I’m one of the 500 million people who have a Facebook page, and while the site is certainly ubiquitous in a lot of people’s lives, before I saw The Social Network I found myself wondering whether I really cared about its founding. But the filmmakers have moved past the drier aspects of the story and discovered that this is a classic tale of friendship, loyalty, jealousy and power, and have crafted an exciting and entertaining movie that brings out the humanity in the story of one of the greatest innovations in technology and communication in recent years.
In the fall of 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was a sophomore at Harvard University when he invented Facemash, a website that allowed users to compare the hotness of different girls. He hacked the facebooks of several dormitories at Harvard and posted the pictures to his website. The site received 22,000 hits in two hours, and the traffic crashed Harvard’s network. Zuckerberg received disciplinary probation from the university, but the incident caught the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), two identical twins who, along with their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), wanted to start a dating site for Harvard students and hired Zuckerberg to write the code for it.
Soon thereafter, Zuckerberg, along with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), launched the social networking site then called Thefacebook.com, membership to which was at first contingent on being a Harvard student. After the company took off, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the reptilian boy genius founder of Napster, rolls into the picture and widens the wedge between Mark and Eduardo as the entire operation moves out to California.
And the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is multiple hundred-million-dollar lawsuits, as the Vinklevosses sued Zuckerberg for supposedly stealing their idea, and Saverin filed a lawsuit of his own after being forced out of the company.
The film was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), who is known for his visual precision, and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night), who is relentlessly verbal. Sorkin wrote a Broadway play a couple of years ago called The Farnsworth Invention about television, containing dueling versions of the story from the man who invented it and the mogul who knew exactly how to exploit it. Sorkin brings that sensibility here, as well as his skill for writing snappy dialogue for intelligent, if pedantic, people (and where better for smart people and pedantry than Harvard?). The combination doesn’t seem like a natural one, but the two combine to create a film that is breathless and cinematic in all the best ways, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross insinuates a longing and emptiness into the movie.
The film opens with Sorkin’s trademark dazzling banter fully in effect as Mark sits in a crowded bar with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), chattering about how he wants to get into one of Harvard’s elite final clubs, but doesn’t think they will take him. As he talks over, around and through Erica, but never to her, she becomes exasperated with the motormouth (“Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster”), eventually dumping him when he becomes casually cruel.
Almost everything you need to know about Mark Zuckerberg can be found in the sequence, immediately after that scene, in which he sprints back to his dorm room and invents Facemash. In a flurry of drunken hacking, Mark obtains the pictures and launches the site. The audience hears via voiceover a dizzying litany of tech jargon as Mark builds the site, but simultaneously he is posting mean and hurtful things about Erica to his blog, his obvious brilliance contrasting with this callous behavior.
The movie mostly keeps us interested in Mark without making any overt pleas for our sympathy, but the psychology can at times seem a little reductive. Guys do things to impress girls; this is true. But the fact that the movie has multiple scenes in which Mark is rebuffed by a girl, followed immediately by him literally sprinting home to work on his website, seems rather simplistic to me. So much of the film suggests the complexities of the character that boiling down his motivations so blatantly is rather annoying.
The film has been called character assassination of Zuckerberg by some, which is a pretty fair claim, considering that the script was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, which included a lot of interviews with Saverin but none with Zuckerberg. Still, Sorkin seems to realize very well that there are multiple conflicting viewpoints here, and that none of these accounts can be considered the “truth.” Every character’s point of view has some truth in it, but none is definitive, and the movie, in essence, features as its main characters several rather unreliable narrators, jumping back and forth in time between the characters’ recollections and the depositions they later give.
If anything, the film weakens at the end, trying to soften Zuckerberg after an entire film worth of questionable behavior. Sorkin goes so far as to have a character say to Zuckerberg, near the end of the film, “You’re not an asshole, but you try so hard to be.” It looks pretty effortless to me.
Eisenberg has been known for his deadpan performances in films ranging from Zombieland to The Squid and the Whale, but the low-key quality of his performances doesn’t preclude complexity. Here he conveys Zuckerberg’s intelligence, arrogance and insecurity and self-righteousness, along with the way his need for validation and acceptance can fuel amazing innovations and some seriously objectionable behavior.
Garfield, who is playing the next Spider-Man, is heartbreaking as Eduardo as he is pushed out of the company. Timberlake, meanwhile, is a lot of fun in his flamboyant role, making pronouncements like, “Private life is a relic of a bygone time,” even if the movie leans on his character a little too heavily to be the devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulder.
Fincher’s films are normally known for their visual flair, but here he makes the film visually arresting without a lot of fuss. There are occasional sequences that are overtly stylized, such as a crew race involving the Winklevosses, but Fincher’s direction always serves the story, keeping the pace flowing between the jumps back and forth in time without calling attention to itself. And Fincher’s facility with special effects allowed him to use one guy, Armie Hammer, to play both the Winklevoss twins without me ever noticing the effects.
Like many biopics, The Social Network plays fast and loose with the facts, in effect creating another of the conflicting viewpoints that we see from the film’s characters. The real-life Zuckerberg may not fit so neatly into the box the movie makes for him, but the unlikely partnership of Fincher and Sorkin creates a thoroughly engaging story that at least feels real.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.