The Social Network has been a minor running joke ever since the project was announced more than a year ago. A movie about Facebook? With Justin Timberlake? Ridiculous, right? But anyone rolling their eyes wasn't reading the fine print: The project, based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, was being directed by David Fincher, who has never made a dismissible film and who was coming to the project on a roll, following his best film — the obsessive procedural Zodiac — with his most celebrated — the multi-Oscar-nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Snickers and doubts aside, The Social Network is based on a terrific story: a revolutionary (for better or worse) idea and billion-dollar business first developed in an undergrad dorm room. An all-American tale of an awkward, striving outsider who rather unhappily gets what he thinks he wants, the film's antihero protagonist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg in an intense, compelling performance), is presented as something of an Internet-age Gatsby or Kane — but in a Gap hoodie and ever-present "fuck you flip-flops."
The Social Network is about big topics: power, privilege, technology, communication, generational upheaval (the few over-30s onscreen watch from the sidelines, perplexed), and rapidly shifting social mores. But it tackles all this via an intimate, funny, suspenseful intellectual procedural.
But what really makes any film is not what it's about but how it's about it. And, in this case, the telling is even better than the story.
Fincher's film opens audaciously with a static pre-credit scene that pits Harvard undergrad Mark against his Boston University girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara, who will star in Fincher's upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), at a college bar. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's trademark quick, brainy patter is in overdrive, as Mark patronizes his girlfriend ("You don't have to study. You go to BU.") until, exasperated, she delivers the coup de grâce: "Listen, you're going to be a very successful person in computers. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."
This scene establishes all of Mark's motivations: romantic resentment, jealousy of his more-privileged WASP classmates, the urge to not only prove his brilliance but rub everyone's face in it. "The ability to make money doesn't impress anyone around here," Mark tells Erica of his Harvard experience. This establishes that his goal isn't wealth, but it also reveals that it is impressing people.
When Mark retreats to his dorm room for a night of belligerent, drunken programming that becomes the seed of Facebook — hacking into various dorm photo logs to create a sexist hot-or-not program, Facemash — Fincher shifts into the style that will drive the rest of the film. Locking into rhythm with a propulsive score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue from Sorkin, Fincher's quick but assured editing and shifting but natural camera completes a hypnotic union.
As a piece of pure filmmaking, The Social Network is like Fincher's brilliant Zodiac on speed. It lacks the grandstanding of showier work like Se7en, Fight Club, or Benjamin Button but burrows obsessively into its material, maintaining its grip for a tight two hours. And it's paced like a pop song.
Structurally, The Social Network tells the Facebook development story in straightforward fashion but encircles this narrative with two later deposition scenes that essentially form the film's present tense, bopping skillfully among all three narrative tracks. One deposition is part of a lawsuit from Zuckerberg's onetime friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who claims to have been wrongfully forced out of the company. The other is from a trio of blue-blood Harvard students who had hired Mark to program their own university-specific dating site (Harvard Connection) and now accuse him of stealing their idea. Along the way, Timberlake shows up as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, a hedonist and gambler who may be the devil on Zuckerberg's shoulder but also offers some fruitful advice before his ignominious exit.
Ultimately, The Social Network isn't much more concerned about the outcome of these lawsuits than Zuckerberg seems to be. Like Citizen Kane, it's more focused on how to explain a man's (or maybe manchild's) life — in this case, on the extent of his asshole-ness. And in this we-live-in-public world, appropriately, Rosebud is a constantly refreshing web page and a pending friend request.