▲ Jesse Eisenberg takes center stage as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network." Photo 20th Century Fox
All good things come to an end — childhood friendships, our college years, an afternoon at the movies — and “The Social Network” breezily proves this adage holds true in the digital age. This reviewer is old enough and young enough to remember those fabled first days of “The Facebook” that are the intriguing subject matter of David Fincher’s (“Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) new film about the founding of this addictive and ubiquitous Web site.
With an excellent script from Aaron Sorkin (“Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The West Wing”), the film flies through the treacherous, treasonous first year of Facebook’s existence, moving from the dorm rooms of Harvard, to party scenes of California, and finally to the pristine Palo Alto offices of Facebook’s headquarters. The glibness of the dialogue and the breakneck pace of the film, however, often mask the serious, tragic tale at the heart of Facebook’s creation.
“The Social Network” begins in a bustling pub, with Mark Zuckerberg, played irreproachably by Jesse Eisenberg, in the thick of a social setting that obviously makes him more than a mite uncomfortable. After a conversation with his then girlfriend turns disastrous, Zuckerberg stalks off to his dormitory, where he commences to construct one of his many pre-Facebook projects over a night of beer swilling and blogging. That project, a Web site called Facemash, becomes a viral hit on the Harvard campus that leads to disciplinary trouble for Zuckerberg.
Within the first 10 minutes, the film sketches a powerful, polarizing portrait of the young man who is now the world’s youngest billionaire: he is an immensely creative person, brazen in his social relationships, both arrogant and abject about the person he is and the life he leads. He is a social outsider, while at the same time a social genius for the revolutionary way he reinvented online social networking.
The film tries to fit Zuckerberg’s dodecahedral personality into the proverbial round hole by pinning his motivation for inventing Facebook on his social insecurities and the failed relationship of the film’s opening sequence. Luckily, the story quickly speeds past this small gaff and moves headlong into narrativizing the controversial claims that Zuckerberg appropriated the idea for Facebook.
The backbone of the film, indeed what makes the movie compelling for Facebook devotees and non-users alike, is the story of how Zuckerberg enters a business partnership with three other Harvard undergraduates, only to leave that venture within a month having pilfered the concept for their Web site, HarvardConnection. In the film, in tense scenes of pretrial depositions, Zuckerberg’s former partners allege he agreed to finish coding a Web site for them called HarvardConnection, a project far too similar to Facebook in design to be coincidental.
During the deposition sequences, Zuckerberg, cunning and calculating though he appears absent and aloof, distills the complexities of the case down to a simple statement for his previous partners: “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” Again, however, Sorkin’s slick one-liners serve to obscure the startling fact that the film presents the creation of Facebook as an act of intellectual thievery by the enterprising, ruthless Zuckerberg.
The question of Zuckerberg’s culpability is the axis that the film turns upon. Fincher tightly structures the film around the deposition scenes: one with Zuckerberg’s former HarvardConnection partners and the second with his former best friend and CFO of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin.
All we witness of Facebook’s inception is filtered through flashbacks grounded in these dank legal chambers, and Fincher offers few clues as to the source of these reimaginings of the past. Are the flashbacks the product of Zuckerberg’s restless and wandering mind during the depositions or perhaps the reconstructions Saverin believes most beneficial in the $600 million lawsuit he levels against his one-time roommate.
The ambiguity of perspective that Fincher orchestrates allows the audience an active role in answering these questions of guilt and innocence that “The Social Network” poses. Needless to say, the questions are far more multifaceted than any of the characters contend. Fincher brilliantly manipulates audience sympathies for each of the players until the closing shot of this admirable film that, like many of the relationships of its tempestuous protagonist, ends with an abruptness that is both expected and unwanted.
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