Despite everything I’d heard, read or seen on it, I didn’t know what to expect from David Fincher’s The Social Network going in. The acclaimed director of Fight Club and Benjamin Button helming Aaron Sorkin’s (TV’s The West Wing) adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, detailing the inception and resulting chaos surrounding Facebook – already a lot to anticipate, sure, but how on earth would it translate to film? Fortunately, both Fincher and Sorkin play to their strengths and, thanks to excellent performances throughout, The Social Network can be chalked up as another reason to be excited about film in 2010. The film is both perfectly-executed and thematically dense, without losing sight of the manic, ambitious characters involved.
Jesse Eisenberg (the thinking man’s Michael Cera) is Mark Zuckerberg, played here as a brilliant sociopath and magnificent bastard, whose social awkwardness begets perhaps the most pervasive phenomenon of the 21st century. With the help and funding of best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the thinking man’s Daniel Radcliffe?), Zuckerberg’s “the Facebook” spreads to hundreds of college campuses across the US, and the two enjoy an unprecedented, peculiar kind of rock-star popularity. There are two major problems, though, and they drive the film’s narrative – first, the Facebook was allegedly commissioned by a trio of high-profile Harvard players (Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, and Max Minghella) who feel cheated enough to sue. Secondly, following the introduction of Napster creator, the fluid Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, the thinking man’s… fuck it, Nick Carter?), co-creator Saverin finds himself screwed out of his cut, and sues.
Thus the story is revealed as a retrospective/legal proceeding, which builds the tension in ways you might not expect. We see the battered egos of the young men involved (women are tellingly absent, playing ciphers to the psyches of Zuckerberg and company) as the series of alleged betrayals and doubletalk build to crisis point. Eisenberg and Garfield play a perfect bromance-gone-wrong, eclipsing the Winklevoss case in the film’s third act. Meanwhile, Timberlake is perfectly cast as a kind-of-empty, altogether different kind of sociopath, playing foil to Zuckerberg’s dreams of, well, stardom. Sean Parker is played here as a paranoiac, ultimately unreliable partner, but there’s enough of a sense that he, too, is caught in this game of faces and spaces.
This is the meat of The Social Network’s narrative – the idea that the representation (ie, Facebook) can overtake the reality (ie, real life) and the fallout that results when this goes too far. In an early sequence, we are treated to a montage that twins computer coding and web browsing with its real-world referent, in this case a swinging fraternity party. So the insidious question becomes: can the virtual replace (or, very importantly, repair) the reality of half-glances, tequila shooters and general self-confidence? I’ll leave that one to the real sociopaths.
Instead of being a case study of business-gone-right, The Social Network becomes an allegory for some great work of art, and like Freud always said, all the greatest works of art can be traced to a perhaps-impressed girl somewhere. Thus Zuckerberg’s emotional malaise (brilliantly disguised behind ambition and Machiavellian douchebaggery) is rather neatly bookended by the brief performances of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, the one who got away, and Rashida Jones (from The US Office) as the stranger who says the right thing. In the film’s closing there is the hint, perhaps the prayer, that this Facebook thing (calling it public domain is an understatement – Facebook became the public domain) can offer some hope to its creator, some kind of reconciliation. F5, F5, F5…
Behind this well-crafted story are two distinct authors. Sorkin’s command of hyperactive dialogue is less Kevin Smith and more Woody Allen, that is, natural, stylised and sometimes surprisingly funny. Fincher, meanwhile, crafts a series of vivid, colourful impressions, utilising a sophisticated composition of shots and never failing to keep our attention without resorting to gimmickry. From the bleak, austere shots of Harvard, to the crispness of Palo Alto, with a range of high and low-end partying in between, everything coheres. Even the period is captured – the opening credits ring to The White Stripes lesser-known ‘Ball and Biscuit’, and damn it if 2010 hasn’t been the year for rediscovering White Stripes songs (see also, ‘Icky Thump’ in The Other Guys)… A final mention to Trent Reznor, whose work on the post-industrial score is never out of place.
So, having had no definite expectations, I emerge declaring The Social Network to be another top film of this year, another piece that captures the zeitgeist of this decade past. What this amounts to, considering also the adrenaline/whimsy of Scott Pilgrim, is a closer inspection of irony, detachment, representation – all the things we inherited from the postmodern 90s – and a movement towards whatever comes after. The potential for human connection and expression survives, not just in the hearts of the middle-aged men behind The Social Network, but in the generation that traverses that kind of network every day, without losing or escaping their identity.