The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)


David Fincher’s films are about the ugliness of details; they are chronicles of obsession, usually paralleled by the meticulous attitudes he silently displays (and even wallows in) himself. Disregarding Alien 3, the first of his films that didn’t seem to be about alienation in some form was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but he bounced back quickly with what may be the quintessential Fincher film. Released just three years after his masterful Zodiac, it serves first of all to prove that he has no shortage of creative energy; and unlike that film, it’s a rare portrait of the “one for me, one for you” filmmaking philosophy backfiring in the most delightful sense — the patterned arthouse project became a massive mainstream and critical hit. It deserves this. It deserved the Oscar, really; less than five years after its release, it has the feel and sweep of something far beyond anyone expected when they heard the project pitched or summarized. “A Facebook movie? Really??”

Luckily, of course, The Social Network — as so many were quick to point out — is far from being actually about Facebook, but even so, only a director like Fincher could make so much out of the idea and could make it say so much about the world it occupies. Credit must also be given to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, of whom we’re not particularly big fans around here — but he knocked this one right out. Sorkin’s attraction to the material posited by Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires is something any writer could understand. It bursts with possibility: the friendship and loyalty-testing outsize ambition among young men operating so quickly they don’t realize the complexity of what surrounds them (least of all, the complexity of the women in their lives). All things are focused upon the brash and unstoppable nature of an early-twenties ego in a brilliant but socially inept boy whose ideas far outpace his relationship to reality.

If that sounds familiar, it should. The movie The Social Network most closely resembles, from its thematic concerns to its very structure, is no less than Citizen Kane. As with that film, the poetic relationship with actual reality is flawed and finally irrelevant. The essence of Mark Zuckerberg might show up here and there, but the film much more genuinely covers our conception of Mark Zuckerberg and our relationship to that conception. Though Zuckerberg himself and his family would take issue with the film’s portrayal of him, this actually seems excessively defensive to me. Watching the film, I don’t find myself hating or feeling negatively about him; he just seems like a kid saying the typical dumb and heartless things kids, especially awkward and privileged kids, often say. It’s just that this particular kid happens to become someone, a development that has consequences (including, deliciously, the creation of this film itself).

The story covers two court cases, each revealing something crucial about Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook; their relevant narratives run parallel. The first is that in which Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, intelligent and outstanding) is sued by his former best friend and CFO Eduardo Sanchez (a sensitive Andrew Garfield) for shutting him out of the company; the second concerns the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) who claim that the Facebook concept was stolen from their own project, a Harvard-centric dating site. This is sandwiched by an initial romantic spar with a kind girlfriend named Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) who rightfully has enough of Zuckerberg’s sniping and casual cruelty; she is his, well, Rosebud, as all but directly stated in one of the more iconic final shots in recent American cinema. But much of the heartbreak embodied in the film exudes from the frayed friendship of Mark and Eduardo; in their early scenes together, they resemble normal, if slightly alienated, college guys dealing with academic and social pressures and pining for girls and all such things, Mark slyly placing Eduardo’s name prominently enough that he knows his father will be proud. The film is refreshingly free of villains, even if Eduardo and Erica seem to gather its sympathies most strongly — it does not flinch from Eduardo’s failures as a businessman, the Winklevosses’ class-conscious attempts at manipulation through their ample (wealthy) resources, and certainly not from Zuckerberg’s own casual misogyny and stepping upon others, to say nothing of his easy seduction by indulgent capitalist Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).

In the actual real-life Facebook saga, the turning point came when Zuckerberg allowed himself in the middle of the last decade to cede too much control to others and became the CEO of American mythology: distant and inaccessible. Neither this nor his lurching back away from such a behavior pattern is shown, but it’s suggested by a lawyer late in the film, persuasively performed by Rashida Jones, who offhandedly states that she doesn’t think Mark’s an asshole — he’s just “trying so hard” to be one. The many pratfalls and misdirections of achieving the mutated modern concept of success in the U.S. today — that’s one key theme in this film that’s likely to withstand the test of time even if many of its ideas and technological concerns become outmoded. The human drama, of course, will be ageless. So will the dialogue, fast-paced and crackling and full of details that swing through faster than they can be caught; that’s Sorkin for you, and repeat viewings are both inevitable and inevitably richer.

Fincher, meanwhile, is still shooting digitally as on his last two projects but moves away from the gritty, documentary-like appearance of Zodiac and the lushness of Benjamin Button as if to prove the limitless number of possibilities in his new medium. He gives The Social Network an arid, superficial look clearly influenced by his decades of work creating commercials and music videos; outside of Se7en, it’s his most classically beautiful film, but it deliberately avoids most of the cinematic stuntwork in his earlier work and here opts for the simplicity and invisible camera found in Zodiac. This displays both his continued growth as a filmmaker and his subservience to storytelling matters. There is also a constant willingness to offer up innovation where least expected. This might well have been a relatively simple film, but in Fincher’s hands it’s intimidatingly intricate — every shot of the Winklevosses, for instance, is an effects shot. That’s two actors — the other being Josh Pence — given Hammer’s face with CGI. It’s seamless, trustworthy, completely unnecessary, and it says a lot about what concerns and intrigues Fincher.

The director receives little credit, meanwhile, for his work with actors, even though he’s directed the definitive performances by (at the very least) Jake Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, and Mark Ruffalo — but The Social Network would seem to be capable of permanently changing that, with all of the leads at powerhouse level. The film hinges on Eisenberg’s performance and he does it proud, more than fulfilling the promise he showed in Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale, his sensitivity offset by pointed sardonics in one of the most believable portrayals of boys and men his age. The comparisons to Michael Cera are baffling, at least in the sense that thus far Eisenberg is many times the actor Cera is. Andrew Garfield is sophisticated and haunting and his work here is bound to be discussed for a long time, its under-the-surface suggestions and slight but crucial redefinition of maleness in a Hollywood context fascinating and revealing. We only see Rooney Mara briefly but she leaves the same mark on us that she leaves on our lead character — it’s easy to see why her words wound so deeply.

I’ve often said that if Citizen Kane aimed to smear William Randolph Hurst, it did a very poor job, not just demystifying and humanizing him but making at least a few of his actions heroic and giving millions of people a good deal of empathy for him. But smearing wasn’t Orson Welles’ intention; he was interested in the life of the man as well as what that life said about the times — times he captured so brilliantly and fully that his film remains vital and searing seventy-odd years later. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin seem to have similar intentions here; they’ve offered up merely the first chapter of a story that’s unlikely to end for decades, but they’ve also captured a generational experience in a remarkably vivid fashion. And more than anything, they have captured these times, the seven years prior to its release, as beautifully and resonantly as anyone is ever likely to. When this film becomes an antique, it is likely to be a vital one to understanding the meaning of its period in the same manner that Kane is. I don’t think anyone could have done this better.

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