The Social Network is the kind of high-dollar, classy filmmaking that validates every moment of excitement felt by movie fans when a visionary director is gifted with great resources. In the case of David Fincher and his latest film, those resources include a wonderful screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, a stellar cast led to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg, and the flawless results of the behind-the-scenes master craftspeople with a budget for a detailed realization of their vision. When all of these elements come together to tell an interesting story, the themes of which resonate both universally and in our real-time lives, you get a film like The Social Network- a movie that would be among the best of any release year, even if it’s not quite, perfect.
Mark Zuckerberg is an equally brilliant and spiteful Harvard kid who is pitched a great idea, and develops from it an even better idea of his own. The Social Network explores the ambition behind that idea by expertly weaving a narrative out of the birth, explosive development, and eventual fallout of the Facebook. Center to the film is the loss of Mark’s only friend and first financial backer Eduardo Saverin, which results in one of the many nasty lawsuits Zuckerberg is juggling. Facebook has been involved in one legal battle or another for nearly all of its brief existence, and the script uses these litigious proceedings as the bedrock of the complex story. This is an environment Sorkin is comfortable in, and he manages to make half a dozen people sitting around a conference table some of the most entertaining scenes of the film. Sorkin’s chewy, crackling dialogue is delivered with pitch perfection by dozens of performers that make it hard to choose a standout. A scene between the President of Harvard and the Winklevoss twins (a miraculous dual-performance from Armie Hammer) makes you wish your life could be scripted by Sorkin. Every sentence is a treat to listen to, as the surprisingly good-humored and cavalier Harvard President essentially fucks with two students while they try to convince him their idea has been stolen. That’s only one example among dozens.
Jesse Eisenberg is gifted with a character that, while written too funny and sharp to ever be completely unlikeable, requires a delicate balance of nastiness. The young actor steps up to the challenge with remarkable poise. Far from employing any kind of routine stuttering awkwardness, Mark Zuckerberg as portrayed by Eisenberg is a matter-of-fact, verbal whirlwind of a character whose every word drips with intellectualism and vulnerability. The real life Zuckerberg could only dream of being this interesting to simply watch exist. It is a truly great performance, and deserving of every bit of attention that it receives.
The craft on display here is equally as powerful as the characters on screen. In typical Fincher fashion, The Social Network is intricately choreographed, and highly detailed, all shot by talented Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth (also his D.P. on Fight Club and The Game). The production design, the authenticity of the coding sequences, the haunting drama pulled from the very walls of the locations, and the indulgent-yet-effective use of cutting edge tech to enable something like Armie Hammer’s dual-performance (he plays Cameron Winklevoss entirely, and then had his performance grafted from the shoulders up onto another actor for Tyler) all scream Fincher without overtaking the film. The only time Fincher threatens to overplay his bag of tricks is in a crew-race that is shot in the recently popular “tilt-shift” style, which shifts the focal plane and layers the focus in such a way to make everything in frame seem miniaturized. Fincher uses the technique so that he can combine footage from different locations for a seamless sequence, and it works as a brief interlude, even if it feels more than a little masturbatory.
The crew-race scene is also notable for a particularly standout track –a digital, yet ragged arrangement of “In The Hall of the Mountain King”– from the excellent score. The music of The Social Network is a sophisticated, modern electronic soundscape that from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that, while as dark you might expect, is surprisingly upbeat and catchy (the result of Reznor very occasionally dipping into his recent instrumental output for melodies). The coding sequences allow the music to really shine, and along with the masterful editing and energized camera, make extremely tedious work interesting to witness as an overall process. While it is a distinctively digital arrangement that lacks any traditional orchestration, it feels natural and organic with a frayed edge to it- this is no cheap, silly synth score. The sound design is at a similar level of near-perfection, and could very well win the film an Oscar based solely on a perfectly audible conversation set in an explosively loud club. It fits beautifully with an edit that deftly shifts between time and place without resorting to cheap tricks to let us keep up- everything just works. This is the level of craft that we expect from one of our most technically proficient filmmakers, and it is married fitly to Sorkin’s rich script which does a great job of filling in the emotional deficiencies that sometimes trouble Fincher’s films.
While the film ultimately concludes that it is Mark’s nasty little insecurities that drive him to do great things, it wisely holds back from making too specific of judgments. Mark can be seen as a manipulative son of a bitch who has it out for his one friend for completely immature reasons, but the fact is that Eduardo is a doofus who doesn’t have the gumption to step outside of his understanding of how college, business, or revolutions should work. Andrew Garfield does a fine job of imbuing Eduardo with a heart-warming softness, but he can’t help but come across as a behind-the-times schoolboy attempting to keep up with forward thinking future-titans of technology. Eduardo’s foil is the mildly depraved Sean Parker who is the wandering founder of Napster that finds a new gig providing Zuckerberg with industry contacts. Parker is a partying hanger-on, but ultimately he has the eye for the future that confirms what Mark already knows; that Facebook is valuable because of something ephemeral and amorphous, and that it could potentially evolve forever, “like fashion.” Mark is often heard saying “we don’t know what it is” in reference to the Facebook idea, and it’s a wise choice on the part of the script. Facebook’s embryonic success was a result of exclusivity and prestige (I remember being excited to get my college email address for this very reason, back when the service was still college-only), a concept that has long since been discarded in favor of universal inclusiveness. The Facebook being created in this film is not the Facebook that is shaping the way human beings across this planet interact with one another now, and though he is probably afraid to suggest such a thing out loud, you can see in Mark’s eye that he is dreaming of that future.
The Social Network is already being hailed as a film “of its time” and this is certainly true in a number of ways. Sorkin’s script finds small, clever moments to invoke the concerns and issues that the hyper-connected social networking paradigm has raised- status updates are used against characters, allusions are made to the death of privacy, and the permanence of this great catalogue of our smallest transgressions is emphasized. But again, the Facebook of The Social Network only begins to scratch the surface of the brave new world it will later help to create. Instead, the film acknowledges these issues, but focuses on the characters and their struggles that, while applied to a very modern endeavor, are classic and universal. The thematic tapestry of the film is slightly clouded by its unwillingness to demonize any particular character- this story is far too complex and full of varying interests and shades of gray to do so. However, this mix of right and wrong never gives us a good foothold on where we’re heading and what the film is saying, which robs it of the clarity that would push it into instant masterpiece territory.
The greatest success of the film is managing to simultaneously lay bare the sad fuel of Zuckerberg’s fire, while never condemning him, and often rightly celebrating his vision. Fincher can’t help but make iconography out of Zuckerberg’s path to being the world’s youngest billionaire, but he never lets it stray too far from the reality that in order to build the biggest social network in human history, he had to tear apart his own. Fincher’s film is unquestionably great, and may yet grow into something more, but not because it is a time-capsule of any generation. The Social Network is great, simply because it is a brilliantly-told story about brilliant people.