Social Network, The (United States, 2010)

October 01, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Social Network, The Poster

Website development as a blood sport - that's what it comes down to. The Social Network shows that, when pet projects are at issue, nerds can get as nasty and dirty as the most skilled backstabbers and double-dealers. The film, which is a joint product of respected director David Fincher and equally respected screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, accomplishes its multiple goals: create a gallery of fascinating, fully realized characters; chronicle key events in the development and growth of today's most influential social networking site, Facebook; and explore the blurred lines that exist in the amorphous on-line environment where concepts like intellectual property are involved. The Social Network is rich with food for thought but the reason it captures the viewer's interest for more than two hours is because its story of friendship and betrayal is as old as traditional society and is presented with tremendous skill. You don't have to be a Facebook member (I am not) to enjoy what this movie is offering.

The source material for The Social Network is Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires. There are two notable things about the book, which is allegedly the distillation of countless interviews put into narrative form. The first is that Mezrich's primary source is Eduardo Saverin, so it is understandable that events are slanted toward his point-of-view (a fact brought out publicly by Mark Zuckerberg, who refused to cooperate with Mezrich). The second is that the acknowledgments mention Scott Rudin (one of The Social Network's producers), Kevin Spacey (an executive producer), and Sorkin, perhaps indicating that a movie deal was in the works before the book was published. That's how hot this property was deemed to be - the bigger Facebook became, the more intense the interest in the story of the men who created it and the controversy surrounding its birth.

The Social Network is structured as a series of flashbacks provided to illustrate testimony being given in depositions for two separate trials in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was involved during the second half of the 2000s. Although the movie occasionally returns to the legal proceedings set in or around 2005, most of it is a fairly straightforward chronology of events that spanned the period from October 2003 through September 2005.

When we first meet Harvard student Zuckerberg, he's having dinner with his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). What transpires during that dinner will change the course of Zuckerberg's life. Erica, weary of his obsession with status, decides to break up with him and, when he doesn't take it well, she calls him an "asshole." He returns to his dorm room, gets drunk, solicits the help of his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and codes a website called "Facemash" that rates the "hotness" of Harvard women. The site's nearly instant popularity crashes the Harvard servers. In addition to earning Zuckerberg six months of academic probation, Facemash makes him a celebrity geek. He is sought by twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Josh Pence and Armie Hammer) to design a dating website. Instead, however, Zuckerberg takes the kernel of the Winklevoss' idea and goes in another direction, in the process cutting them out altogether. Thus is born "The Facebook," which becomes a huge hit on the Harvard Campus. Soon, it is expanding to other high prestige schools, and that's when it attracts the attention of Napster creator and all-around player Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who wants to get on the inside. Sean's involvement alienates Eduardo but provides Zuckerberg with access to enough capital to elevate Facebook from a do-it-himself dorm room project to a worldwide phenomenon.

The Social Network closely follows the timeline as set forth in The Accidental Billionaires. Few of the historical events presented in the book are in dispute, although the "slant" given to some has been hotly contested by Zuckerberg, among others. Nevertheless, in both the written version and its cinematic interpretation, the story can be said to represent a reasonable account of how Facebook came into being. Its genesis is fascinating, in large part because of how cavalierly Zuckerberg goes about assembling the pieces and putting it on line. It is clear the idea is not wholly his but, because he develops the code and puts in all the work, he believes himself to be entitled to full ownership. Thus, one of the key questions raised by the film is what constitutes intellectual property theft. Or, to be more blunt, did Zuckerberg steal Facebook?

Zuckerberg, as represented in the movie, is a multi-faceted individual. This is not the "hatchet job" that has been reported in some media outlets - it shows the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like many highly intelligent people, Zuckerberg is often uncommunicative, intellectually arrogant, and socially awkward. He does not have many close friends and invests himself entirely in the Facebook project. At times, he is oblivious about why people are angered and offended by his actions. The movie offers the possibility that Zuckerberg could be far more Machiavellian than he seems (for example, did he set up Eduardo with the school paper?), but there are only hints of this. For the most part, we see Zuckerberg as someone who's riding a wave. For those who would argue that he has no conscience, there are plenty of instances when the look in actor Jesse Eisenberg's eyes argues the contrary.

Eisenberg, one of those young actors who has existed just below the radar for several years now (he was the lead in both Zombieland and Adventureland, not to be confused with one another), deserves an Oscar for this dead-on portrayal of a temperamental genius. The role is ripe for caricature, but Eisenberg humanizes his character. Zuckerberg, whose recent media appearances have made him easy to dislike, is brought to life with sympathy and even-handedness. The Social Network does not shy away from the damage he has done to others, but it resists representing its protagonist as some sort of technological anti-Christ. Credit for this should be equally divided among the trio of Eisenberg, Fincher, and Sorkin.

The other actor to draw deserved acclaim for his work is Justin Timberlake, whose Sean Parker is a beacon of energy and charisma, even if it is all skin-deep. Although some might scoff at the pairing of "Timberlake" with "Oscar," one sitting through his portrayal of Parker will dispel negative preconceptions. It's not really a surprise, though - Timberlake was good in two previous acting jobs (Black Snake Moan and Alpha Dog). It's just that his prior noteworthy performances occurred in low-budget, low-exposure projects.

Sorkin's screenplay includes humorous interludes (including a hilarious exchange related to a Bill Gates appearance at Harvard) but it is a comedy only in the Shakespearean sense. (Shakespeare's comedies are often more depressing than today's tragedies.) The dialogue is crisp and clean. Fincher's presentation provides viewers with a you-are-there feel, getting us into the dorm rooms, parties, and a rental house in California. If there's one question The Social Network is unable to answer, it's how a website that fundamentally does so little (although it is cleverly packaged) could become so huge. Perhaps the answer lies in a single line expressing the goal of Facebook: "to provide the college social experience on-line." In the Internet era, that's what it's all about - staying connected in a virtual universe where physical interaction is increasingly becoming secondary.

Much will be written about whether The Social Network is unfair to the real Mark Zuckerberg, but that seems to me to be a red herring. This is a narrative feature based on a true story, not a documentary, so expectations of real-world veracity should be taken with a grain of salt. The character of Mark Zuckerberg as represented by Sorkin and Fincher is fascinating and his journey is compelling, involving as it does so many aspects of the electronic era human experience: friendship, obsession, big ideas, betrayal, and lots of money. This is the 2010 Oscar season's first drama to live up to the hype and expectations associated with it.

Social Network, The (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2010-10-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1