The Social Network: Coming Back for Everything

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

The Social Network’s top comparison among critics has been the beloved Citizen Kane, as both chronicle the rise and fall of a young, ambitious individual who shapes a new technological medium to his advantage.  After 4 viewings of the former (plus many more of certain scenes), endless reading of reviews, and discussions with friends, I’ve realized another crucial similarity.

Kane’s greatness, so goes the narrative, becomes more apparent the more you know about movies; its praised cinematography isn’t the sort of thing that captivates casual fans.  Likewise, Network seems to me a movie that looks better the more thoroughly you examine its craft.  The timing of the scenes, the way they flow together, the way endings seamlessly become the next appropriate beginning, the way certain lines of dialogue come back to relevance minutes or scenes later, the utter lack of meaningless moments and utter pervasiveness of conflict—it exhibits the peerless level of craft to which screenwriters aspire.

This says little about the emotion the story elicits, which I point out because the only blemish I’ve heard anyone pin on Network is that it’s a little cold.  To an extent, I wouldn’t disagree with that, though I can adore ‘cold’ movies (Closer, anyone?).  But I think there’s plenty of emotional resonance, and, more importantly, the level of craft demonstrated by the screenplay thrills geeks like me.

What’s most remarkable to me about Facebook is not the extent of its ubiquity within modern society—it’s how fast that happened.  The site launched in 2004; within all of 2 years, no self-respecting student could avoid having an account, and after 2 more years, that category had pretty much expanded to everyone too young to be elected president.  Thus it should be no surprise that, 6 years later, there already exists a book and, now, a movie chronicling the site’s rise.

21st century communicators owe a great deal to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the anti-hero of this film who created the site, albeit possibly with help from other people whom he did not credit and compensate.  A Harvard undergraduate in 2003, he channeled his utter inability to carry on a compassionate conversation into a creationist rage that became Facebook.  Problems arose, however, from his interactions with a couple of silver-spoon twins (both played by Armie Hammer) who claimed he stole their idea and with his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), who donated initial start-up cash and then was gradually phased out of the site’s ownership.

The Social Network, thus, intersperses the story of the site’s development with depositions being taken in two separate lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg, one by Eduardo and one by the twins, a brilliant structural choice that not only provides incredible forward momentum but also allows for moments of penetrating drama.  This is a ferociously entertaining rush through scenes laced with conflict, characters who understand themselves better than they do others, and ideas disseminated, dismantled, and disavowed.

Aaron Sorkin’s script, which pointedly, poignantly captures contradictions of the modern era, begins in mid-sprint, unspooling a delicious opening scene that makes you wonder why so many movies open in such a drab fashion.  Zuckerberg and his then-girlfriend (Rooney Mara) talk a mile-a-minute, West-Wing-for-college-students-style, and if that description titillates you half as much as it does me, see this movie.  Those first five minutes introduce the powerful irony the film pushes—the greatest cultural marker of the past generation (if not longer) springing from the mind of someone who “doesn’t have three friends to rub together.”  Network has the guts to let you dislike its protagonist right away.

Maybe it’s because Sorkin has never apologized for catering to a smarter audience than most Hollywood writers, but The Social Network doesn’t succumb to the typical Hollywood convention of deriding smart kids.  With the contrasting shots of Zuckerberg frantically typing on his computer as Harvard revelers party around him, it’s not making fun of his aptitude; in fact, it’s admiring both his brains and the perseverance with which he carries out his pet project.  Of course, it relishes the other side of him too—the less noble one.

Speaking of something less than noble, the other key player, providing a boost of energy halfway through, is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who founded Napster, made nothing on it, and then grabbed hold of Zuckerberg’s ride.  A smart playboy, Sean manages to impress Mark with his acumen, even though the latter wants no trappings of success.  Some of his scenes—at a fancy dinner, and upstairs at a club—feature writing so sharp, dialogue so propulsive in service of both character and plot, that I had to lean forward in my chair as though I was awaiting the revelation of the villain in a suspense thriller.  Sorkin’s dialogue overflows with conflict and tension, and that, combined with his characters’ eloquence, commands your attention.

By this point, Sorkin—whose resume is getting a little absurd—has mastered all of the tricks at the disposal of screenwriters.  This tops A Few Good Men and The American President as his best movie, all of which ignores his contributions to TV—the decent Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which, despite its critics, was about 90% of a great show), and, ahem, four seasons of The West Wing.

There’s not a single solitary moment here that’s unnecessary—something that, when you think about it, very few films can say.  Sorkin manipulates the audience so subtly, so craftily, so enjoyably that not only do you never see it coming, but you simply shake your head in admiration after he does.  The ability to, say, make a line like “And the water under the Golden Gate is freezing cold” hit us where it hurts does not reside in most people.  Sean’s explanation to Mark of the man who founded Victoria’s Secret combines a capitalistic rags-to-riches fable with a cautionary tale, and it illustrates some of the differences between those two and Eduardo.  And Zuckerberg’s follow-up question, regarding Sean’s first love interest, illustrates the differences between those two, and foreshadows the devastating final shot of the film.

By that moment, you’ll be surprised at how well Parker has been fleshed out, a trait that Sorkin shares with all his characters.  Note the way he defines Harvard’s president three-dimensionally in about 5 minutes, or how Mark ‘interviews’ candidates for internships.  It’s telling that, when Mark lets down Eduardo at one point, he doesn’t apologize—though you can sense he’s thinking about it—but instead re-directs him to the company’s latest innovations.  Much of the dialogue effectively conveys the conflicting sense that A Beautiful Mind did about its protagonist—were all of his insults cruel, or did he just not always know what to say in everyday conversations?

Network, too, is a phenomenally acted film, from the ancillary characters (especially Hammer as both twins) all the way up; all three protagonists deserved Oscar nominations and/or wins (deserving, of course, not always translating to “receiving”).  Eisenberg is viciously good, especially at capturing the disturbing aspects of Zuckerberg’s personality.  Timberlake makes Sean seductive, resilient, and dependent, teeming with vigor and liveliness, every word dripping with conviction.  Garfield, excellent in Never Let Me Go, gives a performance that shines through on repeated viewings.  Though viewers may disagree over the details of who deserved what, Eduardo is the most sympathetic character, and Garfield paints his devotion to Mark without relying on corniness.  His reaction scene to getting all but written out of the company should have gotten him the Oscar nomination alone.

Despite the subject matter, director David Fincher wisely does not beat you over the head with his movie’s modernity.  No significance is played by text messaging or video sharing or Skyping, and the colors seem dried out of most scenes, especially the Harvard ones: it all looks like they could be sitting in 1980s dorms, and that’s critical for emphasizing Zuckerberg’s alienation from the society around him.  The movie gets all the small details right, too, in particular the fantastic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross–ominous and haunting, as though things are breaking all around it (which they are).  And the scene (pictured above) at the club, with pounding music, where you sort of have to strain to hear the words, but can still grasp everything, is a masterwork of sonics–and, I think, says something about the way a lot of people live today.

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth,” Sorkin recently said regarding his work here.  “I want it to be to storytelling.”  That sums up my thoughts exactly—I don’t go to movies for history lessons; I go for drama and entertainment, and The Social Network has both in spades.  It has them, above all, in its characters, who are all striving for something out of their reach.  Sean wants to get on board with something again.  Eduardo wants the approval of his father and his friend.  And Mark wants, not money or products or fame, but recognition as well, but only from the one person, out of millions, who won’t give it to him.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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2 thoughts on “The Social Network: Coming Back for Everything

  1. excellent review for one of my favorite movies of the past few years. i like it more each time i watch it and i agree that it gets better as you look at it closely.

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