Be it good or bad, The Social Network has certainly caused some extreme reactions. It was met with almost universal skepticism when it was first announced and has now seen nearly universal praise leading up to its release in theaters. Initially referred to as “the Facebook movie” in a way clearly meant to belittle it, audiences at early screenings across the country have discovered that description simply isn’t accurate. Is the movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the inception of Facebook? Of course it is. But to say that this is a detriment to the film’s potential is just plain wrong.
The Social Network follows the story of Mark Zuckerberg, a young computer genius attending Harvard University. After breaking up with his girlfriend and some drunken blogging, Mark decides to create a site to rank the sex appeal of Harvard co-eds. He uses his exemplary computer knowledge to download pictures from the online photo catalog’s that each house or dorm at Harvard has for students to get to know one another. He compiles the photos into a website which he dubs facemash.com similar to hotornot.com where visitors are presented with two pictures and asked to click on the one who they find sexier. The site crashes Harvard’s computer network in a matter of hours, garnering tens of thousands of htis and drawing the ire of the administration. This leads to Mark developing a new website which he calls The Facebook.
Eventually changed to just Facebook with the help of Napster-founder Sean Parker, the site grows to epic proportions prompting Mark to quit school to run it. But with his newfound fame and fortune comes some roadblocks in the form of impending legal action against Mark and the site, which threatens to destroy both his business and his relationship with his best friend.
Opinion slowly started swaying with the announcement of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin tackling directing and screenwriting duties respectively, and with good reason. Fincher is an outstanding director working in what would appear to be his prime. Sorkin is prolific; a writer with an incredible talent for crafting fast-paced, witty dialogue that can make even the simplest of conversations shine. The idea of a director known for his striking visual style teaming up with a writer known for scenes of people sitting and talking may seem a bit odd at first, but their talents compliment each other in a way that makes the pairing seem inspired.
The first scene of The Social Network really sets the stage for the rest of the film. It’s a pretty basic conversation between Zuckerberg and his girlfriend that takes place in a crowded bar. The camera work is subtle, bouncing between a well framed two-shot and the typical over-the-shoulder shots to highlight one person or the other. While Fincher will get his chance to showcase visuals soon enough, this opening scene is all about Sorkin’s dialogue. The 9 page scene is frenetically paced in typical Sorkin style, with characters nearly talking over one another. Comments both clever and snide fire back and forth like bullets whizzing overhead in Kabul. The participants don’t even give one shot time to land before they’ve already pulled the trigger again. It’s amazingly well written, filled with meaty character exposition, and it’s a joy to watch the scene unfold.
The scene ends with the couple breaking up and Mark’s girlfriend making a rather astute observation about his opinion of himself in relation to girls. It’s acerbic and even though it feels justified based on the conversation, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Mark. Is he an asshole? Probably, but it seems like it’s not necessarily born out of a conscious desire to be one or to hurt those around him. It’s a defense mechanism, carefully constructed over years of social awkwardness that he never found a way to grow out of, highlighting his loneliness. This is emphasized even more as the score swells for the credit sequence featuring Mark walking back to his dorm room. He passes hundreds of other students on Harvard’s campus as he makes his way home, but he’s insulated, buffered from the happy, smiling faces of his colleagues. Both the happiness and the cold, crisp fall air are seemingly unable to penetrate his bubble. Mark is alone, a state he’s long since accepted as fixed and immovable. And yet, there’s a twinge, a hint of sadness that comes through with the recognition of that fact.
That credit sequence taking place across the beautiful Harvard campus is not only important for its character setup but also for the opening strains of the score by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Ross and Reznor’s music is quite simply pitch perfect, giving Mark a rock star quality with 80s style synth sounds, some with pumping bass and some with softer synth piano notes that evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.
As you may or may not be aware, there’s some debate as to whether or not Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook. There’s ongoing legal action against the young billionaire from both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss who claim their idea for the Harvard Connection was the basis of Facebook as well as from Zuckerberg’s former business partner, Eduardo Severin, who claims he was screwed out of millions when his shares in Facebook were diluted. Zuckerberg denies that he stole the idea for Facebook pointing out that the social networking behemoth doesn’t contain one line of programming code from the Winklevoss twins’ Harvard Connection website. The situation with Severin is clearly more personal and therefore more complicated. Sorkin’s script is pretty careful to present all three stories without pronouncing one as fact and the others as fiction.Nonetheless, strong opinions will be formed and argued heatedly in plenty of parking lot discussions across the nation.
The story itself is told in non-linear fashion cutting between the tale of both Mark and Facebook’s rise to power and prominence and scenes of legal depositions taking place in preparation for the court battles the elder Zuckerberg will soon be facing. It’s an all-American rise to power story, similar to dozens of films but without the finality of an ending. That’s not to say that the film’s last scenes aren’t satisfying, but simply to point out that it’s a story that’s still ongoing. The end has not yet been written. It’s not so much rags to riches as it is riches to more riches. Zuckerberg seems to have been pretty solidly middle class, but his meteoric rise to becoming the youngest billionaire in the world isn’t exactly The Prince and The Pauper.
In fact, while we’re on the subject of the ending, the film has an amazingly powerful final scene. To explain it in detail would do the film a great disservice. It wraps up the film nicely while acknowledging that the question of Mark’s moral fiber has valid points on both sides. While some will look on it as too little too late, it rings true and again raises a certain amount of sympathy for Zuckerberg. At least in the case of Severin, it appears that Mark has some regrets about the way things went down.
Ultimately, The Social Network is a pretty basic story, classically constructed and a joy to watch. This is in large part due to a perfect marriage of cast and crew, Sorkin’s engaging script, Fincher’s effortless direction and Eisenberg’s intense performance in the lead role taking the lion’s share of the credit. The supporting cast bolsters the film, with Timberlake, Armie Hammer and Andrew Garfield all deserving special mention. The score, by Ross and Reznor, enhances each scene while never feeling overpowering. Is this the film that “defines the decade” as a certain critic’s pull quote screams at us from the trailer? Probably not. But it is a damn good film that I’m very much looking forward to seeing again.
The Upside: Sorkin’s knife-sharp dialog, Fincher’s on-point direction, Eisenberg’s formidable performance.
The Downside: Feels a little paint by numbers as a traditional rise and fall story.
On the Side: With technology from Benjamin Button, Armie Hammer plays both Winklevoss twins, a fact you’d probably never know unless you just read it here.