Believe the Hype: 'The Social Network' Delivers
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
David Fincher's latest, "The Social Network," is about the founding of the online sharing site and social hub Facebook much in the same way that "The Great Gatsby" is about New York real estate. The opening scene is set in the dim, misty past of 2003, where future titan Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has a conversation with his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it goes from accidentally cold to deliberately cruel so swiftly and so hard that, by the time the conversation is over, their heads -- and yours -- are spinning. Aaron Sorkin (TV's "The West Wing," "Sports Night") adapted the script from Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires," and his trademark rat-a-tat dialogue has finally found the place it can run free -- the minds and mouths of the superswift, socially maladroit young people who define so much of modern life by inventing new ways to connect without really getting how to, you know, actually connect.
For anyone who thinks that Fincher -- best-known for dark thrillers and crime stories like "Seven" and "Zodiac" -- might not be suited to this material, there are three things to note. One is that Fincher's shot-on-digital-video style makes everything achingly, impressively dark. Harvard, where Zuckerberg first started coding what would become Facebook, looks as shadowed and haunted as a dungeon. Second is the fact that this is a crime story: Much of the film is occupied by two present-day lawsuits brought by separate parties left out of the Facebook revolution, and we watch as offhand ideas become computer code, as casual conversations become the foundation of billion-dollar businesses and as friends become litigants. Finally, "The Social Network" is fleet, funny and playful -- more so than any Fincher film since "Fight Club," and, like that film, in no small part because Fincher is equally suspicious of both the old order that must be overthrown and of the revolutionaries that would replace it.
The film swaggers with a bravado born of insecurity: Facebook begins on a night when Zuckerberg gets drunk and lashes out at the women of Harvard. All of them. Eisenberg -- who can, occasionally, seem too clever and curiously detached on film -- is perfectly cast as a man who is too clever, curious and detached, and delivers the performance of his career. Justin Timberlake, an actual pop star, scores as Sean Parker, a rock-star computer programmer who co-founded Napster and struck a blow to the music industry without, perhaps, actually thinking about what that would mean. Andrew Garfield's Eduardo Saverin goes from friend to business partner to enemy, and Garfield makes you feel not only how much that hurts but also how much that was necessary. There are a lot of movies in the mix here -- "Citizen Kane," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "All the President's Men," even "Animal House" -- but it's hardly an exercise in references for references' sake. Sorkin and Fincher build an unflattering portrait of how we live now -- and their acid-tongued, sharp-minded mean nerds, sniping at each other between coding sessions, make the best possible portrait of the greed, genius and gratuitous cruelty of the dot-com era. The nerds have attained their revenge, and it is not a kind or benevolent rule.
"The Social Network" is ultimately, like "The Great Gatsby," a dissection of the contradictions in the American character -- that you can be anything you want to be and yet that will somehow not be enough; that while you can reinvent yourself, you'll still know who you are. (It's worth noting that Eisenberg's Zuckerberg never seems to attend the fabulous parties thrown in the name of his success, always on the other side of the glass from the fun.) There's sex and drugs and HTML, but there's also the feeling that Facebook, for all its value, may not be worth anything -- aside from Farmville and birthday reminders, what does the site really offer us, and does it make us in any way better? After Zuckerberg is cruel online, Albright rages at him, "The Internet's not written in pencil, Mark -- it's written in ink." And yet mistakes become empires, even when the empires make money through some sleight of hand where all they're selling is some intangible feeling of coolness. At one point, a lawyer on the team defending Zuckerberg suggests how he'll have to come out the bad guy just for purposes of the narrative: "Every creation myth needs a devil." Not story, or history, but myth.
Fincher's technical accomplishments are both visible (the murky look of the film matches the murky morals of the characters) and invisible (the all-American sons of privilege who are suing Zuckerberg and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are played by one actor, Armie Hammer, whose face is placed digitally onto another actor's body). Sorkin's dialogue skips over the surface of the film fleet and fast as a skipping stone, but you still feel the bigger concerns and broader points moving in the darkness and the depths below. Between the two of them, their collaboration's a knockout punch of money, mythology, morality and the modern world. Cyndi Lauper once sang "Money Changes Everything" -- a song she borrowed from another band, the Brains, and made a hit, thereby making it, in the eyes of many, her song -- and that came to mind in the film's final scene as Mark Zuckerberg sits alone in a conference room trying to get back in touch with his past in the only way he knows how. Money changes everything, except for the things it can't, and the way "The Social Network" understands that contradiction to turn the personal feuds and legal battles of one business on the cutting edge of the here-and-now into a timeless and, yes, tragic story is why it's a triumph.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.