If The Social Network, the highly-anticipated collaboration between former-wunderkind director David Fincher and former-wunderkind writer Aaron Sorkin about current wunderkind Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, was only about the irony that, in creating a website centered around friendship, Zuckerberg managed to alienate his friends, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
Despite the non-disclosure agreements, the basic outline of the real story has been out there in detail for a while. Even Zuckerberg has copped to douchey IM conversations. The movie is based on a book by reporter Ben Mezrich called The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, which I haven’t read. I do know that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with events, the major one being that Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, since before Facebook took off. If there is a character representing her, she disappears from the story after giving the Zuck a b.j. in a bar bathroom.
Amazingly, in this litigious age, the filmmakers have not changed the names of those involved. Fincher has called the movie fiction. Sorkin has called it non-fiction. Certainly, the mere existence of the film raises ethical questions about portraying a living person, and about the duties of filmmakers to expose the rotten cores of the men who control what may be the future of the media landscape.
The way Sorkin chooses to tell Zuckerberg’s story is fascinating. As usual, his dialogue is a master class in wit and chutzpah and it is directed by Fincher with an exhaustive early-talkie velocity that mercifully doesn’t last till the end. But it is the structure of this tale, with its disorienting multiple flash-forwards in and out of legal proceedings which makes it one of the best legal dramas I’ve ever seen — one with the ability to cut to the scenes of maximum conflict.
And conflict there is, as Zuckerberg angers in turn a girlfriend, every woman at Harvard, the college network’s head of security, twin WASP Olympians and the best friend he ever had. Jesse Eisenberg, as Zuckerberg, and future Spiderman Andrew Garfield, as best friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin, are fantastic. And Justin Timberlake seems born to play the interloping Napster co-founder, Silicon Valley playboy Sean Parker.
Fincher, stepping back into Zodiac actuality mode, mostly eschews his directorial flourishes, letting the story carry you along. The one major exception is a boat race which he shoots from with a tilt-shift lens style and hyperbolic music. An unnecessary scene story-wise, but a brilliant reminder of his command of cinema’s toolkit. The other technological coup is the way he and his VFX crew make one actor appear to be two Winkelvoss twins, seamless enough to make me wonder where Fincher had found identical twins so perfectly suited to the role who could also act so well.
The Social Network is not a straightforward hit-piece against Zuckerberg. It provides very understandable and human motivations for his actions, the prime one being a smoldering wish to impress an ex-girlfriend. I think we should also credit that, like many people who are gifted in the computer sciences, he may have under-developed social skills. Perhaps it is precisely this outsider perspective that let him structure Facebook so effectively. Or maybe it is just that, as the movie posits, Facebook started at Harvard, which is a center of influence for business, politics and yes, sex.
This is a movie of ideas, of sparkling dialogue and great performances. It is among the first films to tackle the new era of the internet in a serious way. I loved it.
There is, however, a discomfiting aspect of schadenfreude to the film. As some of my Facebook and Twitter friends have pointed out, there are few likable characters. But I don’t believe a story needs likable characters. I believe a story needs relatable characters. With his own writer’s empathy, Sorkin may have failed in his ultimate goal. If he sought to expose Zuckerberg’s moral turpitude in order to make us despise him, he went astray. If anything, Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg have created a sympathetic hero, not a villain.
One last thing. If I could change one detail about this film, it would be the title. Drop the ‘the.’ Just Social Network is cooler.