David Fincher’s The Social Network is not “The Facebook Movie”. Yes, the plot centers on the creation of the landmark social networking website, but it’s not about Facebook. It’s about inspiration, betrayal, the weight of human relationships, the cost of success, and so much more. It just so happens that Facebook’s creation story is a good way to explore these themes. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin thought to brilliantly tell that story through multiple perspectives, and Fincher’s thoughtful and restrained direction showcases some of the best narrative editing in years. Add Sorkin’s catchy, crackling dialogue and memorable performances from a terrific cast and it doesn’t really matter that the film’s about Facebook. What matters is that The Social Network is moviemaking at its finest.
The film kicks off with a rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy scene between Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be-girlfriend (Rooney Mara) that only Sorkin could write. It’s an opening scene that most films would kill to have as it lays its protagonist bare while still keeping him intriguing and hints at the motives that would drive him to create one of the most popular, influential, and lucrative inventions of all-time. It’s been said that “This is the movie Facebook (i.e. Zuckerberg) doesn’t want you to see,” but the Zuckerberg presented in The Social Network is almost a tragic figure. Every mean-spirited barb he throws out is something we wish we had the wit to say and yet the script and Eisenberg’s phenomenal performance makes us pity the man who feels like he has to say such hurtful things in the first place. Where Facebook and Co. may take umbrage isn’t in Mark’s Sorkin-scripted-words, but Zuckerberg’s supposed actions.
And it’s in trying to show those actions that the film presents its killer story structure. The Social Network is told through two depositions for two different lawsuits. One lawsuit is from the Aryan poster-child twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) alleging that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook and forestalled the creation of a rival site. The other is from Zuckerberg’s former friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Through this layered storytelling, the notions of heroes and villains are laid aside and we see that on the road to the creation of this monumental website, there’s enough credit/blame to go around.
Wandering into these shades of gray, Fincher has created his most restrained and subtle film to date. The Social Network could have easily fallen into a trap of over-stylized and distractingly-flashy effects, but Fincher must have realized he wasn’t making “The MySpace Movie” and instead opted for approach that’s as clean and crisp as Facebook’s layout. Fincher finds his energy in the script, the acting, and with Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s superb editing. Watching Mark drunkenly burn through code as he hacks the websites of every dorm in Harvard is as exciting as most big-budget action scenes.
While Fincher’s films always feature great performances, The Social Network is perhaps his most acting-reliant film to date and his cast does not disappoint. Eisenberg deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here. He doesn’t take for granted that his character has some amazing lines and instead finds the humanity in someone so smart and yet so sad and angry. To argue whether or not he’s doing an accurate representation of the real Mark Zuckerberg is missing the point completely. As a fully-realized person existing within the confines of the story being told, Eisneberg has crafted a character who is a tragic hero, anti-hero, and misunderstood evil genius all rolled up into one charismatic hoodie-and-sandals-wearing ball of energy.
Eisenberg steals the show a bit, but the rest of the cast turns in wonderful performances that show off the same restraint and balance seen in Fincher’s directing. Garfield plays a sweet innocent but doesn’t shy away from Saverin’s foolishness. Justin Timberlake gives a smart performance as Sean Parker, a savvy entrepreneur whose opportunism never goes off to the point where it feels moustache-twirlingly nefarious. Hammer does wonderful work of putting us on the side of the Winklevoss Twins and how they wrestle with the question of whether they should handle the theft of their billion-dollar idea with dignity and honor, or just beat Zuckerberg into a fine powder. Everyone in this cast delivers and they make their characters more than just figures submitted for our adoration or scorn.
But my favorite aspect of The Social Network is the writing. I’ve been a huge fan of Sorkin for years. If A Few Good Men is playing on TV, I’ll stop what I’m doing and watch it, and I refuse to acknowledge that The West Wing continued past season four. Sorkin’s writing is sharp, witty, memorable, uplifting, thoughtful, and plenty of other positive adjectives that would slow down the flow of this sentence even more. The dialogue electrifies the scenes but never overshadows the pathos or rich thematic subtext, and using the depositions as framing device is a stroke of genius. Sorkin and Fincher balance each other perfectly and I hope that they’ll collaborate again in the future.
All the individual elements of the film make The Social Network more than just the creation story of a popular website. When Fincher compares the movie to Citizen Kane or Sorkin compares it to Rashomon, they’re not being self-congratulatory. They’re being accurate, not just in how The Social Network shares themes or storytelling devices, but in overarching themes about deep regrets and complicated truths. You don’t have to know what the “Like” button is or even like Facebook to appreciate this film. The Social Network is for people who like smart, entertaining, thoughtful, and emotionally-satisfying films.