Film Review: The Social NetworkDavid Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and a terrific ensemble of young actors reveal the (not quite) true story behind the Facebook phenomenon. Expect critics, audiences and awards voters to friend this thoughtful, witty and thoroughly entertaining cyber-drama.
When putting together a list of dream-team pairings of directors and screenwriters, most people probably wouldn’t think to match David Fincher up with Aaron Sorkin. It’s not that either one is unworthy of the other’s talents—it’s that their talents lie in dramatically different areas. Sorkin excels at penning snappy patter and rapid-fire exchanges; it’s not for nothing that he’s known as the master of the “walk and talk,” that now-familiar narrative device in which characters briskly march from one setting to another while engaged in a steady stream of chatter. Fincher, on the other hand, is an almost absurdly methodical filmmaker who makes a point of lingering over scenes rather than hurrying along to the next big dramatic moment. At worst, their partnership could have resulted in a movie where Fincher’s meticulousness smothered Sorkin’s propulsive energy or one in which the writer’s verbal dexterity kept threatening to spill outside of the director’s carefully composed frames.
It’s a pleasure to report then that, based on The Social Network, the duo are natural collaborators who bring out the best in each other. Sorkin’s fast-paced script forces Fincher to shake off the languor that plagued his last movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while Fincher’s formal discipline keeps Sorkin from getting distracted with the self-righteous social and political commentary that crept into his television work like “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” It helps too that they’re working with such meaty material. Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network dives into the complicated history behind Facebook, the ubiquitous social-networking site created in 2003 by Harvard student-turned-world’s youngest billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg. The exact circumstances that led to the site’s debut remain hotly contested to this day and Sorkin, like Mezrich, has taken some liberties with the historical record. As a result, the film is best approached as a speculative interpretation of Facebook’s origin story—if this were a comic book, the title would be Revenge of the Computer Genius.
That said, the basic arc of Sorkin’s screenplay does follow a generally agreed-upon set of facts. The film begins in the fall of 2003, when Harvard junior Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) gained campus-wide notoriety by creating Facemash.com, a site that allowed users to rate the hotness of the institution’s female student body. A few months after that, he returned with another, less controversial online destination, TheFacebook.com, where Harvard students (and, at that point, only Harvard students) could create their own profiles and post photos, musings and personal information. But the most attractive feature was the concept of “friending”—each user was able to choose who would have access to their profile, lending the site a feeling of exclusivity not unlike the campus’ many secret clubs and societies, which virtually every Harvard student aspired to be a part of.
Working with his best friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg soon expanded TheFacebook’s network from Harvard to more and more major universities. While making the rounds to raise cash for their ever-growing operation, the duo crossed paths with Sean Parker, the young entrepreneur who became a Silicon Valley celebrity for co-founding the pioneering music-sharing service, Napster. (In a sly bit of stunt casting, pop star Justin Timberlake assumes the role of the guy who almost singlehandedly brought down the recording industry.) With Parker’s encouragement, Zuckerberg moves the newly renamed Facebook out to California and, not long after that, Eduardo suddenly finds himself forced out of the company he helped build. Zuckerberg is subsequently hit with two legal challenges, one from a furious Saverin and the other from fellow Harvardites the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), who claim the boy genius ripped the Facebook concept off from a social-networking site they had hired him to build in late 2003, only weeks before TheFacebook went live.
It’s here that the truth starts getting murky and Sorkin allows the plaintiffs their say by structuring the movie around two separate legal depositions that pit Zuckerberg against his accusers. These sequences aren’t derived from actual testimony—rather they function as a dramatic way for the writer to introduce twists and turns into his narrative, while also exposing less attractive sides of our ostensible hero. But Sorkin’s biggest dramatic invention is the creation of a fictional girlfriend, whose harsh breakup with Zuckerberg is strongly implied to be the reason behind his drive to create and later expand Facebook. Rooney Mara, soon to be seen as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has been tasked with the thankless assignment of playing this flesh-and-blood Rosebud, and while the actress is quite good, the role is ultimately too much of a contrivance. At the same time, though, her presence does tie into a larger theme Sorkin and Fincher are out to explore, specifically the way that Facebook becomes, for Zuckerberg at least, a substitute for actual human friendship. The film touches on a number of other interesting ideas as well, most notably the sexism that often pervades Internet culture. It’s no accident that there are no women amongst Facebook’s founders and that the aspect of the venture that most excites its developers the most is the ability to meet girls.
Filmed largely on location in Boston, The Social Network is as handsomely mounted as any Fincher production, featuring beautiful cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth (who also shot Se7en and Fight Club) and a moody score from Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor. In addition to his technical mastery, Fincher has always possessed strong casting instincts and here he’s assembled a top-notch ensemble of young actors, all of whom handle Sorkin’s dialogue with aplomb. (The breakout star of the bunch has to be Garfield, whose soulful performance as a computer geek who gets in way over his head after acquiring the powers that come with building a successful start-up bodes well for his next role as Peter Parker a.k.a. The Amazing Spider-Man.)
After a generally disappointing year for studio films, The Social Network showcases the magic that results when two major Hollywood talents are matched with the exact right material.