Friday, October 1, 2010

Billion Dollar Baby: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Even if The Social Network weren’t a great film, it would still be worth seeing. David Fincher is one of our greatest working directors. He is consistently turning out interesting films with complex, mature themes and striking images that are digitally tweaked so subtly yet persistently that it builds a cohesive, meticulous visual mastery into every shot. He makes films that linger. When he makes a great film, he uses the lingering to astonishing effect. His last film was 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film of wonderful beauty and emotion, but nothing more than merely very good. His last great film was 2007’s Zodiac, his masterpiece. His newest great film is The Social Network. It’s not quite as good as a masterpiece, but it’s awfully close.

The film is structured around two depositions for two simultaneous lawsuits filed against Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, the website with 500 million users who share photos, links and all the latest news and gossip about their lives. (There’s a good chance that, like me, most people reading this are among them). One lawsuit is filed by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, in a seamless digitally-enhanced dual role), two Harvard rowers who approached their classmate Zuckerberg with an idea to make a dating site exclusively for Harvard students. They think he could help them because Zuckerberg had recently gained notoriety on campus by crashing the university’s servers in mere hours when he created a website that allowed users to rank students by attractiveness. In the lawsuit, the Winklevoss twins allege that Zuckerberg stole their basic idea and used it, in 2003, to create Facebook. Despite good cause for their alarm they end up looking like the Salieri of the situation.

The other lawsuit is from Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s best friend. He put up the initial money for Facebook, helped develop the idea and served as co-founder and C.F.O. only to be allegedly forced out of the company with no financial compensation. Needless to say, the two men aren’t friends anymore. All of the principal players were in their late-teens and early-twenties when this all began, when suddenly the world of Harvard became the business world. These were men who found (or lost, or missed) huge success at a very young age. It’s not hard to believe that they were unprepared for what happened.

Aaron Sorkin’s electric screenplay dances with clarity through the facts and exaggerations of the cases, shifting points of view, views of truth, and between depositions to flesh out the story. It’s impossible to know if we have the whole truth, or even if there could ever be such a thing in this case. But it’s clear that the film gets at emotional truths. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg gives a marvelous performance as a young, socially insecure college student, quick with computers and bad with girls. The opening scene features him getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) who finds herself fed up with the intensity of Zuckerberg’s rapid-fire conversational style that is often brusque and confrontational. “You think girls don’t like you because you’re nerdy,” she tells him, helpfully informing him that it’s actually his personality that’s off-putting.

The film builds a picture of Zuckerberg as something of a computer genius. He had a great concept, but almost stumbled into success. It caught on because of the simple, attractive concept. Facebook took the basic way people used the web – people like to email, comment, Google old friends – and created a virtual social environment. The sad irony is that it took someone already socially awkward alienating his friends and allies to start a service meant to bring people together.

This a film intensely focused on this small, contentious piece of recent times. It’s a riotous, detailed look at an Internet startup and an exploration of the rapidly shifting ramifications of online behavior, two topics we are forced to confront on a daily basis. As such, it feels vibrant, rich with the smell of fresh history. Sorkin’s script and Fincher’s absolutely swoon-worthy formalist perfection make this film feel instantly timeless as well. There’s a sweeping, time-capturing feeling to it, a sense of a small-scale epic that gathers up various strands of current thought and uses them to drive forward a narrative that takes on the force of a parable and the detail of a deposition. It’s the story of a man who got rich quick and the problems it caused him.

Though the details differ from case to case, sudden riches are also the story of many web companies. It’s not about problems exclusive to Facebook. The film has a cameo appearance by Bill Gates (Steve Sires), seen delivering a lecture to an audience of Harvard students. There’s also an integral supporting role for Sean Parker, the troubled founder of the equally troubled mp3-sharing site Napster, among other ventures. Justin Timberlake plays him in a great, slick whirlwind of a performance. As the Facebook begins to roll out to a few campuses across the country, he sees an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next great thing.

Parker brings a flurry of business contacts and the possibility for attention of investors. He also brings unpredictability and garrulousness that begins to drive a wedge between the co-founders. Timberlake has a great scene opposite Eisenberg set in a nightclub with a thumping bass beat pounding away at the film’s soundtrack, nearly drowning out their conversation. He talks about the earnings potential of Facebook in such persuasive, and slightly sinister, terms that the scene feels almost like a seduction. The bass pounding, Timberlake is lit solely by the slowly shifting dark neon glow of the club, causing his face to deepen with an ominous, deep multihued smolder.

It’s fitting, though, that in the end, a film about the creation of Facebook is a film about relationship statuses. After all, that’s what Facebook was created for. The Social Network is about friends and acquaintances and what people decide to share with them. It’s about one young man with an idea. It’s about people who helped him, and people he treated badly. It’s even about genius and the age-old tension between brilliance and luck. Fincher crafts a film of sustained visual excellence at the highest level of filmmaking and, with Sorkin’s excellent writing and a cast that’s across-the-board excellent, tells a compelling procedural wrapped around a business thriller and a social satire. And within all that is a moving drama about the thin lines of respect between friends and colleagues. This is one of the year’s best films.

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