Facebook isn’t such a great subject for the movies—too much typing. And heroic computer hackers have never, ever inspired cinematic thrills. (Remember Sandra Bullock in The Net? Exactly.) Mainly, though – and let’s see how many film critics admit this – Facebook has quietly left Hollywood in the dust. Not even James Cameron can claim 500 million friends for Avatar, and that’s people returning on a daily basis. We’re the movie now, and it’s a dumb comedy about what sandwich we just ate.
So consider it a wondrous turn of events that The Social Network, a lightning-fast dramatisation of the disputatious founding of Facebook, represents not just a revenge of the onscreen nerd, but of those behind the camera, too. It’s a grandly entertaining reminder of everything we used to go to the movies for (and still can’t get online): sparkling dialogue, thorny situations, soulful performances, and an unusually open-ended and relevant engagement with a major social issue of the day: how we (dis)connect. Forget about damage control – if I were billionaire site exec Mark Zuckerberg, I’d be down on my knees in gratitude for an origin story this brainy, suggestive and, yes, flattering. Sort of.
The future CEO himself is portrayed as a furiously snippy Harvard 'asshole' – that word becomes something of a theme – by Adventureland’s Jesse Eisenberg, fully breaking the bonds of Cera-dom. Reportedly, the real Zuckerberg lent zero access to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who tops even The West Wing for mile-a-minute nowness), but he’s been supplied with a fully believable class complex, chafing at the traditions of the university’s exclusive 'final clubs'. Giving us a taste of Hollywood’s future Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara cuts down her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend thusly: 'What part of Long Island are you from, Wimbledon?'
Drunkenly, the computer whiz demolishes her with a passive-aggressive online stunt, 'Facemash', setting up the whole story (and, subversively, Facebook itself) as an offshoot of dumpee rage. Mark soon finds himself hated campuswide, a Shylock courted by two unlikely Antonios, the crew-rowing goy twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played with delicious entitlement by Armie Hammer). They want to apply Mark’s gifts to their own hookup site and help him rehabilitate his image. 'Wow. You would do that for me?' the unkempt programmer asks them in their frat’s bike room, resentment brewing.
Sex, money, Jewish paranoia, algorithms – this is merely the movie’s first half hour. The Social Network zings along like nothing attempted since the heady days of Paddy Chayefsky. (We might be looking at the heir to his darkly dazzling Network.) Splitting into deft complexity, Sorkin’s tale toggles to ominous legal conference rooms, developing a pair of shoulder angels for Mark to hear out: his betrayed cofounder, Eduardo (Garfield, the heart of the film); and larky Napster flirt Sean Parker (Timberlake), inviting him to dream bigger.
Never preachy, the film becomes a referendum on pushy ambition, both in business and private matters, that’s the signature of Facebook itself, turning a nation of users into self-promoters. These characters will, one day, be us: alienating our 'friends' while linking with the world. Do movies ever attempt to analyse the entire weave of life? Now they do.
To think that we once didn’t know what to do with David Fincher. Was he a Kubrickian fussbudget? A stylish torture master picking the wings off Brad Pitt? The bad-boy director of Fight Club and Seven might still be both of those things. But ever since 2007’s ghostly Zodiac (a veiled indictment of Bush-era fear culture), there can be no doubt of Fincher’s seriousness. He wants to make the big films – the ones about everything.
The Social Network affords him opportunities for flash: A boat race scored to a computerised version of 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' is as puckish as anything in A Clockwork Orange. Yet here, too, is a Fincher first: his most alluring, full-bodied lead performance, via the beautifully arrogant Eisenberg. It took a bastard to understand Zuckerberg; to turn him into a cryptic Pandora, lonely with his laptop, took a master. Joshua Rothkopf
Read our interview with The Social Network's scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin
Read our interview with The Social Network's director David Fincher