The Social Network
Of all the directors routinely and cavalierly compared to Kubrick, the only filmmaker working today who earns the label is Fincher—and not just for his well-documented perfectionism. It’s because most of his movies, from Seven to The Game to Fight Club to the masterstroke of, concern characters who find their humanity stifled in ruthless, obsessively ordered universes. Who, then, could be better qualified to take on the story of the mass technological hijacking of our lives, the move on to Facebook? The Social Network strikes a nerve in pinpointing a sea change so mundane and recent it’s hard to believe it happened: the instant when meeting people began to require “facebooking”; when couples suddenly weren’t official until they had issued a status alert; when popularity could literally be tallied. Right from its opening scene—a brilliantly edited breakup in which Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) remains fixated on Harvard’s final clubs as his date, a fictionalized BU student (Mara), tells him off—it’s clear only someone with a sidelong view of relationships could popularize the idea of adding them with a button-click.
Deepening what would be a crackling tale of inspiration and betrayal in anyone’s hands—the sterling script is by Aaron Sorkin, who swapped notes with Ben Mezrich, author of the lightly speculative nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires—The Social Network becomes something more, a portrait of an era in which ambition and success are so mercurial it’s not possible to worry about the friends who can’t keep up. Telling its story in flashbacks from two depositions, the movie is, on one level, a legal thriller, as well as a mystery in which the question of creative ownership proves as elusive as the Zodiac killer. Did Zuckerberg invent Facebook? The film argues that he did, and if he was inspired by the similar concept of three Harvard classmates (Minghella and, playing identical twins, Hammer), they can’t prove he used any of their code.
Even a purely fictitious version of this story might have been set at Harvard—at once a crucible of innovation and one of the last bastions of true stuffiness in America—and parts of the movie unfold like a warped 19th-century novel, in which opportunity is open to everyone (or at least those who seize it first) and fame isn’t hereditary but instant, something to be bogarted once had. In a bit of meta-casting, Timberlake turns up as Napster founder Sean Parker, a rake who despite questionable business sense and “being sued by anyone who’s ever been to the Grammys” nevertheless insinuates himself into the company. The Social Network also inverts the ground rules of the teen comedy: This is a story in which wealthy, entitled jocks find themselves powerless against a badly dressed, Aspergian upstart. (Along with Ben Stiller’s Greenberg, Eisenberg’s oblivious, ingeniously played Zuckerberg is the year’s great antisocial antihero—a reminder that forward thinking often coincides with severe blinkeredness.) For its moral center, the movie looks to Facebook’s financial head, Eduardo Saverin (a surprisingly soulful Garfield), a model of small ambition and loyalty operating in an atmosphere in which those are precisely the wrong values to have.
There’s no director better at capturing the rush of a nightclub conversation, and Fincher’s flawless sense of composition and rhythm—aided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s paranoid score—perfectly complements Sorkin’s complicated flashback structure. If a few biopic clichés prevent The Social Network from seeming as revolutionary as Zodiac—it’s probably not necessary for Saverin to shout, “I was your only friend!”—it’s still a durable work fascinating among other things as a period piece, particularly for those of us on college campuses seven years ago. (It’s amusing to see dorm rooms and house parties imbued with Fincher’s trademark menacing glow.) In his only scene, then–university president Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) remarks that Harvard undergrads seem to think finding an idea is as good as finding a job. Maybe then, it was. Even those who hate Zuckerberg are still in thrall to the instrument of his success. Take a look online: All of the characters who sue him maintain Facebook profiles.