Monday, September 27, 2010

The Social Network

Hungry for connections he can’t make in real life, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) lights up when he thinks he’s invented the solution. The Facebook, he says, gives students a way of “taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.”

But relationships, as most of us know, are too complex to fit neatly into a digital template. Facebook (Zuckerberg later dropped the “The”) doesn’t come close to duplicating the college experience – but The Social Network does. It brings to life the social insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and competitive drive that fuels achievement at a place like Harvard. And it hypothesizes (though the story is based in truth, most of the dialogue and some characters and situations were invented by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin or Ben Mezrich, whose book the screenplay was loosely based on) that that potent combination was behind the creation of Facebook and its tumultuous first year of growth.

For a film about ideas, The Social Network is bracingly kinetic. Some of that credit goes to the screenplay, which tells a story of astonishing success, monumentally hurt feelings, and (maybe) cold-hearted betrayal, not to mention a high-stakes fight over the theoretical riches generated by Facebook stock. (Much of the company’s early history is told in the form of depositions, as Zuckerberg faces former business partners in two separate lawsuits.)

There are no villains in this evenhanded tale, whose multiple narrators are all somewhat unreliable. Zuckerberg’s spurned friend and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who sues him after getting cut out of the action in a (typically for Zuckerberg) thoughtless manner, comes off well as a person but not so well as a businessman. The Winklevoss twins, a pair of Aryan gods (both played by Armie Hammer, with help from a body double and a method devised for Fincher’s Benjamin Button in which one actor’s head is electronically grafted onto another’s neck in post-production), are gently spoofed for their patrician sense of entitlement at the same time that they’re shown as having a probably legitimate gripe. (They’re accusing Zuckerman of having stolen the idea for Facebook from them after they hired him to develop a Harvard dating site.)

Or is Zuckerberg right when he sneers at their claim, saying Facebook was just a variation on a theme that was already live in the form of MySpace and Friendster? After all, isn’t it true that what made it a success was not the idea but the execution?

Typically, The Social Network raises that question, lets its characters argue both sides of the argument, and then moves on, letting you decide what to think.

Sorkin and director David Fincher are also evenhanded in their treatment of Zuckerberg, who is often described as arrogant or abrasive, painting him as someone who likely has Asperger’s syndrome. Their Zuckerberg is an intellectual snob, but he’s also a victim of his own limitations, his stiff body language, abrupt way of speaking and impassive face alienating people he wants to befriend. Fincher shows us what’s under that stony mask, pushing his camera into Eisenberg’s face as the actor employs a beautifully calibrated range of tics and tells to telegraph the emotions beneath that apparently still surface.

Fast cuts between action and deposition or between faces in charged exchanges also keep up the momentum, as do the fast talk and artfully overlapping dialogue that cram 160-plus pages -- a third as much as usual -- into two hours. In a Q&A after a New York Film Festival press screening last week, Fincher explained “Sorkinese” as characters thinking out loud. Rather than present you with a neatly constructed wall of bricks, he says, Sorkin’s character bring you “a ton of bricks, dumping it on the audience’s lap.”

I didn’t like Sorkin’s writing in The West Wing – all those angelically backlit people spewing nearly identical chatter sounded pre-programmed and often smug – but Fincher and his excellent cast make every thought sound as if it were being formed in real time, often along with two or three others. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electronic score also feels just right, adding to the sense of urgency and alienation without calling undue attention to itself.

Fincher has been calling his film “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” but The Social Network has a lot more snap, crackle and pop than that stately tale. I’d say it’s more like a 21st century version of What makes Sammy Run?

Written for TimeOFF

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