Saturday, October 09, 2010

In Theaters: The Social Network

Social Network poster
Quite a few people may wonder what, if anything, a movie about Facebook has to offer them. Whether you use it or not, it’s more of a tool than anything else, and the birth of a web site does not promise excitement, adventure, or intrigue. This hasn’t stopped millions of people from actually seeing the film, mind you, but it does need to be said that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a fascinating story, one that focuses on people rather than lines of code. There’s some controversy over the extent to which the picture represents the actual personalities of Aaron Zuckerberg and others, but whether it’s factual or not isn’t the point. The point is the thrill of seeing something big created by someone who isn’t even sure what he’s making, and the anger and sadness that inevitably erupt when that thing gets out of control.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an icy, antisocial man who has trouble maintaining relationships because of his tendency never to filter his thoughts. At Harvard, he has a bad breakup with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) and, in a bit of bitterness, creates Facemash, a website wherein pictures of Harvard women are put head to head and people vote on who’s hotter. Apart from being a crass sexist prank, Facemash is also a wonder of programming, with pictures harvested from the “face book” pages of various houses on campus and matched according to an algorithm. This draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer, with Bruce Pence providing a body double onto which Hammer’s face was digitally imposed), who tap him to create a dating site for Harvard men to meet women, with each student having their own page listing hobbies, majors, etc.

Zuckerberg decides to go bigger, and under their noses starts planning something called The Facebook, a social networking site for all Harvard students which depends on exclusivity and the users supplying their own content. His friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) provides the startup cash, he has another friend, Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) helping with programming, and the three end up giving birth to a minor phenomenon, which starts to grow as Zuckerberg opens it up to more colleges across America and the world. He even attracts the attention of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) who, ambitious, broke, and a little paranoid after being thrown off two successful sites, decides to help the project grow as big as it can (even suggesting the dropping of “The”, hence just Facebook.) Parker creates a bit of a rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin (who wants to get around to monetizing the site through advertising at some point), and the Winklevoss twins aren’t happy either, trying to find some recourse for what they view as the theft of their idea.

This sounds a lot like the traditional “price of fame” story, which it sort of is. The tweak to the formula here is that rather than being corrupted by fame, Zuckerberg has all his problems from the start. Facemash is an act of vindictiveness, as are some very nasty blog posts he makes about his ex. The problem is never that being a success changes him, but rather that it doesn’t. He remains unable to connect with people on certain levels (some people attribtue this to Asperger’s, but as a person with that condition I’m growing to resent the rep we’re getting.) His fierce intelligence means he remains a compelling character, and he’s never really a villain or monster. Eisnberg’s low-key performance is a remarkable feat of balance in this regard, and the script makes pains to maintain ambiguity on many of the conflicts.

Far, far too much has been written about whether Facebook is a transcendent phenomenon, or an evil information mine, or a waste of time for idiots, and thankfully the film itself deals with this in an unsensational manner. Parts of the story invoke the questions of privacy raised by social networking sites, from Mark’s unwise blog posts to the casual nature of the “friending” phenomenon, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin resists the temptation to make judgements or force a reading onto the viewer. (And it’s not like the man hasn’t picked up a sledgehammer before.) In its evolution Facebook simply becomes something alive, not entirely under the control of anyone, for good or ill. Zuckerberg manages to create a sustaining online system, which is kind of remarkable for better or for worse.

In a story like this the images, scenes, and settings have a way of sprawling all over the place, from Harvard to Los Angeles to the Thames, from rickety dorms to noisy nightclubs. Director David Fincher and D.P. Jordan Cronenweth’s signature smoky, dim visuals take some getting used to at first, but they imbue the film with a rich texture and atmosphere that draws the disparate places and times into a cohesive experience. The acting is pretty uniformly strong, with Mazzello in particular carrying a lot of weight as the Jebediah Leland to Eisenberg’s Charlie Kane.

Perhaps inevitably the story has to fizzle out just a little, lacking a single major catharsis. The ending isn’t happy, but it’s not quite tragic either, it’s simply where we’ve gotten, with all our problems still with us but the world around us changed just a bit. And yet there’s something truly fascinating at work in this movie. I’m not entirely sure what it is that made me like it so much, but perhaps on some level, it’s just interesting to see smart, flawed people create something big, with all the drama and heartbreak that entails.

Based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by David Fincher

Grade: A

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