The Social Network
The Social Network is a brilliantly entertaining and fascinating film about a subject in which I have absolutely no interest: Facebook. I could be no more surprised if, say, someone were to make a brilliantly entertaining and fascinating film about fish-gutting or car-tuning or being put on hold by the bank before finally being put through to someone you can’t understand. (I am thinking of outsourcing myself to Bombay, just to be similarly annoying.) But this hurtles along so smartly and masterfully the subject sweeps you up as does its main, knotty character: a man who cares nothing for money yet makes zillions while losing his only friend in the process. The Social Network may be the Citizen Kane of our digitised age and you are welcome to quote me on that, just as you are welcome to poke me on that. (I won’t know. I don’t do Facebook. Why would I want 733 friends? I had one for real once, but this proved fantastically irritating, so I got rid. )
Actually, this film is not about the social networking site per se, which now has 500 million users, can attract more traffic than Google and always laughs when you try to tighten up your privacy settings, or so I’ve heard. It’s about its beginnings and, in particular, Mark ‘Zuck’ Zuckerberg, the Harvard sophomore who, at 19, founded Facebook in his dorm and was a billionaire by the time he was in his early twenties. Nice work, Zuck! Directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room and then, curiously, the utterly horrible The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), scripted by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, this operates in the Peter Morgan zone; that is, it takes what is factually known about living persons and fills in the rest. I don’t know how they get away with this legally but, in case you were worried that it’s our worry, it’s not. You need only sit back and relax, if you can relax. In its cold, almost forensic way, this is as tense and exciting as it is absorbing. It’s a miracle, really.
The film opens with Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) being ditched by his girlfriend in a bar. Going out with you, she tells him, is exhausting. It’s like going out with a StairMaster, she adds. Zuckerberg is a prickly loner, who may be somewhere on the Asperger scale. He is a genius computer programmer and hacker but he cannot engage in social situations. His attempt to woo her back takes the form of an aggressive interrogation, even though he thinks he’s being delightful and flirtatiously charming. She walks out; he storms back to his dorm in a rage, and takes his revenge by hacking into Harvard’s computer system, acquiring the photographs of all the girls on campus, and programming a site where they can be rated for hotness. This is as misogynist as it is illegal, but so popular it brings the whole network down. Zuckerberg is disciplined by the university, and vilified by the female students, but it’s given him an idea, and that idea is Facebook. Did he create it to give himself ‘friends’? Because he was so socially un-networked? Because he couldn’t get a girl and the élite frat clubs wouldn’t have him? The film does not psychologise. You decide just as you, ultimately, decide who stiffed whom.
Zuckerberg did not create Facebook entirely on his own; there were others in the room. And the film gets its structure from the lawsuits that are filed as Facebook takes off. There are the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Arnie Hammer), who claim Zuckerberg stole the idea from them. The Winklevosses are Harvard rowing jocks and a supreme comedy gift; like Ben Fogle, but more so. And there is also Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s one and only friend, and the roommate who provided all the funds initially and was CEO until brutally usurped by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, who is wondrously good; another miracle, really). Parker is a flashy, partying Playboy and legend, having already founded Napster and Plaxo. Parker pulls Facebook into the big time, but at what cost? This all sounds complicated, and it is complicated. There is coding and programming and all kinds of financial shenanigans. But it never seems complicated. Sorkin’s script does not talk down but it doesn’t lose you either. It hauls you along with it. As for the performances, they are all special, although Eisenberg’s has to be the most special. Zuckerberg isn’t likeable, has that sliver of ice in the heart, yet we still sympathise with who he is. How do you play that? All I can tell you is that Eisenberg does.
This is a superbly clever, sure-footed film which grips from the word go, and you’d be a fool not to catch it. Go today, right now, this minute. I can’t imagine you’re doing anything better; I truly can’t.