You stab my back, I’ll stab yours.
Seeing as we’ve been to the theater just once since last June, the only way we’ll get through most of the presumptive Best Picture nominees prior to the Oscars (which take place February 27; nominations are announced January 25) is if they come out on DVD beforehand. We went to the video store (chuckle all you want) this week in search of the most critically acclaimed movie of 2010. Since The Expendables was out, though, we picked up The Social Network instead.¹
The highest praise we can give The Social Network is that director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin made us actually watch — and enjoy — a movie about Facebook. That they adapted it from a shoddy piece of “investigative” reporting — Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires — is also impressive. Mezrich speculated wildly (or, if you prefer, “imaginatively”) about numerous details in the story of Facebook’s creation; the friendship and falling out between Mark Zuckerberg and his friend and CFO, Eduardo Saverin; and the contention that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss (or “the Winklevi,” as Zuckerberg calls them).
The question was, How could Fincher and Sorkin tell this story without taking sides? The answer is twofold: By framing the story around two civil suits brought against Zuckerberg by both Saverin and the Winklevosses; and by letting these central characters speak for themselves. They all have, at various points, very persuasive cases to make; they also all (though none more than Zuckerberg himself) condemn themselves as they make those cases. By focussing on the civil suits (Fincher cuts between them and the events being described, interweaving both throughout the film), the film sticks to the facts, such as they were, but more importantly it allows the viewer to be the judge.
The first fifteen minutes are easily the best in the movie. Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is at a bar with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), a student at Boston University. They are having two conversations — one said; the other, more important one, what’s unsaid. Zuckerberg peppers Erica with the verbal equivalent of buckshot. She is sharp enough to keep up with him, but bewildered by his tone and train of thought (“Sometimes you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I should be aiming at”). He insinuates she slept with the doorman, then that she doesn’t need to study because she goes to BU. The clincher is when he informs her that, should he get into one of Harvard’s prestigious “final clubs,” she will “get to meet a lot of people you wouldn’t normally get to meet.” She breaks up with him on the spot, leaving him with this to chew on: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd, and I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Then the opening credits begin as Fincher gives us some beautiful bird’s eye shots of Zuckerberg jogging home from the bar. It is dusk. Harvard’s red brick buildings are lit up against nightfall. Mark will very shortly invent Facebook, or at least the idea behind Facebook, and Fincher’s still, patient shots of Mark going home frame this sequence like a creation story. The irony is that the story began with destruction. Fueled by regret and anger, and a little bit of a buzz, Zuckerberg fires up his laptop, blogs some particularly nasty things about Erica, then writes the code for “Facemash,” a game in which Harvard students can rank which of two girls is hotter. Within hours, there is so much traffic that Harvard’s servers crash. Zuckerberg’s appetite is whetted.
Zuckerberg, as played by Eisenberg, is an asshole. But he’s not a villain. Eisenberg knows how to play the smartest guy in the room. But where he previously turned that quality into affable charm (Adventureland, Zombieland), here he channels it into arrogance. This makes him a hard man to understand and an even harder one to love, but the one person who tries is Eduardo (Andrew Garfield). Eduardo fronts the money to get Facebook up and running. He is patient where Mark is impulsive. He sees their creation as a business venture; Mark sees it as their baby.
The man who splits the seams of their friendship open is Sean Parker, inventor of Napster, played with seductive charm by Justin Timberlake. Mark and Eduardo meet Sean in California just as Facebook is taking off. Sean says everything Mark wants to hear, but Eduardo smells a sleaze. The movie essentially becomes a love triangle, with Eduardo and Sean vying for Mark’s affection and a stake in Facebook’s success.
For all its Internet age savviness, the movie’s themes have been around a long time: friendship and betrayal; ambition and failure; honor and trust. How did a man as socially inept as Mark Zuckerberg create a social network site of over five hundred million people? “No two viewers will see him in quite the same way,” The New Yorker said of Zuckerberg. Whether Zuckerberg ever relishes his success is hard to say. The movie ends with him reaching out to an old friend — through Facebook.
For a movie that effectively uses CGI to convert one actor (Armie Hammer) into two Olympian crew-rowing twins (frequently in the same shot), why on earth can’t it make cold breath look real? And why was this effect needed in the first place? As the estimable film critic Mark Hoobler noted, Fincher has flirted with superfluous digital enhancement in the past. Memo to Fincher: Your movies don’t need it. And Alien³ was tragically underrated. But you’re wasting your time trying to improve on the Swedish version of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. There. We’ve said our piece.