Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)

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Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Ten minutes into The Social Network the film’s lead protagonist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), speaking nearly a mile a minute, is made to look like a socially inept, unsympathetic word robot as he sips beer at a bar outside the Harvard campus with his date (Rooney Mara). The conversation ends with her breaking up with him, but not before calling him an “asshole” thus establishing the film’s position on Zuckerberg. Directed by David Fincher from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s semi-fictional story of Facebook’s roots, “The Accidental Billionaires,” The Social Network portrays Zuckerberg as a villain who lies, cheats and steals his way to becoming the world’s youngest billionaire.

Following Zuckerberg’s falling out with his date, he goes home to vent the only way he knows how… blogging and coding. It’s here we’re witness to the callous genius that is Zuckerberg. In a flurry of keystrokes and Wget commands he eviscerates his now-ex on his blog and builds a website allowing users to compare Harvard’s female students with a simple mouse click. His antics don’t earn him any friends, but it does earn him some measure of social status.

Catching the eye of fellow Harvard students, privileged twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (in which Fincher pulls a Ben Button and uses the body of Josh Pence and Armie Hammer’s face and voice) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), Zuckerberg is asked to join them in a venture to develop a dating website exclusively for Harvard students. While agreeing to do so, inspiration for TheFacebook (as it was referred to in 2003) strikes and Zuckerberg strings his previous partners along just long enough to get his site up and running first. Did he steal the idea and turn it into his own? Was it merely coincidence mixed with good fortune?

Sorkin uses this dispute over intellectual property as the focus of the story, not Facebook itself. The narrative bounces between legal depositions brought against Zuckerberg by not only the Harvard trio, but his former friend, business partner and disgruntled source for Mezrich’s book, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who eventually sees himself cut out of Facebook and ends up suing as a result. The film serves as a Wall Street-esque exploration of the entrepreneurial spirit with a modern age Charles Foster Kane as its lead. Added to this is the idea of friendship and the competitor in us all and it just so happens to involve one of the major corporations of the last decade.

Eisenberg plays the digitally-obsessed Zuckerberg with a focused, if not occasionally adrift, intensity. The character is fleshed out thanks to Sorkin’s sharp-tongued dialogue, but had Eisenberg not been able to competently deliver Sorkin’s words with machine gun speed the entire film would have collapsed. It takes a certain level of performance to come to a line such as, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook… you’d have invented Facebook,” and do it with such spontaneity that it floors the audience and allows the words to serve as the action element of a dialogue driven drama just as effective as any explosion in any Hollywood actioner.

Additionally, when Eisenberg isn’t spouting off witty comebacks he sits back solemnly giving the audience’s inner conflict something else to chew on. The way Zuckerberg isolates himself and his lack of real world friends serves as a direct contradiction to the empire he’s building, and yet I admired his work ethic and tenacity. Eisenberg’s performance is powerful not only for the lines he delivers, but perhaps even more powerful for the things he doesn’t say.

Equally impressive are Andrew Garfield as Saverin and Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker. The film portrays Saverin as the victim and Garfield embraces and runs with this idea to the point you want to give him a hug, though I hardly feel bad for the guy. Garfield’s soft-spoken performance is played with childlike naivety and it’s the perfect complement to the outspoken Parker, a business and industry savvy third wheel that soon finds himself riding shotgun, a role Timberlake falls into quite easily.

The performances make for the film’s strong point. In fact, Fincher’s hand-picked crew stands out more than he does, a testament to his ability to choose the right people for each project. The Social Network benefits from excellent editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall and the original score by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross is unique, lifting the narrative even when very little is going on, though I assume anyone that’s heard Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts” expected as much. Additionally, the sound mixing on one scene in particular delivers the most true-to-life club scene that may have ever been filmed as the characters are forced to shout over the loud music playing in the background as opposed to it magically lowering its volume so we can hear what they’re saying.

As for Sorkin’s script, I can champion his whip-smart dialogue, which he rarely fails to deliver, but the film does tend to have its wordy moments and I wasn’t particularly enamored with the disappointingly abrupt and rather inconsequential ending. Sorkin and Fincher believe they’ve left the story of Facebook’s disputed origin up for debate, but the “facts” they choose to present paint a pretty obvious picture as to how they see things. Of course, this is more of a modern day Greek tale so embellishments are to be expected and upon second viewing the scrambling of the facts bothered me much less and I was able to enjoy the film for what it was, rather than what it wasn’t. In that sense, I think The Social Network will have long legs should audiences question what they see, do a little research of their own, and go back for a second helping.

Despite the fact I was able to come to terms with the factual inaccuracy of the story, I was a bit disappointed it didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to comment on the cultural significance of Facebook, a site that has obviously grown to have a major societal impact all over the world. Instead of focusing on a phenomenon that now has over 500 million active users, the film focuses on one man’s drive and ambition for success and social status. Then again, it’s much more difficult to craft a narrative around the driving force of a generation than to do what Fincher does best and zero in on a single target. Comparisons to Fight Club are easy to make as we watch the socially-awkward Zuckerberg develop the world’s largest social network only in the end to come out with no friends. Then again, even Fight Club‘s narrator had Marla Singer.

All judgments aside, The Social Network is a quality piece of filmmaking rife with terrific performances and made by a crew of true artists. Sorkin’s words haven’t sounded this good since President Bartlet was reading them and Fincher continues to prove he excels at bringing moral decay to the big screen, no matter how it’s wrapped.

GRADE: B+

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