An unimposing, curly-haired young man in a gray sweatshirt sits at a table in a crowded bar. His features are boyish, perhaps sweet, and entirely at odds with the way he is currently drowning his dazed date in a merciless verbal barrage. As he tears through an exchange that is as whip-smart as it is rapid-fire, a hush falls over the audience; several latecomers stop scanning the theatre for empty seats and gaze at the screen, immobile in the aisles. Their eyes flick back and forth as if watching a particularly fierce ping-pong game. The Social Network, David Fincher’s fictionalized account of Facebook’s messy inception based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, manages to work magic in two minutes flat: it makes a whole room of people collectively hold their breath.
This is precisely the kind of magic that occurs when two skilled creators combine their talents at their most delicate and magnificent. Fincher, the film’s director, creates a consummately visual piece of art; Aaron Sorkin, its screenwriter, produces dialogue as competitive and absorbing as any high-stakes spectator sport. It’s appropriate, therefore, that The Social Network, at its crux, is a story about creation: what motivates us to create, the lengths people will go for their creations, and, perhaps most pointedly, that creation is a nasty, yucky business in which motives clash, egos are bruised and friendships suffer and are sometimes lost. It also speaks to ambition, a powerful motivating force that is beautiful in its ruthless simplicity.
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is not yet the man who would come to revolutionize the way an entire generation socializes. The Mark we see, bristling over his beer as he sulks, is nothing more than a nervous, enterprising college kid who really, really wants to be accepted into one of Harvard’s elite social clubs. Why? “They’re exclusive and fun…and they lead to a better life,” he asserts, as if he has identified the only ticket to his destiny that lies just beyond his reach.
Mark’s hapless date is a student named Erica who is, much like the audience, lost in the overwhelming wash of Mark’s cross-examination. After she is run through grueling conversational hoops, his condescension wears away her patience entirely and she promptly breaks up with him. “You’re going to go through life,” she promises, “thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Wounded and prickling with indignation, Mark returns to his dormitory and takes to the Internet to pound out a scathing blog post. The virtual pillow-punching doesn’t end there: Mark, in a fit of creativity stemming exclusively from anger, begins a flurry of coding from which emerges Facemash.com. The site, which ranks female Harvard students’ attractiveness by allowing users to vote on their headshots, is a shockingly exploitative and misogynistic.
Naturally, it is a raging success.
After the viral spread of Facemash crashes campus servers, Mark attracts the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, with the help of body double Josh Pence), a pair of identical twins who call on his programming skills to create a social networking site exclusive to Harvard students. Shortly afterwards, Mark decides to create…a social networking site exclusive to Harvard students. The twins, founders of the university’s rowing team, know competition when they see it; although they protest that they are “gentlemen of Harvard,” they decide to challenge Mark in court.
An indispensable figure in Facebook’s history is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), co-founder of Thefacebook and Mark’s best—if not only—friend. Despite Mark’s frequent bluntness, Eduardo remains a patient ally; when the two create Thefacebook, Mark places him on the letterhead as the site’s chief financial officer. This relationship begins to erode, however, once Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) enters the picture. Every creation myth needs its serpent, and The Social Network finds a particularly insidious one in Sean, an Internet startup superstar best known as the founder of Napster. Sean, a cool, cutthroat businessman who instantly recognizes potential in Thefacebook, sets out to convince Mark, one appletini at a time, to join his cult of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He’s both a spectacular salesman and showman: when Sean advises the two to chop the word “the” from their site’s clunky name, “just ‘Facebook’,” he explains, “it sounds cleaner,” it’s the cymbal crash at the end of a dazzling performance. Though Eduardo remains leery of what he dubs the “Sean Parker Variety Hour”, Mark is instantly seduced. As Sean gradually convinces Mark that the financial future of Facebook lies not with his CFO (and only friend) but with venture capitalist investors, Eduardo helplessly watches himself abandoned. Once he is cut off entirely, Eduardo decides to sue, chalking Mark’s lawsuit count up to two and friend count down to zero.
The Social Network is noteworthy in that its cast is uniformly stellar. Hammer’s Winklevii are gentlemen; however, they do not allow this to keep them from being menacing when the need arises. (“I’m 6’5″, 250 pounds, and there’s two of me,” Tyler threateningly intones, a line which slayed the audience.) Timberlake’s effortless timing allows his Sean a subtle, charming sliminess. He recognizes Mark’s propensity for ruthlessness, but it’s Sean’s push that allows him to finally sever ties with his best friend. Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo, the closest thing the film has to a hero, manages to efficiently win the audience’s sympathy as a young man who genuinely cares about his friend, but is, despite these good intentions, simply not the man for the job. Regardless of Mark’s insensitivity, Eduardo is steadfast (“I’m here for you,” he reassures Mark when his friend is dumped) and painfully trusting. It’s heartbreaking, therefore, to witness Mark come to the gradual realization that Eduardo, much like an old childhood blanket, just needs to be let go. Garfield (whose large brown eyes have prompted countless fan comparisons to Bambi) brings a vulnerability to his performance that is arrestingly honest.
Garfield and Eisenberg also play off of each other magnificently: Eduardo’s soft, thoughtful melancholy is a beautiful contrast to Mark’s chilly abruptness. Eduardo’s concern for Mark manifests itself in little gestures: when Eduardo gets a beer from the fridge, for example, he makes sure to bring two in case his best friend wants one. These moments have not gone unnoticed: Internet commenters have promptly dissected these subtleties and concluded that Mark and Eduardo’s passionate, tumultuous ‘bromance’ was one for the ages. One Tumblr commenter expresses it best, perhaps, by paraphrasing the Bard: “For never was a story of more woe / than this of Mark and his ‘Wardo.”
As an amoral antihero, Jesse Eisenberg absolutely glitters. His previous roles, a gallery of endearing nebbishes, often feature his particular brand of twitchy energy; in The Social Network, however, he introduces a sharklike, vaguely sociopathic aspect to this energy that entirely commands the screen. His words are sharp and curt; he exudes a perpetual impatience. His Mark approaches social interaction with the antiseptic dutifulness of a surgeon. He isn’t adroit at making friends but is, however, a very talented coder. Therefore, it’s only natural that he finds a way to distill the college social experience (nebulous and frequently confusing) into a form he understands (the cool, clean simplicity of the virtual world.) This is due to Zuckerberg’s innate creativity, of which Eisenberg is very conscious. “My impression…is that my character is an artist,” Eisenberg is quoted as saying, “who painted the Mona Lisa, and the twins suggested that he paint a woman. No one would ever attribute the Mona Lisa to anybody but DaVinci, and that’s how I see Mark’s creation.” Sorkin’s script furthers these allusions, comparing Mark, flexing his fingers at his keyboard, to a Juilliard pianist.
This creativity is fueled by a heady cocktail of insecurity and ambition. Behind Mark’s arrogance is a painful neediness, as his sharp mind has discovered the paradox of success—if one wants to be successful, one needs the approval of others; conversely, if one wants the approval of others, one needs to be successful. Humming like a heartbeat behind every choice Mark makes is his desire for success and approval; Facebook allows him to attain both. Therefore, when lawsuits threaten his control of his creation, Zuckerberg’s words become sharp enough to cut.
The Social Network, as a film, is objectively gorgeous: shots are slickly edited and bathed in Fincher’s trademark yellows and greens. Composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film score’s garbled electronica nicely mirrors the keyboard clacks and whiteboard squeaks onscreen. (Its 8-bit cover of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, accompanying a tense regatta scene, is a particular standout.) It is worth noting that the movie is also frequently very funny; comic relief, however dark, is provided in the form of a pyromaniac girlfriend and a cannibalistic chicken.
The Social Network’s account of Facebook’s creation, though simplified, is never reductive. Like any movie adaptation of real events, it’s a little sharper, a little cleaner, a little prettier; however, Fincher and Sorkin approach the events as historians, avoiding overt judgment and moralization. We are unsure, precisely, who is in the right or wrong; we’re also unsure exactly how to perceive Zuckerberg. The film encourages this—even its posters, which superimpose a string of titles over Eisenberg’s inscrutable face. What is he? He’s a punk, a genius, a prophet, a traitor, a billionaire—it simply depends on whose side of the story you’re told.
And what a story Fincher tells us.