Written PostJosh Reviews The Social Network

Josh Reviews The Social Network

It’s hard for me to a recall another film that has so bravely allowed its lead character to come off as so completely unlikable.  In The Social Network‘s power-house of a first scene, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is clearly presented to us as a Grade-A, prime-cut jackass.  It’s a hell of a way to start a movie!

As you are all probably aware, this arrogant Harvard undergrad is the man who will go on to become the billionaire creator of Facebook.  Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaire, The Social Network follows Mark from his days at Harvard through the world-wide explosion of Facebook and the eventual lawsuits brought against him by several former Harvard classmates, including the young man who had once been his closest friend.

There has been some questioning of the accuracy of The Social Network, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin defends the film.  He told Entertainment Weekly: “If we know what brand of beer Mark was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room, it should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and to the events.”  Producer Scott Rudin makes similar statements: “You can’t make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued.  Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.”

While of course I myself have no idea about whether events truly unfolded the way they are depicted in The Social Network, I can say that the film FEELS real to me.  All of the characters in the film — including Mark Zuckerberg — are depicted in a three-dimensional way.  There aren’t easy heroes and villains in the film — most of the characters seem likable and unlikable at different points in the narrative, just as real human beings are.  (This, to me, is in contrast to a film like A Beautiful Mind, in which it seemed so clear to me as a viewer that the filmmakers had shaved away any unlikable aspects to John Nash in order to create a more heroic lead for the film.)

But knowing that the parties involved strongly dispute just what went down over the course of the creation of Facebook, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin cleverly decided to embrace that ambiguity with the film’s structure.  As we watch events unfold chronologically, the film regularly cuts forward in time to the depositions in the two lawsuits eventually brought against Zuckerberg.  In those scenes, we see the participants debate and argue about the moments that we, the viewers, just saw occur.  This is a really smart way to allow the film to incorporate the characters’ different viewpoints and leave room for the viewers to draw our own conclusions.  I had read a little bit about the film’s structure before seeing it myself, and I had been worried that the filmmakers were going to make us watch the same scene multiple times, each time representing a different character’s perspective.  That device was clever back when it was used in Rashomon (1950), but in the years since has I think become an over-used and often snore-inducing technique.  Luckily, Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Fincher were much more subtle.  No scene in the film is presented more than once — but the filmmakers are nevertheless able to incorporate the different perspectives into the narrative.  It’s skillfully done.

(OK, I’ll admit that, to me, the filmmakers do seem to side with the young men who sued Zuckerberg — the wealthy Winklevoss twins, and Zuckerberg’s former best-friend Eduardo Saverin — although more in the way that the film makes Zuckerberg out to be such a jerk, rather than in the matter of whether he legally did any of those gentlemen wrong.)

Aaron Sorkin’s script is as sharp and witty as can be expected from that master screenwriter, and director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) continues to demonstrate an extraordinary skill with the camera.  In all of his films, Mr. Fincher seems able to capture a distinct time and place with extraordinary specificity — whether than be the alien penal colony of Alien 3, San Francisco of the 1960s and ’70s in Zodiac, or the passage of a century in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Here, Mr. Fincher brings to life the feel of the Harvard undergraduate experience as well as the unique culture found in web-based start-ups (as affirmed by this article in the New York Times).

Jesse Eisenberg is compelling in the lead role as Mark Zuckerberg.  Mr. Eisenberg is able to turn his intense gaze and sputtering mannerisms — qualities which made him such a likable, engaging lead in films like Adventureland (read my review here) — to the opposite effect in this film.  His depicition of Zuckerberg is cold and awkward.  Mr. Eisenberg was pretty much the only young actor (other than Justin Timberlake) in the film who I had heard of prior to seeing the movie, but the other leads are extraordinarily well-cast and turn in performances that I can easily see could ignite their careers.  (In several cases, this has already happened.)

Andrew Garfield is wonderful as Zuckerberg’s former best-friend Eduardo Saverin.  He’s basically the “everyman” character of the film — the one with whom the audience most engages.  (True, Eduardo seems to be well-off and extraordinarily intelligent, but I guess it’s all relative — he’s nowhere near as wealthy as the Winklevoss twins, nor anywhere near as brilliant as Zuckerberg.)  In many respects, Eduardo is the most sympathetic character in the film, since, from his perspective, Zuckerberg’s betrayal wasn’t simply a matter of his losing billions of dollars (as the Winklevoss twins felt had happened to them).  No, with Eduardo, there was also the added pain of these actions having been taken by the young man he had felt was his best friend.  (Mr. Garfield has recently been cast as Peter Parker — an every-man character if ever there was one — in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot.)

Rooney Mara also brings a lot of sympathy to the rather put-upon young woman who breaks up with Zuckerberg in the film’s opening scenes.  She doesn’t have a lot of screentime, but really makes an impact when we see her.  (Continuing the trend, Ms. Mara has just been cast as the lead in David Fincher’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

I was really taken with the performance of Armie Hammer as Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.  In an extraordinary example of David Fincher’s skillful and fearless use of groundbreaking special-effects, the same actor plays both roles in the film.  I guarantee you that, if you didn’t know that fact, you would never in a million years guess that Mr. Fincher hadn’t just cast twin actors in the role.  But no.  Mr. Hammer performed all of his scenes along with Josh Pence, who was then digitally replaced by Hammer in every scene.  It’s a jaw-dropping piece of visual trickery, made even more effective by just how good Mr. Hammer is in the dual role.  I also want to acknowledge Max Minghella as the Winklevoss’ partner, Divya Narendra, who also felt betrayed by Zuckerberg.

Justin Timberlake has been garnering a lot of buzz for his performance as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, and deservedly so.  Timberlake portrays Parker as part rock-star god, part flim-flam artist (thus somehow incorporating both Mark and Eduardo’s opinions of the man), and it’s an incredible tight-rope-walk of a performance.  He’s a magnetically compelling on-screen figure, and one can easily understand how Mr. Zuckerberg fell under his influence.

The only off-note in the ensemble is Rashida Jones as a young law-student sitting in on the depositions.  Ms. Jones is luminous, as always, but I thought her small role was completely unnecessary (especially her final line in the film, which sums up the filmmakers’ opinions of Mr. Zuckerberg for anyone who wasn’t paying attention to the previous two hours).  Oh well.  I suppose if this is my biggest complaint about the movie, then that illustrates just how high-quality a film this is!

Great cast, great screenplay, great directing, and all based on a compelling true(ish) story.  Go see it!