Hollywood is not known as a place for wordy, nerdy, brainy dramatizations of recent events that portray their protagonists in a less than completely favourable light. Indeed, from the very moment it was announced that Aaron Sorkin & David Fincher were putting together a movie based on — of all things — the founding of the social networking site Facebook and the subsequent legal troubles of its creator Mark Zuckerberg, the project has been met with disbelief, derision, and even questions as to whether it needed to be made at all.
Well guess what? The Social Network is not only a timely and needle-sharp comment on the social structures of the modern urban world, but a brilliant piece of cinema too. Its early doubters may be silenced, but the rest of us have only begun to talk.
“Spoiler Alert,” I leaned over and said to my brother as the relentlessly glorifying trailer for Secretariat played before this movie, “the horse basically wins everything.” It is similarly no spoiler to say that, on a material level, Mark Zuckerberg is a winner. He’s one of the youngest billionaires in the world, heading up a company that has become a daily — and for many, hourly — part of our modern lives.
But the Mark we see here is also the one before all the fame and fortune. In 2003, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is still a student at Harvard university, looking for a way into the exclusive social clubs by doing something significant and attention-grabbing. Dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), drunk, and angry, he stalks back to his dorm room and begins both blogging about her shortcomings and coding FaceMash, a site that pits two headshots of Harvard undergrad girls against each other, with users deciding which of the two is hotter. The equation for this system is provided by Zuckerberg’s roomate and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
Within two hours the site has garnered twenty-two thousand hits, crashed the Harvard web server, and brought Zuckerberg to the attention of both the Harvard board, and the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer, with Josh Pence playing, uh, Tyler’s body) & Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The twins & Narendra want to enlist Zuckerberg’s expertise in building their social network, ‘HarvardConnection.’
Zuckerberg, of course, goes on to found a very similar site called ‘thefacebook’ with Saverin as CFO. The film intercuts between the rise and rise of the fledgling company, and the various lawsuits and claims over its formation.
What writer Sorkin and director Fincher have crafted out of this (clearly dramatized — only a fool would think this is The Truth™) age-old story of friendship, success, and betrayal, is nothing short of breathtaking. Dense with crackling dialogue, its non-linear structure put together with wit and ease, the movie is a marvel of storytelling. It’s hard to pinpoint one aspect of it as being above the rest, as everything from the performances to the music are superlative, and each and every aspect in some way contributes to the whole.
There is only one truly indulgent sequence, an extended rowing scene that is shot using tilt-shift lenses, but this too serves as a nice interlude and breathing-point between acts of the film. You can question its necessity on a purely mathematical level, but it’s a fun little bit that adds texture and strengthens the overall work.
It is also a deeply, deliciously unsettling movie. The characterizations play with our notions of good, bad and right. Mark Zuckerberg is neither uber-gifted genius nor crafty monster. The filmmakers do not try to make it easy for us by slotting him into the standard computer geek stereotype. This is perhaps the first movie — well, the second since Inception — that is unapologetic about its protagonists not talking or behaving like either affable movie characters or socially-inept nerd clowns.
The aforementioned music (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) is neither a soaring, bombastic feel-good orchestral score nor a hipper-than-hip club music binge. By turns creepy, sympathetic, and exhilarating, it is a quiet delight.
If you’re either going into the movie expecting this to be a tell-all exposé about the blood and guts that went into the founding of facebook — or indeed, if you are an avid facebooker who is staying away from the movie for the same reasons — then frankly you would be missing out on what I think is the main focus and theme of the film.
For while it may be about computer software and entrepreneurship, The Social Network is actually about social networks. The old fashioned kind. The arcane rituals of Harvard clubs. The glamour & paranoia of maverick entrepreneurs who’ve seen it all, done it all and (just) lived to tell the tale. The crushing weight of a system whose currency is social credibility, and the insane lengths that people will go to both attain and destroy it. There’s a certain melancholy that runs throughout the film — an emptiness that all the parties and the successes and the rituals can’t seem to fill, for any of the people in it.
It is also about the nature of stories themselves. In a world with facebook, we have the tools to construct and shape the narrative of our lives in ways we have never before. “Every creation story needs a devil,” a character says, and that is true of all our stories, especially those of ourselves.
If it was set on Mars two hundred years in the future, The Social Network would still be as biting and relevant. Set as it is in the here, the now that so many of us crave or claim to live in, its message is just that much more incisive.