Like most memorable movies, David Fincher's The Social Network hooks us with its first scene, which begins, unusually, while the studio logo is still on screen. Mark Zuckerberg (a beautifully intense Jesse Eisenberg) and his date, Erica Albright (the magnificent Rooney Mara) are ramping up to rage through Aaron Sorkin's juggernaut dialogue. Though Erica is trying to be friendly, Zuckerberg is so busy with his nervous sanctimoniousness that he fails to notice he's both ignoring his girlfriend and slashing her to shreds. And she's had enough of trying to keep up. "Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster," she says, right before revealing that they're NOT dating anymore; Zuckerberg never gets his chance to backtrack. She's one of the few characters in the movie who will no longer give this guy her energy, because she knows who Mark really is.
This dexterous, though disingenuous opening (surely Erica knew what kind of guy Mark was before this date) echoes all the way to the final moments of The Social Network (I think this is why the movie is getting compared to Citizen Kane; at least, that's the only similarity I can now see between the two films). Rather being about the advent of friend-finding website Facebook (a subject which is really a red herring), Fincher's movie is actually about one boy's inability to connect to anyone. The irony is obvious, but it never feels overplayed. (Though, again, how DID he land such a beautiful babe like Erica?)
So, over the credits, Zuckerberg stomps home to his dorm room at Harvard's Kirkwood Hall, while all around him life is happening happily. With the nattering, melancholy title theme by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross interplaying with the film's immaculate sound design, we share in Zuckerberg's low-self-esteem frustration. And so it's inevitable: his sadness and regret erupts into a night of drinking and angry blogging, while scads of other 19-year-olds are partying down with little regard to their futures. In Zuckerberg's mind (this bitching party may or may not be actually happening), his Harvard peers already revel in the good life. Revenge is, however small, then placed on the menu, and this night of wired-in coding becomes historical as Zuckerberg hacks into sorority databases to crate Facesmash, a Hot-or-Not comparison of Harvard girls that reduces college girls, as Mark unwisely blogs, to "farm animals." This one-night effort is over before it begins, and once the morning sun arrives, Facesmash has become so popular on campus that it crashes the Harvard mainframe.
Thus the phenomenon that is Facebook is birthed. The ubiquitous site is a tool that you (probably) and I use every day to keep up with what loved ones around the world are up to. But Zuckerberg, as portrayed in The Social Network, strangely has no loved ones (he's not a "hugger," as we soon find out). The very concept of closeness is Alpha Centari to him--that is, barring his relationship to Eduardo Severin (a big-black-eyed innocent played impeccably by Andrew Garfield). Eduardo sees something worth being friends with in Mark, and he sticks by him no matter how strange he begins to seem, and no matter how little Mark returns the devotion. Eduardo, ultimately, loves too much and dreams too small. And this is okay, until business comes into the picture. (By the way, I could have done with more demonstration as to what, exactly, Eduardo sees in Mark; this is my one complaint with the movie.)
The Social Network is being called a decade-defining movie. But I think that's too limiting. It's a Movie of the Now, yes, but it's also a Movie for the Ages. To that end, it has a few heavy, ancestral themes: fraternity, loneliness, loyalty, truth, and the pressures of being at the top of the class. (I'm now remembering that great exchange in James L. Brooks' Broadcast News: "Paul Moore (Peter Hackes): It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room. Jane Craig (Holly Hunter): No. It's awful.") Throw technology and "progress" into the mix and you come close to describing this picture in full.
David Fincher's movie is also being called a departure for the director, but how is this so? In his best movies--Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac--male characters negotiate thorny friendship boundaries while bigger issues nip at their heels. This film fits into that framework perfectly. I will say, though, in the "departure" defense, that Fincher has never had better words to work with than those Aaron Sorkin has provided. Sorkin's screenplay is so incredibly dense with one-liners, ironies, and information that it would take two or three viewings to excavate them all. Of course, this is what makes for a monumental movie; we all love a picture that can withstand numerous viewings before it's been fully mined.
The sly editing (by Kurt Baxter and Angus Wall) will give Inception a run for its money come Oscar time. Instead of loading all the trial stuff at the end of the film, Fincher's editors have peppered the Harvard-to-Palo-Alto tale with scenes from a variety of mercenary depositions that clarify the characters of both Severin and Zuckerberg. One such memorable scene has Zuckerberg losing interest in the well-lawyered proceedings. He turns his back on his opponents and stares out the high-rise windows to a gray day that's turned watery. "It's raining," he says, and the prosecuting lawyer calls him out. "Mr. Zuckerberg, are you listening to me?" he asks. Mark turns around and the question wisely becomes "Mr. Zuckerberg, do you think I'm worth listening to?" And then Mark lets loose with a volley that makes it clear: no, I don't, because I already know the outcome; I've already done the math in my head. And the whole room goes silent, because they know he's correct. Still, there's that moment, in the boardroom, where Mark refers to his best friend, Eduardo, and Fincher cuts to a shot of an empty chair. So how smart is this dude, really?
There's the intrusion of three very great characters into the melee. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played with much energy by Armie Hammer) are towering examples of the status to which Mark aspires. Twins, both 6 foot 5, blonde-haired, and well-toned from their positions on Harvard's rowing team, Tyler and Cameron are the guys who surreptitiously lead Zuckerberg to the idea for Facebook (Eduardo, meanwhile, provides the start-up money and the valuable algorithm that's scrawled on a dormroom window). The Winklevosses (or Winklevii, as they come to be called), do everything they can to keep from looking like villains. This includes, in the film's most entertaining scene, searching for justice regarding the Facebook filching by appealing to Harvard president Larry Summers (played, in a hilarious, revelatory one-scene performance by show-biz manager Douglas Urbanski). But this leads them nowhere except to the depositions. (There, Mark puts them squarely in their place: "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook.")
And then there's Sean Parker, the smacked-down inventor of music-file-sharing site Napster (ironically played by musician/Napster victim Justin Timberlake, who's terrific). Parker runs into the site by accident, after a drunken night of sex with a girl who's name he doesn't know. He see's she's logged into something called Thefacebook, and he immediately sees dollar signs. Thus, with a scheduled bacchanal of rich food and appletinis, and girly company (the film is very much about stunted sexual desire), he seduces Zuckerberg away from his best friend Eduardo--who has Parker's number immediately. Parker seals the deal with the flippant addition of key advice that leaves Mark without breath. Later in the film, in a brilliant club scene that perfectly demonstrates the sound of talking while ear-splitting music is being played (not since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me have I experienced anything like this scene), Parker tells Zuckerberg how he came up with Napster after being dumped by a girlfriend. After the story drops, Zuckerberg asks him "Do you ever think about that girl?" Parker laughs the question off with a drunken "No."
There is one more way, I now realize, in which The Social Network resembles Citizen Kane. It, of course, is nowhere near the art transformer that Welles' movie was (Jeff Cronenweth's excellent camerawork is no match for Gregg Toland's, and said camera isn't pointed at the Mercury Theater). But, like Kane, Fincher's film does obsesses over a successful man who, in order to achieve his goal, ignores everything that would make success meaningful (even if, as with the Zuckerberg, that goal is the emotional equivalent of completing an algebra assignment). That said, in many ways, The Social Network, however true or untrue to the real-world story, is often more outright fun, while being just as forlorn, as Welle's monumental 1941 movie. Does that make it a decade-defining film? Well, no more than Kane defines its decade. As prodigious as The Social Network is, it ultimately leads us to one scorched earth conclusion: some things never change.
The Social Network is the Opening Night film for the 48th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. September 24th, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023.
For more ticket information regarding this or any of the festival's many other great offerings, go online here, or call (212) 875-5050
David Fincher's The Social Network opens nationwide on Friday, October 1st.