Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review - The Social Network

The opening and closing scenes of The Social Network feature a female character contemplating Mark Zuckerberg's status as "an asshole." During the course of the film that unfolds between these two points, the character at the centre of the drama is viewed in a variety of lights and from many perspectives. Is he an asshole or a visionary? Is he a devious back-stabber or a naïve nerd whose creation overwhelmed him? To put the question in its most basic terms: hero or villain? David Fincher's film gives us every viewpoint without committing to any of them, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has tremendous fun playing with the narrative's shifting focus and the irony of the socially inept geek who revolutionised the way people interact with each other. You might think The Social Network is about the creation of Facebook, but it's really about much more than that.

Like most stories, it begins with a girl. The film opens on 19 year-old Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) sitting in a bar with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), who, by the end of the scene, will no longer be his girlfriend. Having viewed their last conversation as a couple, and suffered through Zuckerberg's status-obsessed, narcissistic, casually condescending patter, we can see why she has dumped him, but he returns to his room that night drunk and bitter. He simultaneously decides to pour his foul mood into a nasty blog post insulting Erica and to develop a misogynistic website that allows Harvard males to log on and rate the attractiveness of female students. While he does this, Fincher cuts away to a party that's taking place elsewhere in the building (or maybe in his jealous mind?), with beautiful women drinking and dancing alongside the privileged elite. The kind of party, in other words, that people like Mark Zuckerberg gaze at from the outside.

The seeds of Facebook were sown on this night, or were they? Drawing inspiration from Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires, Sorkin introduces us to Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the identical twin rowing champions who look like they could have stepped out of Leni Riefenstahl's dreams. Played by Armie Hammer and some mind-boggling visual effects, the "Winklevi" (as they are dubbed at one point) approach Zuckerberg with their own idea for a Harvard-exclusive social networking site, and having been impressed by the coding of Facemash, they want him to help create it. He agrees, disappears without any further contact, and the next thing they know, Facebook is the biggest thing on the internet.

The Social Network's screenplay operates on three levels. As well as detailing the site's origin story, Sorkin and Fincher cut between two court cases, as Zuckerberg is sued not only by the Winklevoss brothers and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) but, in a separate lawsuit, his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Saverin gave Zuckerberg the initial funds to set up the site before finding himself out in the cold later on, and Garfield's subtle portrayal makes him the film's most empathetic character. "I was your only friend," he says to Zuckerberg, but Eisenberg doesn't allow his character's impassive face to slip and reveal real, human emotions. It's a truly unsettling and brilliantly modulated performance, a sly mixture of arrogance, contempt and quiet introspection. When he appears to drift off during a lawyer's questioning, the lawyer asks if he has his full attention, and Zuckerberg retorts magnificently. "You have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount" he coolly states, "The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing."

We know from The West Wing that Sorkin can write great dialogue, but this is the first time he has successfully translated the wit, intelligence and rat-a-tat rhythms of that show to the big screen. The film's actors are all perfectly fluent in Sorkinese, delivering their lines in aggressive, cutting bursts of energy, with Justin Timberlake in particular relishing his role. He brings his pop star magnetism to the part of Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who acts as a charismatic svengali, breezing into the movie and seducing Zuckerberg with his stories of glamour, wealth and fame. It's a devilishly enjoyable performance from the musician, and one that reminded me of Fight Club's Tyler Durden, although there is little evidence elsewhere of the flash that Fincher brought to that film. His direction is fantastically detailed but marvellously understated. Shooting in a muted palette, he allows nothing to distract from the the performances and the storytelling, and he establishes a wonderful sense of thrusting forward momentum, aided considerably by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' fine score.

The Social Network is such a smooth model of storytelling that the occasional clumsy scene – like the manner in which the Winklevi discover that Facebook has made it to England – stands out jarringly. Likewise, the film is so focused on the petty male squabbling at its core that some of the female characters are given short shrift, most notably Eduardo's girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song) whose development into a crazy bitch comes out of nowhere. It's easy to disregard those flaws, however, as they mean little in the overall scheme of things. The Social Network is one of the most purely entertaining and stimulating movies of the year, using the creation of a website to deal with the oldest themes in the book: friendship, betrayal, ambition, greed and regret. In its structure, the film most obviously apes Citizen Kane, with its central character achieving unimaginable wealth and influence, but at the cost of pushing those closest to him away. The final shot clarifies the facts of the story while leaving us guessing about the true nature of Mark Zuckerberg, who remains a cold-blooded enigma, but who may yet elicit audience sympathy as he sits at his laptop, staring at his 'Rosebud.' Is he an asshole? You decide.