really makes all the difference to him is simply his initiative. Zuckerberg wasn’t someone who would sit on an idea and wait for everything to come together; instead he’d just go out and do it. This is a privilege offered by the nature of internet business; he only needs a couple thousand dollars in order to and as long as he can get people going to his site he doesn’t need to go through the myriad of lawyers, bankers, and corporations that other businessmen need to deal with when they’re first starting. This is also what gets him into trouble, while Zuckerberg is moving at the speed of life the other people around him aren’t. People that don’t have his initiative can’t keep up with him and he doesn’t have the time or the will to argue with them about their differences. The Winklevosses could have done everything that Zuckerberg did, but they didn’t, they got left behind. Eduardo Saverin also could have been on board with what Zuckerberg, but he didn’t have the vision either. Simply put, they couldn’t get with the program and they were lucky to have gotten as far as they did. When Zuckerberg finally meets Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster and future business partner to Zuckerberg, you see Zuckerberg’s eyes light up at the opportunity to finally work with someone that can keep up with him.
This speed is essential to the movie and it’s part of why Aaron Sorkin was the perfect choice to write the film. Sorkin has made a career out of writing fast-paced conversations between really smart people about important contemporary issues. The opening scene of the film, a conversation between Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend, is particularly Sorkinian; but after that the writing calms down a bit. The dialogue remains witty throughout the film but it doesn’t have the same beautifully un-naturalistic tempo that a lot of Sorkin stuff has. In short, this is everything that’s good about Sorkin without the negatives.
This dialogue is spoken quite ably by Jesse Eisenberg, who seems to slowly be growing out of the awkward teenager role that he’s been delivering to us for a while through movies like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland. He’s certainly still an awkward young man here, but a much moodier one with a lot more going on in his head, and incidentally he really does look a lot like the real Zuckerberg. Andrew Garfield, a rising star who’s been pegged as the next to play Spider-Man, is also given a showcase here as Zuckerberg’s long suffering partner and future plaintiff. But the actor who, shockingly, steals the show here is actually Justin Timberlake of all people. I’m not ready to call Timberlake a great actor, or even a good one for that matter, but I think this is an inspired casting decision. Timberlake plays a guy who needs to feel like a superstar within his domain (in this case within the world of computer people) and you have to believe that he would impress Zuckerberg. He also needs to seem like a bit of a rebel and like the kind of person who could party every day. Timberlake is certainly all of those things at this stage of his career, and here he’s able to make the audience just as fascinated by the character as Zuckerberg is.
Of course the man who truly gave legitimacy to this project is David Fincher, who for the first time in his career is working completely outside of the confines of genre. Fincher, who rose to prominence making stylish thrillers like Se7en and Fight Club, has grown to become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. His 2007 film Zodiac has proven to be a turning point which, while still focusing on a serial killer, was decidedly more grounded in reality than some of his previous projects and which also pushed some of his stylistic flourishes into the background. 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seemed like a bit of a return of the older more showy Fincher, but The Social Network shows him picking up stylistically right where Zodiac left off. There are Fincher tricks here to be sure, but they’re even more subtle here than they were in Zodiac. This dialed back style fits both of these movies better than Fincher’s older style, which is better suited to the heightened reality of a film like Fight Club.
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth shoots the film with a glossy, almost music video like sheen, that’s perfect for depicting the hip modern trappings of the story. On the audio front, the film has been scored by none other than Trent Reznor, the man behind the popular Industrial Rock band Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a NIN fan for a while, but I tend to be rather bored with Reznor’s ambient instrumental work, which can seem rather purposeless when released as a series of albums. The same musical approach seems to have been taken here, but now there seems to be a real purpose to them. Reznor’s music has always explored the dark side of electronica in much the way the film explores the dark side of all the modern conveniences offered by sites like Facebook.
The Social Network is an almost perfectly made film, one that makes almost every right choice, and it examines a fascinating story, but somehow I left the film feeling like there was something missing. I think that missing element might just be the rest of Mark Zuckerberg’s life. Of course this is necessitated by the fact that, obviously, we haven’t seen this second act of this American life. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that what we’re seeing here is only half an epic. Of course to say that the film is too short and that I wanted even more is a hell of a backhanded compliment, but it’s still an issue, one that also affected another Fincher film depicting a true story with no satisfying end: Zodiac. Still, this is filmmaking at its finest and to miss an effort like this would be a huge mistake.
***1/2 out of Four