Who of you, reading this review, does not have a Facebook account? I’d bet fewer than one out of three readers can say that they have not (yet) joined the largest social website in the world. Such is the impact and the pertinence of the story told in The Social Network. This film does not leave in us the vibrating tension and excitement of Inception, or the delight of Toy Story 3, yet I found myself discussing it – happily – for many hours afterward.
What is immediately obvious while watching this densely woven morality tale is that great pains were given to be fair in presenting each party’s perspective. Essentially, the conflict is between Mark Zuckerberg (the CEO of Facebook), his jilted best friend (and CFO) Eduardo Saverin , and a pair of rich Harvard undergrads (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss) who claim that the original idea for a Facebook-like network was theirs, not Zuckerberg’s. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) had no one “true” story to present; rather, he had three very different takes on the events on Harvard’s campus in the early 2000’s. He chose to combine them in a blend of “whats ifs” and “quite possibly’s” without ever really pointing any fingers at any of the students. We come away with sympathy and doubt for each of the major parties involved in the lawsuits. Give Sorkin credit; shades of gray can often leave us cold, but to give us black and white would have been a travesty. Sorkin gives us instead a dark gray filled with engaging turns and much to ponder.
There is another major player portrayed in the film, Sean Parker, of Napster notoriety. He is the prime villain, as Sorkin and Fincher see it, a slick, fast talking home wrecker who tears Zuckerberg away from Saverin and then very nearly derails the company with an arrest for possession of cocaine. It is Hollywood, after all, and some sort of identifiable antagonist had to be carved out of the mess. By casting Justin Timberlake, a successful recording musician, as Parker, we get a touch of irony with an appropriate level of smoothness, though with a healthier dose of handsomeness than the real Parker. Doubtless whatever methods he used in real life to sway the Facebook kids had more to do with impressive business jargon and less, as the movie tells us, “trout and marlin” metaphors, charming smiles and Victoria’s Secret models.
Zuckerberg gets Oscar-worthy treatment from Jesse Eisenberg, who resembles Michael Cera but thankfully is in possession of a far broader range of acting tools. The filmmakers want us to see Zuckerberg as a bit of a lost soul, someone who has astounding abilities but really just wants friends. Eisenberg is delicate as he handles the “misunderstood genius” role, never playing us for pity nor turning us off with alienating oddities. We see pain and jealousy flicker over his face in between streams of computer-speak and feigned arrogance, so we know he is as in-touch and human as the rest of us, albeit separated by brilliance and paranoia. His fear of being a nerd, an outcast, hovers just beneath the energizing confidence he displays when programming. Throughout the film, he runs to his computer when things get tough. He escapes to where he is king.
Though the key events are based on fact and the personal accounts are from actual people involved, a classic Hollywood morality tale provides the outline for the story arc. Fame and money won’t buy you happiness (and you’ll lose all your friends along the way). The closing moments of the film highlight the theme. Despite his victory, despite his billions of dollars, Zuckerberg is more concerned about “friend-ing” an old friend whom he had alienated.
Beneath the reverberation of a scintillating modern legend, cliched elements pervade: a good idea expands so quickly that the boys find themselves out of their element, status gets in the way of friendship, and a slick Californian (Parker) hoodwinks the naive friends out of quite a lot of money. We’ve seen this many times before. Events happen faster than our protagonist can keep up with, and in the end, does he really get what he wants? There is also some hammy acting from the supporting cast, from girlfriends to other computer whizzes, and it strikes a contrast to the subtle pull of “reality” from Eisenberg. Even the twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, come off as only a step above 80’s “college flick” bullies, the acting pulled out of the fire by Sorkin’s humorous dialogue.
What is fascinating to me is that Fincher and Sorkin somehow manage to avoid vilifying the Winklevosses. At first glance, we see that they are tall, blond, Olympic caliber rowers, rich and arrogant, and they are positioned against the protagonist. The perfect bad guys. Yet… what did they do wrong? They are certainly spoiled rotten, but they never cross the line: at one point they talk about how easy it would be to go find Zuckerberg and beat him up (“I’m 6’5″, 220 and there are two of me!”), yet they never do it. In fact, their only threat is lawsuit, and for that they have a reasonable point. Their arrogance and family money prevent us from pitying them, but I did feel bad for a moment when they lose a crew race the same day they discover that Facebook had gone international.
What we have in The Social Network is a pulsing portrayal of a significant development in the way that we communicate with each other. It is a solid piece of work from the brilliant David Fincher, capturing the feel of how things may well have gone down. It misses greatness because of some weak outer edges and a tendency towards caricature, but is still highly recommended and will surely garner a handful (or more) of Oscar nominations.