It has the staccato wit of a drawing-room comedy, the fatal flaw of a tragic romance and the buzzy immediacy of a front-page headline, all powered by a kinetic engine typically found in an action flick.
And that's just the opening scene, a pre-credit sequence that neatly sets the tone and the theme for everything that follows. There, in a college bar, a modern phenomenon betrays its mundane roots: A guy gets dumped by a girl. He is brilliant and nerdy; she is pretty and sensible. Soon, he will invent what she, and 500 million others like her, now routinely use to mark their place in the world, their identity's home page. But the inventor of something so new is left to play the role of someone so old – yes, the emperor has no clothes, and the founder of Facebook has no friends.
Such is the asocial premise of The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin's and director David Fincher's provocative foray into the young life and litigious times of Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard code monkey who clambered in a few short years to the billionaire rung of the Internet ladder.
But back in his dorm room in 2003, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is just a jilted loser on a vengeful mission. Wearing his trademark uniform – shorts, shower sandals, and a protective girdle of steely sarcasm – he sits down at his computer to design a sexist site where the college girls can be "ranked" according to their student photos.
Called Facemash, it proves instantly popular, enough to earn him a stern reprimand from the Harvard authorities and a warm invitation from the Winklevoss twins – the villains of the piece, or perhaps its victims.
Upper classmen, the twins are everything Zuckerberg isn't: rich, popular jocks and frat boys extraordinaire. They approach him with a vague idea for a social website confined to the campus. The monkey departs to write the code but never returns; instead, he creates a much vaster network connecting all the Ivy League schools and then expanding westward. Maybe theirs was the acorn, maybe not, but Zuckerberg definitely grew the oak.
Five years later, in a panelled courtroom, the lawsuit erupts. "He stole our site," charge the Winklevoss accusers. A little older, a lot richer, but no less sarcastic, Zuckerberg counters with, "A guy who makes a new chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever built a chair."
So the battle is joined and the film has its structural conceit, inter-cutting between cause and effect, the creative act and its destructive aftermath, between former friends and lasting enemies. Metaphorically, of course, that structure nicely echoes the broad paradox not just of the information age but of any seismic advance in technology – the certainty that great gains come at the expense of painful losses. Or, as a lawyer aptly puts it: "Creation myths need a devil."
Happily, that metaphor is never didactic or less than entertaining. Ditto for the devil who, thanks to Sorkin's pen and Eisenberg's performance, is an intriguing bundle of mixed messages. Coldly mean-minded one second, simply maladroit the next, he's a computer simultaneously blessed and cursed with imagination, a hard-wired guy with a vision that proves both his making and his undoing.
The supporting cast is just as good, notably Andrew Garfield as Eduardo, another classmate turned litigant, the CFO of the fledgling Facebook who, depending on whom you believe, either couldn't keep up with the company's growth or got betrayed by its growers. Among the latter is none other than the infamous Sean Parker, the brains behind Napster and here, as portrayed by Justin Timberlake, an erstwhile nerd who has learned a lesson apparently lost on Zuckerberg – how to convert his filthy lucre into guiltless pleasure, to relish what money can buy while still respecting what it can't.
How accurate are these portraits? Dunno and don't care – let others try to sift the fact from the fiction. What matters, on the screen at least, is our own guiltless pleasure, which Sorkin ensures with his eloquently fast and comically furious dialogue. Maybe that's why Fincher, on the surface an unlikely director for this material, is so completely at home with it. In courtroom or dorm room, he's masterful at energizing a very wordy script, putting the fiery into the rapid-fire exchanges and transforming what could have been a dry legal spat into a verbal Fight Club.
Okay, on occasion, the boxers seem to be punching over their weight and beyond our credulity. That's a problem with much of Sorkin's work. Whether American politicians ( The West Wing) or TV jocks ( Sports Night), his characters often sound too eloquent for their roles – in fact, they can all start to sound like a suspiciously articulate pack of Aaron Sorkins. Yet the pack bays so wittily, and bites so trenchantly, that his biggest sin is also the easiest to forgive. In that sense, The Social Network makes a virtue of its vice; by contrast, the social network makes no such distinctions – like all explosive technologies, its virtues and its vices are all of a dictatorial piece.
The Social Network
- Directed by David Fincher
- Written by Aaron Sorkin
- Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
- Classification: 14A