Silver Screen: The Social Network ****1/2
If there’s any doubt that The Social Network models itself after Citizen Kane, it’s vanquished in the film’s closing moments, which finds our wistful antihero— an unthinkably rich man both venomous and vulnerable— pondering the elusiveness of the symbol of all the things he lacks. In Charlie Kane’s story, it’s the sled he was playing on the day he was literally abducted by fortune; in the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it’s a girl.
The Social Network is no Citizen Kane, if only because its narrative arc is more imitative than inventive, but it is a phenomenal film, at turns morbidly fascinating, emotionally resonant, and wickedly funny.
Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) is off-his-ass good as Zuckerberg, who we first meet in the throes of a contentious date with Boston University beauty Erica (Rooney Mara). He gets carried away outlining his ambitions to her and, despite her best and most compassionate efforts, drives her away through sheer force of social awkwardness.
A distraught Zuckerberg returns to his dorm at Harvard and cooks up a bile-filled blog and a spiteful website, FaceMash.com, that lands him in hot water with the school establishment but brings him to the attention of a pair of fortunate sons, identical-twin Olympians Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played, thanks to movie magic, by Armie Hammer, with an assist from body double Josh Pence). The twins tap him to start a dating site exclusively pitched to Harvard students, but Zuckerberg skips out on their deal and does them one better, creating a multipurpose, university-exclusive social-networking site that, in his words, “put the entire college experience online.” He calls it TheFacebook.com.
Thanks to cash and input from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the movie’s Joseph Cotton), he gets the site online, and it becomes an instant smash. Zuckerberg and his crew rapidly expand into other college markets until they catch the eye of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), here played as a paranoid, self-delusional confidence man more interested in causing trouble than creation. Zuckerberg takes the enterprise out west to be closer to Parker and Silicon Valley, pitting him against Eduardo even as the Winklevosses’
nagging threat of a lawsuit becomes a genuine legal threat.
It’s hard to think of a movie more directly jacked into the zeitgeist than this one. The Social Network is helmed by a critically and popularly acclaimed director, peopled with the future megastars of cinema (ladies and gentlemen, meet your new Spider-Man in Andrew Garfield, and Lisbeth Salander from the upcoming adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Rooney Mara), and tells the story of the most popular site on the internet, a massive social phenomenon that is still unfolding and the ramifications of which have yet to be fully appreciated.
And yet it also seems like something of a longshot: A dialogue-driven film framed by extensive sequences of court depositions carried out in conference rooms, mostly based in legal wrangling and computer code. What makes it work is the unlikely but inspired teaming of director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, adapting Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires. Sorkin writes some of the fastest and sharpest dialogue this side of a Billy Wilder film, and Fincher is an exceptional stylist whose growing restraint has turned him into a dazzling and insightful image-maker. Together Fincher, Sorkin, and Eisenberg make Zuckerberg one of the most vibrantly realized and complex characters in years, perhaps the most compelling antihero since Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood.
The Social Network does have one major shortcoming, and that is its willingness to play fast and loose with the facts, twisting a true story into a tidy (if morally ambiguous) narrative; in other words, it’s an old Hollywood story. But Mezrich’s book is sometimes dodgy— in lieu of evidence or interviews with direct sources, he sometimes openly imagines what might have happened— and Sorkin’s script takes some of the more far-flung moments and flings them even further. As a true account of what happened, the movie should probably be taken as skeptically as most anything read on the internet. But that boldness and looseness with the facts is not only nothing new, it would actively please some people— most certainly William Randolph Hearst, who loved a good smear job, and also Orson Welles, who in turn did perhaps the most artful smear job of all time on Hearst himself.
And so what of Zuckerberg and Charlie Kane? Their movies certainly follow the same trajectory. A scrappy outsider builds an empire to cover up some fundamental inadequacy, and along the way he betrays his best friend and sacrifices the best part of himself. The great difference between the two, as characters, is apparent in the symbols of their unattainable dreams. Kane’s famous sled, Rosebud, represented the love and pure human connection he felt as a child, the innocence that irrevocably escaped him. Zuckerberg’s Erica, on the other hand, is the social connection he was never able to make, the mutual admiration and adoration of which he is incapable. Kane’s dream is of something he lost, but for Zuckerberg, or at least the version of him that exists in The Social Network, his dream is of something he’s never had.