The Social Network Could Be the Best Film of the Year

The Social Network Could Be the Best Film of the Year

We’re probably going to be writing about Facebook forever. For the next generation, at least. It has become the symbol of 21st century interpersonal communication and the first generation to grow up fully in the information age. And that means, fairly or not, it’s also the symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern interpersonal communication, as well (and by extension, with the information age).

While in reality new ideas like Facebook are often the product of a huge variety of decisions and actions, when it comes to symbolizing things we like to try and reduce them to the easiest to understand terms, and that’s doubly so in a film that only has 120 minutes to get its point across. The quickest shorthand we have is human beings and how they act (because we observe it every minute of every day of our lives), so it makes sense, then, that easiest way to understand something is to understand the person (or people) who created it. If creation is an act of will, then the created would/should be a reflection of the personality that made it. Which means any story about Facebook is going to end up being a story about its idiosyncratic creator, Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg).

The most interesting thing about The Social Network, director David Fincher’s adaptation of The Accidental Billionaire about the creation of Facebook, is that tries to do both at once — focus on Zuckerberg’s relationship to his creation AND the outside elements that influenced Facebook at the same time — with varying degrees of success.

Zuckerberg is undeniably at the heart of Facebook and thus of The Social Network, which begins during his sophomore year at Harvard, when a bad breakup (perhaps the first has ever known, the film implies) leads him to take over the university’s computer network; this gets the attention of not just the school’s administrative board but also of a small collective trying to start their own social networking service for Harvard students.

If that introductory paragraph sounds sprawling, it gives you some sense of how intricate and almost accidental of an act creation is. It may take will to get it started, but after that it takes an awful lot of events and people falling together in just the right order. In Zuckerberg’s case, this includes a pair of identical twin rowing stars (Josh Pence), the founder of Napster (Justin Timberlake), and his best friend (Andrew Garfield), all fighting and squabbling to be part of something big.

Told in a flashback style through the lens of depositions occurring in two simultaneous lawsuits for the profits from Facebook, The Social Network attempts to unwind all of these disparate threads and show how they connect together through the lens that is Zuckerberg. It’s to the immense credit of Fincher and his screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, that they succeed, laying out the steps that lead to the idea coalescing in Zuckerberg’s head and then the fight to capitalize on that idea.

Which isn’t to say it’s any sort of stuffy board drama or historical reenactment. The Social Network is history as only Hollywood can do it, with major life-changing events condensed to single conversations and major revelations arising in the midst of innocuous, banal exchanges. And all of it told in whip-cracking, rapid-fire Sorkin dialog that no one actually speaks in but we all wish we did.

But that’s okay, because within that falseness is a certain amount of truth — not so much about what Zuckerberg himself is about as about film-Zuckerberg. And as sprawling as the narrative is, for the most part it always come back to him.

To a certain degree, Eisenberg’s version of the character is something of a standard trope about computer nerds, cranked up to an interesting, dramatic extreme. It’s clear quite early on that Zuckerberg is both aware of how much smarter he is than most people around him but also completely clueless how to keep that realization from coloring every interaction he has. Eisenberg plays him as almost autistic, clearly more comfortable in his head than he is talking with people, but never cartoonishly so. He desperately wants to be able to talk with other people in a normal fashion but just can’t, and the discordance that causes creates a searing insecurity and grasping ambition that propels him both to create Facebook and to almost destroy it through in-fighting.

In the movie version, anyway. When it comes to drama, the tragic flaw usually trumps everything.

But it won’t matter because Fincher and Sorkin and the cast will keep you glued to your seat for the film’s entire two hour running time, especially when Justin Timberlake arrives. Zuckerberg’s best friend and initial business partner is probably the only person in the film to appreciate Zuckerberg as he is, which means he must be cast aside in favor of the man (Timberlake) who represents everything Zuckerberg seems to want to be.

Fincher’s artisans are as good as they’ve ever been as well, particularly Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography and a fantastic score from Trent Reznor that is never familiar but fits its materially perfectly.

Ironically, as the drama ramps up to its most intense point, the effect it has on its characters tapers off to its least importance, mainly because Eduardo takes so much of the lead late in the film that Zuckerberg actually begins to fade into the background and we’re left wondering what any of this actually means to him.

Which wouldn’t be as big a problem if the filmmakers hadn’t started down this road with the unwritten idea that not only is everything in the film but everything relating to Facebook at all comes down to what Facebook means to Zuckerberg. Without that, as fast as the plot moves around, it stops telling us anything.

That’s not anywhere near as bad or as much of a letdown as it sounds, mainly because The Social Network is so engrossing. It inspires so much goodwill you don’t even notice how heavy handed the film’s central dramatic irony could be: that the greatest tool for communication in the modern age was created by someone who has no idea how to relate to other people.

Ultimately, that decision may be the only thing keeping The Social Network from being an out-and-out masterpiece, though it is very, very good. It tells us a lot about what makes Mark Zuckerberg tick (the movie version, anyway), but it doesn’t tell us much about people. That’s also something of a niggle in an otherwise excellent film, one which certainly has the possibility to be the best of the year.

Cast:
Jessie Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg
Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin
Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker
Josh Pence as Tyler/Cameron Winklevoss
Max Minghella as Divya Narendra
Brenda Song as Christy
Joseph Mazzello as Dustin Moskovitz
Rooney Mara as Erica Albright
Rashida Jones as Marylin Delpy
Douglas Urbanski as Larry Summers
John Getz as Sy
Dakota Johnson as Leslie Brown

(Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures -- http://www.sonypictures.com/; The Social Network -- http://www.thesocialnetwork-movie.com/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Friday, October 1st, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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