This review can also be read at The Amherst Student, or will be when someone gets around to posting it there.
Ah, the power of the Internet. It is a topic that has been discussed, debated, analyzed and theorized to death in the media over the past decade, as mankind desperately tries to figure out just what sort of monster it has created. Hollywood, though, remains for the most part a staunchly technophobic bunch, avoiding the philosophical conundrums of the Internet as if they took the phrase “computer virus” a little too literally. But after all, who has time to make films about Twitter and Wikipedia when there are still so many underdog boxers whose stories have yet to be told?
Thankfully, we at last have a film that recognizes the Internet as something more than a realm of clichéd hackers and lonely nerds. David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” in telling the not-quite-true story behind the founding of everyone’s favorite online addiction, addresses all of the hope, fear, genius, cruelty, ambition, manipulation and good intentions that surround the Internet. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has tried very hard to distance himself from this film’s depiction of his site’s story, as well he should; viewers would do well to keep in mind that “The Social Network” is NOT a documentary, and dramatic embellishments were certainly in order.
The gist of Fincher’s tale, however, is true enough: in the fall of 2003, while enrolled as a sophomore at Harvard University, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) did create a website called facemash.com, which pitted photos of female Harvard students against each other in a callous “contest” of attractiveness. Facemash was understandably short-lived, but soon after Zuckerberg, in a flash of inspiration, invented Thefacebook, a social networking site akin to MySpace but sporting the exclusivity of an actual, university-sponsored online directory. The rest, as they say…
But no, not quite. For Fincher, Zuckerberg’s famous week-long coding run and the debut of Thefacebook is only the start. See, it is not Facebook itself (that is, the day-to-day process of the tags, the wall posts, the constant status updates) that “The Social Network” is interested in; instead, the core of the story focuses on Zuckerberg’s relationship with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s best friend at Harvard and the company’s first business manager. As the Facebook phenomenon exploded and Zuckerberg’s team found themselves at the center of the nation’s fastest-growing start-up, Saverin was slowly pushed out of both his role as CFO and his substantial ownership share. Saverin ended up suing Zuckerberg for the restoration of his share and the right to be listed as a co-founder of Facebook.
Fincher and his writer, Aaron Sorkin of “West Wing” fame, use this court case as their framing device, as the former friends give their accounts as evidence in a deposition. In fact, there are two simultaneous cases: Zuckerberg must defend himself against not only Saverin, but also three former Harvard classmates, Divya Narendra, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, accusing Zuckerberg of stealing their intellectual property. That Fincher and Sorkin decided to place their story within such a frame begs the question: can we trust everything we see? Are the flashback scenes objectively reliable, or is the character relating them tainting events with their personal perspective? It’s a subtle but brilliant conceit, reminding the audience that in real life, just like on the Internet, people may not be exactly who they appear or claim to be.
When I first heard that David Fincher (also director of “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) would be making a movie about Facebook, I admit I was somewhat taken aback; this was the same David Fincher with a preoccupation for serial murderers, right? But Fincher’s penchant for dark, shadowy interiors and moral ambiguity turns out to be the perfect style for the gray ethics of the Internet. The film’s gloomy visuals (only about two scenes at Harvard take place during the day) are balanced by the lightness of Sorkin’s dialogue, which is as witty, sharp and fast-paced as ever. This unlikely marriage of method is flaunted right off the bat in the film’s first scene, a disastrous date between Zuckerberg and his girlfriend that would be excruciating if it wasn’t so hilarious.
With a script so demanding, you need a cast that’s up to the task, and Fincher has assembled an exceptional group of young talent. Garfield provides the film’s moral center; Saverin is such a loyal friend, watching his painful, drawn-out exclusion from the company is like watching someone kick a puppy. Meanwhile, Eisenberg deviates from the “awkward but sweet” role he has been typecast into lately, this time out exploring the egotistical, bratty side of his inherent geekiness. But don’t believe the misleading sound bite floating around the blogosphere that Zuckerberg is depicted as “villainous.” Self-centered? Yes. Ambitious? Surely. An asshole? At times, there’s no getting around that. But a villain? That’s far too strong. Watch Eisenberg’s face in the film’s closing moments, and tell me this is a man without regret.
Meanwhile, pop star Justin Timberlake makes his most high-profile foray into acting yet, as Napster founder and eventual Facebook consultant Sean Parker. While Timberlake appears at first to be merely a clever bit of stunt casting, he proves that he has some serious talent in one of the film’s best scenes, a nightclub monologue where Parker convincingly declares, “this is our time!” to an eager Zuckerberg. With the throbbing bass filling the air and vividly colored lights dancing devilishly across his face, Timberlake is the very picture of a modern Mephistopheles, offering power, respect and wealth at the drop of a hat.
What emerges from “The Social Network,” then, is not so much a social commentary on the metaphysical connotations of the “Like” button, but a cautionary tale for the quick-fame era. Mark Zuckerberg was a billionaire by the time he turned 26. Are we prepared as people, as well-intentioned but easily seduced people, to deal with such limitless, unbridled potential for success? What we are facing is essentially a new frontier age: the Internet looms in front of us, a vast, barely explored land primed for expansion. Which side of humanity will emerge to fill that space?
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars