Perhaps only a brilliant genius who is completely lacking in social etiquette or awareness could have created a computer program to reductively encapsulate all social connections like Facebook. As David Fincher’s new movie, The Social Network sees him, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook was a guy who saw just about everything in black and white or 0s and 1s and found a way to apply that to social interactions. To those he knew in his own social circles, his constant 1 and 0 was that he is right and anyone else is wrong.
Quite refreshingly, the movie opens not with a typical shot that captures the movie’s setting but with a seven-minute-long conversational scene in a bar between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). He praises the virtues of final clubs in Harvard and his condescension towards her in doing so is almost unbearable to watch. He hardly allows a chance to complete the expression of a responsive thought. She is finally fed up with his constant sense of territoriality in intelligence (“You will get to meet people you will not meet otherwise”) and an even harsher, licentious accusation that she promptly breaks up with him.
This sets the tone for the movie that is a breathless series of conversations played like a strategic chess game with verbal offenses. This is a trademark of writer Aaron Sorkin who specializes in dialogue between people who throw words like daggers but a bit surprising from director David Fincher who is an almost tightly wound, rigorous visual artist. Their collaboration gels here though into a fascinating whole without one upstaging the other.
After the break-up, Mark goes back to his Harvard dorm, gets a little drunk and blogs defamatory remarks about his ex-girlfriend. He also creates a program called “Facemash,” which will hack in and find all photos of college females in the Harvard dorms, compare two of them at a time side by side, and allow the user to pick which one is hotter. To complete this, he gets the help of his roommate and best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who had previously invented an algorithm for ranking chess players. The program becomes such a sensation that it ultimately crashes the university servers.
This places Mark in a judicial board hearing but also draws the attention of twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who propose to work with him on building a dating network site called Harvard connection. He does not have any interest in working with them but runs with the potential on his own and expands it beyond dating to create “The Facebook.” Eduardo, who is a business major, puts his own money in to back the site and works with Mark as CFO.
The movie tells the founding story in 2003 linearly but also in flashback from scenes interjected in between set in 2006 where Eduardo, the Winklevoss twins and Divya have all filed lawsuits against Mark. Eduardo is suing for being refused co-founder credit while the twins and Divya are suing for Mark stealing their idea. There is also the involvement of the founder of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) whose ideas and advice immediately click with Mark’s even if he leads a radically different, more carefree lifestyle.
With Sorkin’s sharp dialogue, Fincher turns this story of personal, corporate and legal reversals into a very strong and confident actor’s movie. Jesse Eisenberg is, of course, built for this kind of arrogant, socially awkward genius role and, while some feel that he plays the same typecast role all the time, I find very watchable because he can project a subtle sense of insecurity in his demeanor. Andrew Garfield, as the film’s conscience, also does a fine job at different emotional speeds of cocksure confidence and vulnerability and somehow making us see why he would be friends with Mark for a while. Also, in perhaps the trickiest role where Fincher also gets to show his visual wizardry, Armie Hammer plays his dual twin roles so invisibly that we instantly forget that it is the same actor creating two different characters.
The real surprise scene-stealer though is Justin Timberlake. He, of course, has shown that he can act in the past, but here gives an electric performance as the slyly intelligent Sean Parker. He has more dialogue than Eisenberg’s Mark in their scenes together and, as he becomes a suave social outlet for Mark’s ideas for a time, Timberlake never misses a beat in balancing his role between book smart and social smart, and also the hedonistic lifestyle that eventually bursts his bubble.
The movie is not quite perfect. For all the snap and verve of the first opening scene, the fictional character of Erica Albright is too schematic when she serves as a kind of simplified character explanation for Mark to push on further with his Facebook. The film also does not quite have an ending and, while I know the story is not one that requires a resolution (since it does not really have a conventional dramatic arc), there should be more of a sense of closure to it all.
What is most accomplished about the movie, however, is how it cuts away from the line of most conventional factual character studies. Yes, it plays fast and loose with many facts, but it does so to support an unflattering portrait of its protagonist. Rather, in a way, nearly all of the likable characters are around him looking in and trying to make sense of him somehow. That drive of the story is what may also draw in those who do not normally like Jesse Eisenberg as an actor, as the goal of Fincher’s film to make him far from admirable but not unsympathetic.
All of which brings us back to Mark Zuckerberg himself. As the movie portrays him, there is a hint of Asperger’s syndrome as he incessantly imparts his intellectual knowledge well beyond the point of interest or caring of anyone else (which is much quicker than anyone else, as he does so patronizingly, too). And while he made just about everyone proceeded to socially “un-like” him, he focused intently on his own permanent social foothold. He invented Facebook.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.