Could it be that the person who founded Facebook, the man who connected so many individuals that the total defies belief (500 million and counting), is himself incapable of close personal friendship? Is it possible that the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, a 26-year-old whose creation unites people in 207 countries using 70 languages, is the loneliest guy on the planet?
If that sounds like a hell of a premise, you don’t know the half of it. Smartly written by Aaron Sorkin, directed to within an inch of its life by David Fincher and anchored by a perfectly pitched performance by Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network” is a barn-burner of a tale that unfolds at a splendid clip.
Yet, while nothing is more au courant than the Facebook phenomenon, “Social Network” succeeds because its story is the stuff of archetypal movie drama. It marries the tradition of present-at-the-creation epics like “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,” “Madame Curie” and “Edison, the Man” with the familiar story of the corrupting power of ambition and success that allows audiences to feel, and not for the first time, that their ordinary lives have more meaning than those of the rich and famous.
Where “Social Network” departs from those earlier biopics is that, as played by Eisenberg, protagonist Mark Zuckerberg is introduced as extremely unlikable rather than heroic, a self-absorbed and arrogant 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who is as socially maladroit as he is fearsomely smart.
An actor who has nailed every discontented role he’s had, including “Roger Dodger,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “Adventureland,” Eisenberg excels as someone whose success is fueled, in classic movie fashion, by resentments of all shapes and sizes. His Zuckerberg is so consumed by the drive to get even and gain status that no one is a match for the combination of ruthless focus and disinterested frigidity he brings to the table.
The opportunity to simultaneously portray and dissect this kind of compelling yet distant individual is an ideal fit for Fincher. Presented with an involving central character cold enough to suit his chilly but considerable filmmaking talents, the director does his best work, convincingly presenting a story about conflicts over intellectual property as if it were a fast-paced James Bond thriller.
“Social Network” is fluidly shot by Jeff Cronenweth with convincing production design by Donald Graham Burt, both Fincher regulars, and the director also has the benefit of working with Sorkin’s strong and persuasive script. As fans of TV’s “The West Wing” well remember, Sorkin writes great crackling dialogue that dramatically represents the dynamics of power relations, and he puts that gift to great use here. Both his writing and the unnerving music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross bring so much propulsive energy to the project that resistance is all but futile.
Although the film is based on Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires,” Sorkin did his own research into the story and his treatment doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. Though there has been talk of “Social Network” having Rashomon elements, that is something of a red herring. The film’s characters naturally have differing viewpoints and details are argued over, but the basic thrust of this tale never wavers, no matter whose eyes events are being told through.
“The Social Network” begins by positing that it was a very specific social resentment that got Zuckerberg started on his road to billions. The film opens at an undergraduate bar near the Harvard campus in the fall of 2003 with Zuckerberg getting dumped by his girlfriend Erica ( Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salander in the Fincher-directed versions of the Stieg Larsson trilogy). Going out with him, she says tartly, is “like dating a Stairmaster.”
Furious at this rejection, Zuckerberg stomps back to his dorm and, with the help of roommate and best friend Eduardo Saverin (the gifted shape-shifter Andrew Garfield), takes revenge by doing some adroit hacking and coming up with Facemash, a site that enables students to vote on which Harvard women are the hottest. It gets 22,000 hits in two hours and crashes the university’s system.
That stunt attracts the attention of two of the school’s elite, rowers and identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (played, with the help of computer wizardry, by two unrelated actors, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence). They and friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) hire him to work on a university dating service they have in mind called Harvard Connection. Almost simultaneously, Zuckerberg, funded by best friend Saverin, starts “thefacebook,” which eventually morphs into you know what.
After these dynamics are established, “Social Network” jumps us a few years into the future, to separate but equally acrimonious lawsuits brought against Zuckerman by the Winklevosses and by Saverin, all of whom, albeit for different reasons, are upset enough with their erstwhile colleague and friend to drag him into legal proceedings.
Part of “Social Network’s” energy comes from the alacrity, courtesy of the brisk editing of Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, with which it jumps between the taking of two sets of depositions and the film’s depiction of the events that led to Facebook, and Zuckerberg, getting rich and famous. This includes the eventual involvement of Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a quite-convincing Justin Timberlake), a personality as seductive as he was divisive.
Another red herring about “Social Network” is how true to life these characterizations and this film are. It’s a red herring because movies, even well-intentioned documentaries, distort reality by their very nature. Zuckerberg’s adherents say the film is unfair to their man, and it may or may not be, but given that a New Yorker writer who interviewed him characterized the Facebook founder as “distant and disorienting, a strange mixture of shy and cocky,” Eisenberg’s characterization doesn’t seem that far off the mark.
All that really matters about “Social Network” is that it be convincing in movie terms, and it very much is that. Very likely gritting his teeth and agreeing is Zuckerberg himself. Someone who donated $100 million to the Newark, N.J., public schools just as this film was opening the New York Film Festival is probably worried that with all his billions he may forever be a prisoner of the film’s uncharitable portrayal, just as gifted actress Marion Davies was similarly blindsided by the talentless character based on her in “Citizen Kane.” Facebook may be powerful, but impressive movies have a force that cannot be denied.