Call it a symptom of our Internet existence. I’ve been sitting on this review of The Social Network for over two weeks, embargoed until days before its UK release. In the time between the screening and now, the film has been released Stateside, with the flurry of attention and discussion that is to be expected of such a development.
Our resident American-based reviewer, Ron Hogan, has had his say (he liked it). Friends have Twittered their reactions to advance, public screenings, unencumbered by embargo. It seems that every possible angle, every opinion, has been expressed.
That’s life, today. Sentiments are disseminated along instantaneous, digital highways, becoming solidified about halfway between content management system and browser window. It has been a steady progression over the last two decades, gradually effecting our lives from dot com boom to bust and beyond, culminating in the rise of social media, bolstered by the likes of YouTube, MySpace and, of course, Facebook.
The Social Network is a film about Facebook, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher. That’s the writer who created the big liberal bear hug, The West Wing, collaborating with the most restrained director from Hollywood’s pilfered roster of music video visionaries.
With the likes of Zodiac (a sumptuous crime film with a long, mid-act ellipsis, and an inconclusive conclusion) and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (a flawed, inverted Forrest Gump substituting Baby Boomer nostalgia for textured Americana), Fincher has placed his full attentions on script, place and character, using his keen sense of production polish to lift his work out of its immediate cinematic context. He is one of the few directors working today who helms projects that gaze across broad horizons, from the classical past to the stylistic future. But The Social Network, while exhibiting the touch of a master filmmaker, is unmistakeably a film about the world we live in today.
That said, it is first and foremost an intricate intertwining of plotting and character-based drama. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard student, dreams of distinguishing himself both on campus and in the wider world. This set-up, and the lead character, are eloquently introduced over the course of a number of early sequences. The opening scene is pure Sorkin, with dialogue racing at 100mph, pinging between characters like a super-charged Newton’s Cradle. (His screenplay is easily the funniest this year.)
Over the course of this conversation in a boisterous Boston bar, Zuckerberg rants at his (short-lived, where the film’s concerned) girlfriend (an integral, yet mostly absent Rooney Mara). He is simmering with middleclass fury, over those fellow students that are almost guaranteed a prosperous future due to their membership of ‘final clubs’. But he’s determined.
In the lead role, Jesse Eisenberg is marvellous. As a socially inept, slightly sociopathic nerd, Zuckerberg isn’t far from his roles in the likes of The Squid And The Whale, Zombieland or Adventureland, but his performance is remarkable. It is a withered, chiselled down refashioning of his familiar persona, replacing warmth and charm with something darker. It’s all in his laconic eyes, and his rapid-fire chatter. You don’t hate the guy, but he’s tough to like. And as he storms across campus, framed in a montage of crane shots over the opening credits, Fincher (and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth) elaborates without words on this twisted, driven figure.
He’s not one to rage, or even act out. Instead, he channels his aggression online, making his emotions manifest through LiveJournal posts and hacking into college databases to set up Facemash, a site where users rate photographs of female students against each other.
In a viciously pointed sequence, images of his mad dash coding are intercut with glances of a raucous, booze-filled orgy enjoyed by the more virile students, and we’re not entirely sure if it’s real, or a figment of his bitter imagination.
This is only the beginning. Zuckerberg is the tragic protagonist in a tradition of many, with ambition and success upset by personal flaws. But key to his character, and central to Sorkin’s canny skewering of the Facebook generation (which, to be fair, is everyone, if my father’s appropriation of social media is anything to go by), is how he mirrors the darkest developments of our approach to the web, right up until a devastating final image of a person’s emotional hang-ups completely entangled with their online actions.
The collapse of the private, the superficiality of relationships, the migration of personality into online profiles, the reinstatement of status, and the popularisation of flaunting your social circles and lives, they’re all here, subtly teased out of the compelling character drama that occurs on the film’s most literal level.
In a way, its connection to fact is unimportant. The broad strokes are there. As the movie progresses through Facebook milestones, court hearings, purposeful typing, and the appearance of each member of the stunning cast, from Andrew Garfield’s wounded, boyish co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake’s Loki-style chancer, Sean Parker, to a particularly impressive turn by Armie Hammer as both of the blue-blooded, antagonistic Winklevoss twins, but it doesn’t display ambitions of documenting truth.
The comparison to Citizen Kane is already well worn, but it is useful, as that film’s exploration of power, monopoly, and the isolation arising from both in the era of newspaper barons is reflected here, albeit in a contemporary context, starring sandal-wearing computer nerds. Both Kane and Zuckerberg affected their respective worlds, and we live in the shadows of their example.
The Social Network has the potential to be a classic, a masterpiece for our times that captures early 21st century life, while still offering robust, mature entertainment. However, for the time being, I have no trouble with it being one of the best of the year. And if there’s one thing Fincher’s latest shows us, it’s that the process of typing, be it code, blogs, statuses, or screenplays, brings miracles into being. So, I hit shift and tap the 8 key five times.