Status update: The Social Network is one of the best films of the year. But to reduce the film to the glib terms of the website whose origins it dramatises is to undermine its importance.
Let’s not forget that David Fincher’s latest effort is not about the consumption of Facebook, but, ironically, the alienated souls who created it, chiefly, Mark Zuckerburg, now the world’s youngest billionaire. It’s a remarkably intriguing and ambitious prospect to make prescient comments about such a recent period in history, never mind that Ben Mezrich’s source material (the non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires) is highly contentious, but stickler-for-detail Fincher is clearly up to the task.
Having come temporarily unstuck with the soft-centered The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the director is back on more familiar ground here. Painting an underground subculture of male uber-geeks who happened to develop a way to unite the world through cyberspace (while lacking any social graces themselves), it’s less Fight Club than Type Club. He also benefits enormously from Aaron Sorkin’s tremendously snappy, witty screenplay, which has the characters sparring as if they were in a classic screwball comedy – if the screwball era had access to the web.
Said sparring begins in the dizzying opening exchange between Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerburg and his current girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). Rejecting Zuckerburg not for his geekiness but his social ineptitude, Erica receives the sharp end of the stick when he retreats to his Harvard dorm room and concocts a website called FaceMash, comparing the attractiveness of girls on-campus. Although he is scorned by the female fraternity and put on academic probation, Zuckerburg’s idea is a smash hit, accumulating 22,000 hits in two hours.
The proverbial spark having been lit within the prospective entrepreneur, he is then approached by the genetically identical Winklevoss twins (a nifty CGI mix of actor Armie Hammer and model Josh Pence), who seek his help in developing an internal Harvard networking site. From here, the waters are muddied in typically amoral David Fincher fashion; the timeline zipping backwards and forwards between Zuckerburg’s eventual breakthrough with Facebook (originally called The Facebook) and two lengthy deposition hearings that see him being sued on the one hand by former friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and the Winklevi twins themselves (as he disparagingly describes them).
Who, then, deserves the credit for Facebook? Was it an original idea or one that was stolen, as the twins claim? Sensibly, given the lack of solid factual ground, Fincher and Sorkin refuse to draw a line under proceedings. Instead, they take great delight in detailing the minutiae of an era that, although just seven years ago, positively resounded with the potential for uniting the world through the internet. There’s a terrific irony in seeing Eisenberg’s weedy, needy Zuckerburg transcend the archaic, traditional confines of the Harvard campus, all red-brick and exclusive fraternities, to define the technological zeitgeist of the time.
Fincher’s typically accomplished direction (everything from how a character is framed in front of a coloured wall to the rapid editing that somehow makes computer code engrossing); the blank, abrasive star turn from Eisenberg; and a plethora of fine supporting performances, initially earmarks the film as a wonderfully edgy, darkly comic character study. There’s no doubt, however, that it changes tack halfway through courtesy of the entrance of Justin Timberlake’s Napster co-founder Sean Parker. Although Timberlake is perfectly fine, as the narrative opens up, it does lose that rigorous claustrophobic hold, throwing in the obligatory conflict between Zuckerburg and the fantastic Andrew Garfield as Saverin. The ending is also somewhat trite, attempting a cosy resolution that’s a cheat compared to the earlier bitterness.
But while there is a distinct sense Fincher and Sorkin have traded in verve what they have made up for in wider outlook, their integrity and belief in this fascinating slice of recent history never falters. Regardless of its accuracy and truthfulness, as an example of intelligent, confident, adult filmmaking, made with focus and purpose, The Social Network finds few equals in 2010. A firm ‘Like’? Oh yes.