When a movie, in subsequent viewings, not only sustains the brilliance one saw in it through the first viewing but reveals itself as a more complex and deeper piece of filmmaking, one knows that it must be something special. The Social Network, David Fincher's latest, is one such film. It is not only Fincher's best, but also the best film of 2010.
Additionally, The Social Network is an important effort because it is fully relevant to our times. Adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, the film chronicles the creation of the now monolithic social networking site Facebook, from its roots as a side project by a couple of Harvard undergrads to its sudden rise as one of the largest and fastest-growing web companies in the world.
But perhaps that description isn't entirely correct. It's true that The Social Network takes place around Facebook's creation, but the film itself is not so much about Facebook. It's not even about social networking really, and it doesn't try to be. Instead, it's about the people behind the creation of the website. And it is this fact that makes The Social Network so compelling: it's about people, not some website that is currently almost unrecognizable from its early days.
Fincher's film cuts back and forth between the creation of Facebook and depositions for the two high-profile lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg (here played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Facebook: the first is a suit brought by Zuckerberg's best friend while in school at Harvard, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); the second is brought by two Harvard legacy twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer). I personally knew all the details of the lawsuits prior to seeing the film, and yet I was drawn in throughout the entire thing, hanging on every word. Knowing those details is irrelevant to the core of the film.
That's in large part because Fincher's direction is almost unparalleled. The Social Network, in fact, is the kind of film that film lovers always hope to find. If Fincher took one single wrong step, I failed to catch it. The first act is so perfectly constructed that The Social Network immediately compels you to keep on watching. This is in no small part due to Aaron Sorkin's superb screenplay.
During the opening scene, the dialogue between Eisenberg and his co-star Rooney Mara unfolds sublimely, flowing between the two of them like water down a river. I describe this not simply to praise the film's first scene, but to give an example of how The Social Network unfolds. Fincher constructs each scene, each moment, so it'll flow to the next with such ease that by the time the credits start rolling, it's difficult to believe that two hours have gone by. That would be high praise for a kinetic action film; for a film concerned so heavily with characters, it is nothing short of a miracle.
Something else that elevates The Social Network beyond just the level of a well-crafted effort is that, as I mentioned above, its subject matter is fully relevant both to today's world and to how our world has progressed over the past decade. For instance, take the argument between the Winklevoss twins and Zuckerberg. They hired him to make a social networking website for them. He agreed, but instead of working for them he created The Facebook, the predecessor to today's behemoth.
The twins claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea. They had even brought it to then-Harvard President Larry Summers. Making sure this is clear: That is almost entirely their claim: Zuckerberg stole their idea. My question is, can one steal someone else's idea? Can an idea be patented? A product certainly can. Thus, Zuckerberg's retort is that he wrote every single line of code and used none of theirs.
At one point, perhaps having written the code and done all the work is all that mattered, but no more. When a website as simple as Facebook can grow so as to be worth billions of dollars, the idea that sparked it is worth everything, isn't it?
There is another key point about The Social Network. The people who create, run and operate Facebook are young; they're in their twenties. At one point in the film, Napster legend Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) comes in to lend a hand to Zuckerberg. At first, he seems like a king, and that's how Zuckerberg perceives him. Parker has connections, women, fame, respect. But by the end, it is all too clear that even the still-young Parker is old news. Increasingly, the business dominating the world is becoming dominated by youthful upstarts, whereas those who started the revolution are already forgotten. Parker's relevance lasted the blink of an eye. How long does Zuckerberg really have, I wonder.
Ultimately, The Social Network is a poignant – actually, tragic – character study. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg gives a brilliantly subdued performance. The first time I saw the film, I found myself almost repulsed by him for Zuckerberg is portrayed in an unflattering light – an understandable approach, considering that the screenplay is based on a book whose main source is Eduardo Saverin. (It is thus not surprising that The Social Network takes a more sympathetic view of Saverin.)
Even so, the second time I watched The Social Network, I was drawn in by how desperately sad a person Mark Zuckerberg is. Indeed, as written by Sorkin and portrayed by Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is a tragic character of almost Shakespearean proportions. Laurence Olivier broke Hamlet down with the simple idea of a man doomed by indecision. In the same manner, Zuckerberg is a person doomed by his need to feel loved and respected. He is compelled by that yearning, and yet, his way of achieving that love and respect is by pushing people away.
With power comes great admiration and respect. Well, maybe. It all depends on how that power is achieved. Zuckerberg's downfall is getting caught up in a world for which he may not have been ready.
Complaints have been made that The Social Network takes liberties with the facts; that Fincher and Sorkin purposely fictionalized characters and events. Well, The Social Network is not a documentary. Though based on true events, from start to finish it is fiction.
David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin have drawn on that real-life basis to create a film that is brilliantly constructed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written. In the end, it doesn't matter to me so much whether The Social Network is fact, fiction, or some weird amalgamation of the two. When a film comes along that delivers perfection, why should I complain?
© Nathan Donarum
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). Dir.: David Fincher. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Brenda Song, Joseph Mazzello, Patrick Maple, Dustin Fitzsimons, Bryan Barter, Toby Meuli. Scr.: Aaron Sorkin; from Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal.
Images: The Social Network (Merrick Morton / Sony Pictures)