The Social Network
Three weeks ago, my knowledge of The Social Network would’ve boiled down to “Oh right, someone’s making a Facebook movie.” Somehow, despite the presence of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, the movie wasn’t even on my radar’s radar, let alone any must-see list.
Then, the hype machine kicked into high gear, and reviews started describing the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as a Citizen Kane for the modern world, a feature film that captures the modern zeitgeist, a once-in-a-lifetime “holy shit” kind of moment. So, yes, curiosity was piqued, priorities were shuffled and movie tickets were purchased.
The reason this preamble seems necessary in talking about The Social Network is that it’s really impossible to react to the movie without in some way addressing the ridiculous expectations that were tacked on to the viewing experience. Saying that a film is “very good, but it’s no Citizen Kane” is the kind of statement that shouldn’t have to be made – not many movies can or even should be held up to one of the consensus contenders for Greatest Film of All Time – and yet, because of what advance reviews were saying, “very good, but it’s no Citizen Kane” seems like the only thing that can be said about The Social Network. Aside from actually talking about the movie, that is.
And on that note, let’s talk about the movie. To judge it from the opening scene alone, The Social Network feels very much like a Sorkin production. Zuckerberg, a Harvard student who hasn’t yet started on the path to becoming the youngest billionaire in the world, banters with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend about education, goals, power and class at a pace that makes The Gilmore Girls look like The Other Sister. Threads are dropped, picked up and contradicted so often that, despite there only being two characters, it seems like there are five or six conversations vying for our attention, and this sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s an incredibly dense movie, content-wise.
But instead of being bogged down by the conversational weight, that density actually gives the film its momentum. The sequence that follows that opening conversation, with Zuckerberg slapping together a website as a way of blowing off steam, is probably the most compelling cinematic sequence ever to revolve around PHP scripts, and the credit for that must come from the relationship between Sorkin’s wordy approach and Fincher’s visual skills. The scene features all the usual cliches that accompany programming in movies – plenty of voice-over and scrolling code, in other words – but between the scripts careful deconstruction of what, exactly, Zuckerberg is doing and Fincher’s methodical edits, it somehow becomes compelling rather than cheesy.
The same could be said of the film in general. It is, for all practical purposes, a pretty standard biopic. There’s nothing in the structure or the concept to differentiate the film too much from, say, Walk the Line or Ray. Yes, the fact that the movie is largely framed as testimony during a pair of lawsuits levelled against Zuckerberg (without the heavy-handed voiceovers that might imply, thank God) does distinguish it a bit, but even that isn’t exactly ground-breaking. But the script is so well-written and comprehensive, and Fincher’s delivery of it so relentless and so confident, that it ends up feeling like something fresh and exciting is happening.
To briefly talk about performances, all that really needs to be said is that they are universally strong. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as somewhere between socially oblivious and downright malevolent – he’ll be closed off to the point of Asperger’s during a conversation, before slipping in a comment that had to have been calculated for maximum sting. As Zuckerberg’s business partner and best friend, Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) pre-emptively earns the fame that will likely come his way in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, delivering a heartfelt performance with all of the genuine emotion that Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg deliberately lacks. And Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Shawn Fanning is every bit the rock star you’d expect, but while Timberlake’s natural charisma carries him through the character’s up moments, he also has the genuine acting chops to pull off the more paranoid and pathetic moments in Fanning’s arc.
The potential complaints about the film are few and far between, but they do exist. Sorkin’s script bases Zuckerberg’s drive for success around a sublimated desire to win back the girl that got away, which by all accounts is a pure fabrication on his part. That’s forgivable – this is a dramatization and not a documentary, after all – but his portrayal of women in general is lacking. The Social Network’s three female characters are a crazy shrew, a sympathetic dispenser of narrative and an idealization of a simpler life. Given that Zuckerberg has been in a consistent relationship since his Harvard days, the opportunity for a strong (or at least somewhat developed) female character was there, but it was sacrificed for narrative poignancy.
That’s picking nits, though. Even without mentioning the incredibly subtle special effect that turns Armie Hammer into the Winklevoss twins (Fincher here proves that he can use special effects to seamlessly support a story, something that wasn’t exactly clear from the misstep that was Benjamin Button), there are a ridiculous amount of reasons to recommend The Social Network. It’s an engrossing film that likely represents the height of the modern biopic, and it’s executed almost without a hitch. It’s a very good film. But… well, you know.