The Social Network is a movie that shouldn’t work. It’s a story about a socially challenged, bitterly abrasive geek and how he created a high-traffic website. Hardly the stuff of Oscars or summer blockbusters. It’s also written by the creator of The West Wing, directed by the man behind Fight Club, scored by the front man for Nine Inch Nails (seriously), and stars the poor man’s Michael Cera. Thing is, in spite of all those seeming incongruities, the movie plays out just like the typical Facebook experience – hard to see what all the hype is about from the outside, quickly captivating at first, then totally engrossing from within.
The movie hits the ground running as we meet Mark Zuckerberg: age 19, 1600 SAT, Harvard undergrad, and general dick. He’s on a date with a lovely Boston U student named Erica, and already relentlessly wearing on her good-natured patience. In this tour de force opening scene we get our clearest picture of what drives Zuckerburg. He has all the intellectual gifts in the world but remains obsessed with social status. As he pursues at least five simultaneous conversation threads, his oblivious condescension eventually gets the better of Erica and she dumps him in a manner both crushing and wholly deserved. This event leads him to drunkenly develop a female undergrad hotness-ranking website, crashing the Harvard web server, and becoming notorious throughout the campus.
From here Mark is recruited to create an Ivy League dating site by a pair of Harvard crew rowers, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. Like many other improbable characters and situations in this story, these two guys actually exist. They’re Olympic-class rowers, identical twins, and look like they should each have their own WB teen-drama. It is from this business proposition that the rest of the story springs: did Zuckerberg steal their idea for a social dating site based around “exclusivity”, or, as he states years later, did he “hear their idea, and then come up with a better one”?
David Fincher takes potentially dry material about an awkward computer programmer and paces it briskly and intimately. Save for some confusing early time-jumps between Zuckerberg at Harvard in 2003 and subsequent legal depositions in 2007, the story unfolds naturally and fascinatingly. At the centre of the film is Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, Adventure…land), who creates an initially unlikable yet compelling character in Zuckerberg. His reflexive egotism and angry streak hide an unusual sadness. He doesn’t crave friendships, he just wants to dissect and understand how they work. I mentioned above that Eisenberg is “the poor man’s Michael Cera” – it actually might be the other way around. Here he shows an intensity and willingness to play unlikable that should serve him well in future roles. Expect him to get some serious notice from this movie.
As Facebook blows up beyond Zuckerberg’s initial revenge motives, Eisenberg’s performance does threaten to become one-note. It’s here that the movie’s only truly empathetic character begins to drive the story. Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and your new Spider-Man*) is Mark’s initial business partner and only genuine friend. As he slips further away from control of Facebook, Eduardo sees his rival in Mark’s new start-up guru: former Napster co-creator and Silicon Valley rockstar Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Parker is one of the largest personalities in the story – charming, vindictive, and endlessly paranoid – and Timberlake does some of his finest performing to date bringing him to life.
I believe, however, that the bulk of the credit for this film goes to veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). I must cop to the fact that I am a huge Sorkin-nerd, though I will contend that The Social Network (adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction bestseller The Accidental Billionaires) represents some of his least-Sorkin-y work. When I first read he’d be writing the screenplay I thought it seemed a poor fit, but having watched the movie it is definitely a natural extension of his usual themes: power, status, the Ivy League, dense passages of detail-heavy exposition, and driven individuals who excel in their chosen field at the expense of their personal lives. Here though, his trademark hyper-articulate dialogue generally takes a backseat to the more natural rhythms of college freshmen (reemerging sporadically in perfectly delivered lines like Winklevoss’ “Afraid of him? I’m 6”5, weight 220, and there’s two of me”). The script also cleverly avoids the usual biopic traps, like obvious villains and a neat three-act structure. By the film’s end we aren’t sure whether to loathe or pity Zuckerberg. Even though he ends the story as the world’s youngest billionaire, there’s no last minute happy ending or tidy conclusions for him.
The read I got from the story was that Zuckerburg derived an almost perverse satisfaction in taking the social experience of college, which had always eluded him, and hijacking it to the online world where everyone had to play by his rules. Think about the internet even 10 years ago – it was solely the province of nerds. Nowadays we’re more likely to interact via Facebook than over the phone, and we have Mark Zuckerberg to thank for that. Whether he actually stole the idea for Facebook is left murky, but in The Social Network we see the story behind the website that changed our culture. Considering that I checked my Facebook about a dozen times just while writing this review, I’d say that’s some pretty compelling material.
*This is pretty off-topic, but based on this movie I’m willing to give Garfield a solid chance in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. He has a real geeky charm and * gasp * an actual sense of humour. Hopefully he spends as little of the movie as possible crying or jazz-dancing.