Society Pages

David Fincher, The Social Network, 2010, color film in 35 mm. Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg (Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg).

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a cerebral Fight Club. Leave it to David Fincher to make the story of a young man’s symbiosis with his laptop into adrenaline-rushing, mind-racing, often thrilling, occasionally laugh-out-loud entertainment. Based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (2009), a speculative nonfiction book about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, the movie boasts, in addition to Fincher’s fleet, elegant direction, Aaron Sorkin’s whip-smart dialogue and a performance by Jesse Eisenberg that confirms him as the Dustin Hoffman of his generation.

The movie opens with a breakup scene, the argument as fast and abrasive as in a Howard Hawks movie, except these are nineteen-year-old kids, fragile and vulnerable, doing damage to each other. In a dark, noisy college pub, Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, who also snagged the title role in Fincher’s remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) lean toward each other across a table, their faces etched in light, as if no one else existed for them in the crowded room. Zuckerberg is projecting his own paranoia and hunger for status onto Erica, and he seems completely unaware that she isn’t enjoying his passive-aggressive repartee. His conversational style is disconcerting: It’s as if at least two trains of thought are running in his head simultaneously and he’s paying more attention to the relationship between them than to anything Erica says. He refuses to acknowledge how condescending he’s being until she stops him cold by telling him that they are no longer dating and she thinks they should “just be friends.” In uttering this clichéd kiss-off, Erica plants the seed for Facebook’s modus operandi, which is what makes the scene and much of what follows very funny—sometimes funny ha-ha, always funny ironic. Then she delivers the coup de grâce. You will be, she tells him, a successful and rich programmer, but when girls do not want to date you, you will think it’s because you are a nerd. “I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that will not be true. It will be because you are an asshole.”

Stricken, Zuckerberg sprints out of the pub and jogs across the entire Harvard campus toward the safety of his dorm room. It has just rained, and the damp sidewalks and buildings gleam under the streetlights. Fincher frames Zuckerberg in one long shot after another. His isolation and the unbroken pace of his running suggests, as fully as the rat-a-tat dialogue of the previous scene, his drive and alienation; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ambient loop of low-pitched, tremulous strings under a repeated piano figure takes the measure of his anxiety and directs it straight to our solar plexus. Diametrical opposites, this sequence and the opening one in the pub are gorgeous in a way that nothing else in the movie quite matches. (Director of photography Jeff Cronenweth used the latest iteration of the RED camera.) Fincher needs to show us the beauty of the actual world because it is the danger of that beauty that makes Zuckerberg, a genius kid emotionally paralyzed by abandonment fears, take refuge in a virtual world that he creates and controls. Without sentimentalizing him, Fincher gives us room to empathize with Zuckerberg, even allowing us a fantasy of rescuing him from himself. The movie needs that fantasy, because in the course of building Facebook, Zuckerberg will commit some unforgivable actions. As Jean Renoir said apropos of The Rules of the Game (1939), “Everyone has his reasons,” and The Social Network, although it is largely focused on a single character, shows us something similar.

Wired into his laptop, Zuckerberg trashes Erica on his blog while downing beer after beer, their labels familiar without being identifiable. (Fincher must believe that product placement—except for the use of Harvard as a product—is “not cool,” which is the reason that Zuckerberg gives for refusing advertising on Facebook in the site’s early days.) Then, seemingly in the course of a single night, he hacks into the university’s primitive dormitory facebook registers and writes the code for FaceMash, a site that arranges the ID photos of Harvard women in random pairs and allows users to vote on which is hotter. The site goes viral with a legendary twenty two thousand hits in two hours. Zuckerberg is instantly famous around campus. He has solved the problem he explained to Erica just hours earlier—how to distinguish himself among hundred of undergrads, all of whom got perfect 1600s on their College Boards. (Maybe I love this movie because it’s about how very smart people survive in an age of rampant stupidity.)

“Why do you always do things that make girls hate us?” complains Zuckerberg’s only friend, wealthy business major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the next Batman, and here fulfilling the promise seen in his performance in the British social drama Boy A [2007].) While Zuckerberg’s notoriety has drawbacks, it captures the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer using the facial-movement capture technique Fincher put on the digital-effects map in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008].) The “Winklevi,” as Zuckerberg contemptuously dubs them, are dim-bulb legacy students, varsity rowing champions on course to become masters of the universe. They and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) approach Zuckerberg to help them with their stalled idea for a dating site whose lure would be the exclusivity of its address. But instead of applying himself to their project, Zuckerberg strings them along while working nonstop on his own idea for a site “that takes the whole social experience of college and puts it online.” After forty days and forty nights, “The Facebook,” as it was initially dubbed, goes live, and the rest is history.

David Fincher, The Social Network, 2010, color film in 35 mm. Sean Parker (left, Justin Timberlake).

At this point, the movie jumps three years ahead to a conference room where Zuckerberg, Saverin, the Winklevoss twins, Narendra, and their various lawyers are giving deposition in two lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg: one by Saverin accusing Zuckerberg of defrauding him of his financial interest in Facebook, and the other by the Winklevi and Narendra accusing Zuckerberg of stealing their intellectual property. The Winklevi suit at one point causes Zuckerberg to respond: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.” Eisenberg’s delivery is stunningly fast and flat, the logic achieved with just the tiniest emphasis on “inventors” in the first clause and “Facebook” in the second, the words floating in an ether of contempt. At that moment, Zuckerberg seems so much like Warhol, whose assistants and Superstars claim to this day that they gave the artist every idea he ever had.

The central interaction in The Social Network is between Mark and his laptop, and Fincher and Sorkin circumvent this problem with a parallel- and crosscutting strategy executed with momentum and clarity by editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter. Almost every sequence of nerds glued to screens is matched to the kind of partying that I somehow can’t believe actually goes down at Harvard (busloads of skanky groupies desperate to touch flesh with the semisecret Final Clubs’s male elite), but which seems more plausible when Mark moves Facebook to Palo Alto under the influence of Internet huckster and Napster inventor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a sleazy showboating performance that gooses the movie whenever and wherever it needs it). This pairing of racing minds with grinding bodies is complicated in the second and third acts when the testimony of the various parties in the lawsuits is crosscut with the scenes that show the events they are describing from various points of view.

The Social Network is in part a movie about young men who behave badly toward women because they are terrified of them. That the characters are in that way misogynist doesn’t make the movie misogynist. Nevertheless, it’s a bit disconcerting to see women divided into two stereotypes: the unavailable and the sluts. Erica, who in Sorkin’s overly simplified schema is the sole catalyst for Facebook, is an unimpeachable moral force, as is the young lawyer (Rashida Jones) who appears toward the end and offers a slightly more compassionate assessment of Zuckerberg’s character. Nevertheless, their brief appearances are overwhelmed by the array of anonymous bimbos and psychos, seemingly driven by their need to score a rich guy but in fact acting as box-office candy.

In the end, however, The Social Network is not concerned with gender differences or interpersonal relationships, but rather with the paradox that Facebook, the mechanism by which the social relationships of at least two generations have been transformed, was created by a social misfit. The movie is not so much about Facebook as it is about Zuckerberg, and it is carried in just about every scene by Eisenberg’s amazing portrayal, which stands out as one of the great American movie performances of all time. Eisenberg convinces us not only that his character is off-the-charts brilliant, but that his elaborately constructed defenses are always on the verge of being overwhelmed by anger or grief or both at once. His voice flattened and choked back by a glottal stop, his gaze defiantly opaque except for occasional moments when his eyes gleam with diabolical humor, Eisenberg nevertheless makes Zuckerberg furiously alive at every moment. The actor has a genius upper lip: When the outside world breaks through the character’s defenses, the lip puffs out just slightly before tensing again, as if it alone can dam a flood of emotion. It’s not a gimmick—I doubt that Eisenberg is even aware of it—but Fincher is, and he trains his camera on it. There’s more box-office gold in that lip and how it makes Zuckerberg recognizably, identifiably, lovably human than in all the bimbo breasts and booty. What a terrific movie!

The Social Network premieres at the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 24, and appears in theaters everywhere on Friday, October 1.