Announcement to Jesse Eisenberg: From henceforth you are no longer allowed to work with writers whose names are not Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin, known throughout his career for engineering propulsive and mercurial dialogue, possesses a style almost tailor-made for Eisenberg’s precipitative speech patterns. Throughout The Social Network‘s two hour running time Eisenberg seems to be the one actor most capable of keeping pace with Sorkin’s script (or maybe it’s the other way around?), which is not to say that the rest of the cast slouches in their respective roles in the slightest. Simply put there’s no denying the effectiveness of the marriage between actor and writer here, and the interplay between the two ends up being one of the film’s greatest strengths.
I am of course getting somewhat ahead of myself here. The Social Network, taken on any level, can be called an excellent film, regardless of any offenses taken by the picture’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards women and the almost dismissive tone with which it approaches its subject matter (the creation of Facebook and the sordid details behind its meteoric rise to the world’s most popular and successful social networking tool). The truth of course is that the film is neither misogynistic nor supportive of the actions of its characters. Rather, the film observes first instead of directly commenting– remember that we’re watching a movie based on real people and real events and not a series of inventions by Sorkin and director David Fincher.
The Social Network ostensibly tracks the history of Facebook from its intellectual conception, framing its gestation and eventual birth with two depositions occurring between Zuckerberg and two separate parties– the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer, a body double, and some clever effects work) and Eduardo Saverin (your new Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s original partner and CFO. The interwoven nature of the narrative makes it synopsis-proof, for the most part; The Social Network begins in a Harvard dorm room and with an insensitive and immature stunt by Zuckerberg (wounded and angry after being dumped by his girlfriend, not unjustly, in the first five minutes of the film) and ends in cold law offices as a friendship slowly crumbles apart. Everything that happens in between constitutes a finely developed and tightly executed story of greed and ambition and what the desperate need to stand out from the crowd will lead people to do. If this doesn’t sound like a terribly satisfactory summation of the film– which every review needs so as to help lead readers to the theater– then I apologize and request that I be permitted to hide behind the excuse of, “it’s complicated”.
And it is. It really, really is. If I were to call The Social Network one thing and one thing only it would be “complex”, and I’d identify it as complex on every strata possible, from its narrative, plot, characters, and subtext. The Social Network isn’t a film with a clearly defined hero or heavy, though late in the game Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) appears and provides more than his share of antagonism; there’s no black and white morality to determine for us whose sides we should take. A less honest version of this film may have made Zuckerberg’s conflict with the Winklevoss twins into exactly what the more level-headed twin, Tyler, fears– a modern-day version of Revenge of the Nerds (the brothers provide the basic idea that inspires Zuckerberg to create Facebook)– but Fincher is too good a filmmaker, and Sorkin too good a writer, to allow that to happen. The Social Network has the pulse of a tragedy, the wry smirk of a comedy, and the velocity and intrigue of a political drama, and yet is so couched in our modern popular culture that it’s easy to accept the story told as truth rather than a dramatized interpretation of real world events.
The complexities of the film’s storytelling elements aside, The Social Network is a challenging film on a technical level as well. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Fincher here appears to be in direct competition with Nolan and Scorsese to see which director will release the most technically accomplished picture in 2010. While that approximate distinction is something to be hashed out close to or just after January 1st, there’s absolutely no denying that The Social Network easily ranks as one of the most finely crafted pictures of the year. Jeff Cronenwerth’s cinematography ranges from the spectacular to the utterly breath-taking (you might not see a better example of tilt-shift photography this year than the film’s rowing race), perhaps an expectation most might not have when walking into a film about Facebook; there’s a crispness to the photography of the film that makes every frame feel painstakingly considered and utterly intentional. Fincher and Cronenwerth know that much of their film takes place in relatively mundane locations not best known for being photogenic– college dormitories, computer labs– but they still manage to make each shot pop. And all of this is to say nothing of the often kinetic and across-the-board fantastic editing, notably in the aforementioned opening sequence, that lends the film its sense of pace and also manages to make the arduous, time-consuming task of programming and coding totally engrossing and interesting. All told, Fincher and his team have put together an incredibly sharp and polished picture on a superior plane of competence.
They’ve also yielded a film that will forevermore be hailed as a work of art “of its time”, which is totally true if a bit too on the nose. Of course The Social Network is of its time; it’s a film about Facebook during a period when social networking tools are fast becoming ways of life rather than simple contemporary modes of communication. But this is also a film about the consequences of overwrought and desperate ambition and what a great idea really costs; taken in that sense The Social Network is more relevant in context with current social issues than a movie like Wall Street 2. Ultimately this is the story of what Zuckerberg lost in the process of gaining his notoriety and wealth through Facebook, and while it’s never preachy the moral at the story’s core is undeniable and certainly worth considering in a culture of avarice and self-promotion.
Truthfully the movie could also just be viewed as Zuckerberg’s journey from the bar in which Erica Albright breaks up with him to Silicon Valley and to the depositions that comprise The Social Network‘s narrative backbone. Viewed through that lens, this is arguably just as much Jesse Eisenberg’s film as it is David Fincher’s. What can’t be denied is that The Social Network marks Eisenberg’s finest and most assured performance of his career, a twitchy portrayal of a neurotic, paranoid, and guarded individual whose perception of the world around him leads to his worst fear– rejection– coming to fruition. Eisenberg plays the role with his cards close to his chest, appropriately, and only opts to hint that Zuckerberg either could be irredeemable, or he could be a decent human being at his core. One could absorb his performance a number of times and still never come to a definitive conclusion as to the nature of his character, a testament to just how good Eisenberg is here.
Eisenberg’s is one layered performance in a film loaded with them; even the two most seemingly straight-forward characters in the film, Eduardo and Sean, come packaged with their own intricacies and nuances. Praise in particular should be accorded to Justin Timberlake for his portrayal of the latter; Timberlake is an impossibly likable human being, such that he would deserve accolades even if he only succeeded in making Parker a total bastard. But Timberlake gives him humanity at the same time instead of making Parker the Snidely Whiplash of the picture, which is an impressive feat. Credit should also be given to Andrew Garfield’s depiction of Eduardo, Zuckerberg’s business partner and sole friend. For many The Social Network will represent the first time they’ve seen Garfield act, and it’s a fine introduction indeed as Garfield handles the burden of being the film’s heart. Eduardo is the angel on Zuckerberg’s shoulder to Sean’s devil; he’s Zuckerberg’s only real friend and one of the few genuinely and uncompromisingly good people in the whole picture. If he has a sin it’s that he’s too gentle and never really figures out how to win Zuckerberg’s attention where Sean does so with such ease.
If the Oscars featured a category rewarding not the best films, but the films that proved to be the most socially relevant, The Social Network would easily take the prize without a doubt. This is the sort of high-minded contemporary art that, like Inception, satisfies both the hardcore cine-geek crowd and also appeals to the mainstream at the same time and becomes a hot topic at the water cooler (and remains such for a long, long time). It is, as mentioned before, a film of the moment, the kind of movie that’s so relevant to a particular cornerstone of its cultural times that to discuss the topic covered by the film inevitably is to discuss the film itself. Is it the very best piece of cinema released in 2010? Maybe not, but it’s almost assuredly the movie that will come to represent 2010 for many in the years to come.