If the internet sometimes feels like the crowning achievement of American rear-view myopia—a disdain for any history that isn’t myth; the quest for forms of communication that annihilate reflection via equally instantaneous responses to events banal and of the utmost gravity—then it’s that much more exhilarating to discover this very American movie that interrogates recent history—the creation of what is arguably the most colossal internet phenomenon of our century’s first decade—in a manner that’s at once deeply reflective and gloriously impatient, and through a story that forsakes virtual communities for actual ones.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network opens with a riveting break-up scene rife with humiliation and rapid-fire banter—Todd Solondz by way of Howard Hawks—and closes with the smuggest half of this broken couple refreshing the other’s stubbornly oblivious Facebook page like a caffeinated laboratory mouse tapping his lever in vein hope of some paltry reward. Director David Fincher has described The Social Network as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” and he’s not far from the mark. That young woman who left him at the bar with unflinching assurances of his asshole status will remain Mark Zuckerberg’s elusive Rosebud, the one who got away and stayed away, understandably so since only minutes after being dumped the future Facebook creator blogged about what a bitch she was before drunkenly creating a flamboyantly misogynist hotness rating site using photos of every girl on campus as the coup de gras. Unlike Orson Welles’ media giant and failed politician, Zuckerberg’s odyssey ends before he even hits 25, having already become the world’s youngest billionaire yet nonetheless still wearing plastic sandals with tube socks to his emotionally-heated legal proceedings. Kids: they grow up fast these days.
Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, whose facility with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly bracing dialogue is almost supernatural. Eisenberg is even less ingratiating here than he was in The Squid and the Whale, far too in control of his performance to concern himself with audience sympathy. He’s beautifully matched by Andrew Garfield’s diabolically shafted Facebook CFO—Zuckerberg’s former best friend, and probably the most sympathetic character in the movie—Justin Timberlake’s absurdly confident Napster creator—it was Timberlake killed the music industry!—and most especially by Armie Hammer’s dual role as the Winklevosses, the handsome and wealthy Harvard twins and human rowing machines who recruited Zuckerberg to do the nerd labour for their proposed Harvard student dating site and watched helplessly as Zuckerberg took their fragment of an idea and turned in into the biggest virtual place in the ether. I love the fact that Sorkin gives many of the best of his smart-ass lines to these guys, the characters who could be seen as the story’s biggest schmucks: “I’m 6.5, 220, and there’s two of me.”
The completely convincing doubling of Hammer for these bits is not only the result of skillful acting but also fluid special effects, something Fincher knows his way around (even if the movie’s CGI breath during some ostensibly chilly outdoor scenes looks distracting and ridiculous). Yet one of the things that makes The Social Network so satisfying is the sense that Fincher has almost completely shaken off the technical show-offery that plagued some of his earlier work, most notably Panic Room. Delivering on the promise of his career make-over Zodiac, he emerges here as a nimble, eloquent and precise storyteller, never hitting the themes harder than necessary, locking his focus on faces of characters whose lives are going too fast for them to fathom, and gleefully compacting extremely wordy scenes into taut matches of wit and desperation. These scenes indeed allude to contemporary issues of dissolving privacy, fractured interaction and fast money, yet they so often resonate most potently as a study of masculine psychology barely past he gates of awkward adolescence.