A portrait of the prick as a very young man, The Social Network uploads a fictionalized account of the birth of Facebook and the monumental success it reaped for noxious billionaire co-creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). David Fincher’s film is, of course, concerned with the already-clichéd topic of “how we live now,” yet unlike a fraudulent poseur like Catfish, it occupies itself less with underlined questions about “the online experience” than with the relationship between the site and its forefather, a Great Gatsby-lite Harvard undergrad driven by a need for acceptance from the school’s elite, an ego consumed with Big Idea aspirations, and a nagging need to compensate for his personality failings through unbridled ambition.
As written by Aaron Sorkin (loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires) with his trademark brand of blistering rat-a-tat-tat verbal volleys, it’s a story ultimately rooted in Zuckerberg’s own personal Rosebud, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who in the borderline-fast-forward opening scene becomes so repulsed by not just his arrogance but the condescension that accompanies it (a dig at her B.U. education proves the final straw) that she dumps him, albeit not before explaining that, when he’s rich and famous, women won’t hate him because he’s a nerd: “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” That slur scars Zuckerberg deeply, propelling him that evening to drunkenly produce a cruel online girl-rating game called Facemash (made with student profile pics stolen from the university’s databases), and soon afterward to design Facebook itself, a site that—as articulated by co-founder, CFO, and Zuckerberg’s symbolic conscience Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—revolves around the simple desire to meet a girl. A subsequent encounter with, and brush-off from, Erica, who’s still smarting from Zuckerberg having called her a “bitch” on LiveJournal, doesn’t lead him to introspection and change but, rather, to immediately feel that “we have to expand.” Expand Facebook naturally does, morphing from a college campus niche service to a global goliath and, along the way, prompting two separate lawsuits from spurned former partners.
Throughout, the director cross-cuts back and forth from past events to present litigious depositions partly as a means of exploring and challenging his subject’s justifications for his actions. Yet Zuckerberg largely remains a static figure, or at least a man for whom revelations regarding his own character and behavior arrive only after the damage has been irreparably done. In that sense, Fincher and Sorkin’s study of success functions as a tragicomedy about a socially repugnant person who, in the film’s central irony, created a ubiquitous venue for friendship while achieving merely alienation for himself. Whereas Zodiac immersed itself in serial-killer case-file details, Fincher’s latest speeds along a veritable information superhighway, flying through conversations, scenes, locations, and time frames with an alacrity that evokes modern ADD media interfacing: consume, process, respond, move on!
Fleetness doesn’t mean glibness, however; Fincher segments and layers his material at a pace befitting the meteoric ascendancy of Facebook itself, and without the grandstanding that’s sometimes marked his work. The auteur can direct the holy hell out of a movie, yet in this case he refuses to indulge in vertiginous tracking shots and look-at-me CG tomfoolery, placing the focus less on overt aesthetic showmanship than on an atmosphere of impending doom born from Zuckerberg’s warring urges to erect and destroy—though cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s sleek, shadowy-brown high-def cinematography is to swoon over, as is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s sexy, malevolent score. Fincher’s sumptuous evocation of Ivy League privilege is inviting and unnerving and his pacing is both zippy and sly, with the film swinging and popping so smoothly that it’s almost possible to overlook the fact that certain incidents, including Eduardo’s fiery quarrel with a possessive girlfriend (Brenda Song), border on broad sitcom terrain otherwise generally avoided by Sorkin’s sarcasm-overloaded script.
In a telling juxtaposition, Fincher jumps between Zuckerberg creating Facemash and a decadent party at one of the Harvard “Final Clubs,” whose admission the geek covets. It’s an acute reflection not only of the motivations behind his inspired computer wonkery, but also of the way his work will replicate—and cannibalize, as further suggested by an animal-cruelty subplot involving chickens eating chickens— such social relations. Desperate to be liked, Zuckerberg begets Facebook so everyone can be president of their own exclusive club. The idea of “exclusivity,” though, is what draws the ire of WASPy twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who, after hiring Zuckerberg to work on their Harvard Connect (a Facebook-ish site that would court users via the esteemed Harvard.edu suffix), become enraged over Zuckerberg pilfering their idea. An ensuing debate over what truly constitutes intellectual property theft, however, never quite materializes. That’s because The Social Network’s more pressing concern is Zuckerberg’s gargantuan sense of superiority, which is so rampant that he callously admits to a deposition lawyer that he’s paying the man little mind, and which is ultimately expressed by his triumphant attempts to circumvent Harvard’s exclusionary old-boy power structure (also spied in the Winklevosses’ U.K. rowing match) by creating a new Internet world order in which technology enables nerds to inherit the Earth.
Zuckerberg’s betrayal of the Winklevosses pales in comparison to that perpetrated against trusting Eduardo, whom he screws out of his share of the company, thanks, in part, to the influence of entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a suavely sinister Justin Timberlake), who assumes the role of devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulder. “I was your only friend,” Eduardo mournfully tells Zuckerberg across a table surrounded by lawyers, and the sadness in both men’s eyes is compounded by the fact that Zuckerberg was compelled not by wealth, but simple jealousy—of Eduardo’s membership into the prestigious Phoenix Club, to be sure, but more fundamental still, of anybody more congenial than he was. Which was just about everybody. In this respect, The Social Network is at once a snapshot of a particular era and a universal story about trying to fit in, and the disastrous isolation such endeavors can entail. And at its core is Eisenberg’s bravura performance, which straddles a fine line between conveying the repugnance of his protagonist and making him pitiable, the actor capturing the intellectually domineering haughtiness of Zuckerberg as well as, in quick glances away from people and back to laptop screens, his comprehension of—and mild guilt over—his own reprehensible conduct.
In a final scene that mirrors its opening counterpart, a lawyer (Rashida Jones) tells Zuckerberg, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be,” thereby raising the issue of perceived versus actual reality, and whether there’s any difference between the two. It’s a question The Social Network lets linger with regard to both Zuckerberg, a charmless, self-centered dickhead nonetheless capable, however slightly, of reflection and remorse, as well as to Facebook’s own status as some sort of culturally revolutionary institution. “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet!” proclaims the cocksure Parker moments before he’s busted for cocaine possession, thereby ending his Facebook tenure. Yet Fincher confronts this potential 21st-century reality with ambivalence born not from the potential harmfulness of such a paradigm, but instead from the understanding that it affords no substantial step toward greater social evolution: In the end, in a pub or online, we’re all still waiting for our version of that desirable girl to see and validate our inner goodness and worthiness. In that astute uncertainty, his amusing, electric, keenly observed recent-history lesson proves a film to love, or to speak in Facebook’s lingua franca, to Like®.