Reviewed at the 2010 New York Film Festival.
When I was intern at Wired in 2002, I haphazardly pitched an editor on a recently launched website called Friendster, on which you could create a profile and then link it to those of your, you know, friends. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just can’t imagine people ever actually wanting to use something like that.” In “The Social Network,” a similar sentiment’s expressed by the president of Harvard when confronted in 2004 by two students claiming that Mark Zuckerberg stole their site idea, one they say could be worth millions of dollars: “You might be letting your imagination run away with you.”
Now it’s 2010, and time has proved them both wrong — many people want to use a site like that, though it didn’t turn out to be Friendster, and it’s worth more than millions. It’s confounding, but also seems to sum up our time, that a billion dollar business worth more (at least on paper) than Starbucks can be built on such a seemingly frivolous concept with no initial monetization plan. And it’s incredibly appropriate that “The Social Network,” a film about that business, is a great, zeitgeisty thing built, improbably, on the squabbles of undergraduates turned entrepreneurs who talk big but are really just driven by spite, competition and a desire to be popular.
Just how much director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are able to wring out of the story of the founding of Facebook is astounding. In this tale of asthmatic overachievers and entitled princelings trying to litigate each other to the death over a site based on showing off how many people you know is a microcosm of class, of ethics, and of the warped, weird thing that’s become of the American Dream. The film rings like a boxing bell, but it’s also uncommonly entertaining.
Our story begins in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, where 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), just dumped, drunk and curled over a laptop, is consoling himself by downloading pictures of girls and… coding them into a novelty website. With the help of a friend’s algorithm, he whips up Facemash.com, which pulls photos of coeds hacked from the sites of the school’s various individual residential houses and places two side by side. You click on the one you think is better looking, and it adds the results toward an overall ranking and offers you a new pair to choose between. It enrages much of the female undergrad population. It’s so popular it crashes Harvard’s network. And from that embittered evening of romantic rejection and online revenge, a multibillion dollar company was born.
But on the way, there are hearts to be broken. There’s that of Zuckerberg’s best friend and Facebook’s first CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who lends first that algorithm, then start-up funds to the nascent company, only to get pushed out as things picked up. There are those of Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (played primarily by Armie Hammer, with digitally altered help from Josh Pence), moneyed upperclassmen who hire Zuckerberg to code a Harvard-only dating site that he deems mostly unworthy of his time and talent. Then there’s Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the wheeling, dealing Napster cofounder who doesn’t seem to have a heart to break, who latches onto the company as it rises, and who’s the only one who doesn’t end up suing Zuckerberg, though he might have also gotten the boot from him indirectly.
And there’s Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the one who got away, or rather did the relationship equivalent of a jump and roll out of a moving car. The role that girls play in the film is apparently one of the points of contention from the real life Zuckerberg and others who’ve protested how their story is portrayed. But sex and love, like popularity, like friends, come across as intangibles that Zuckerberg the character wants but has no idea has to obtain except as some inevitable consequence of success and power. If he can’t make people gravitate to him, at least he can get them all to use his website.
Played by Eisenberg as a perpetually hoodied, tightly wound prodigy most comfortable, despite his final club aspirations, in a room full of fellow nerds, Zuckerberg comes across as a dick, there is no question — he’s arrogant, impatient with and intolerant of anyone who doesn’t share his vision or can’t keep up with up. But there’s also something twistingly tragic in the sacrifices he feels he needs to make, the relationships he ends up shedding in favor of counting down to Facebook’s one millionth user. At Harvard, which “The Social Network” portrays as a claustrophobic, wintry environment of dark wood paneling and harsh fluorescent classroom lighting, there are always reminders that no matter how smart you are, it won’t open the same doors that being rich (like Saverin) or being from a prominent background (the Winklevoss twins) will. In the sunny, white-walled suburbs of Palo Alto, Zuckerberg is free to concoct a geek paradise in which he sets the rules, with Parker at his side like a devil on his shoulder.
“The Social Network” is less showily Fincheresque than the director’s other work, though montages like the one juxtaposing Zuckerberg’s creation of Facemash.com with an exclusive Phoenix S.K. party to which a bus full of pretty girls is delivered are rich enough to eat with a spoon. Instead, the film wisely lets Sorkin’s clever, clever script, which bounces from the litigation hearings back to the past and around to different characters’ experiences, take the lead, along with the fine performances. Eisenberg makes Zuckerberg an aspiring android trying to shed his human heart, while Timberlake plays Parker as a glorious douchebag who when the going gets tough still needs to reach for his inhaler. Hammer is infinitely amusing in his dual role, exuding privilege and looking like something grown in a vat of J. Crew catalogs and Aryan race propaganda. And Garfield is here, as in “Never Let Me Go,” an affecting vulnerable sacrificial lamb.
For all that it’s “the Facebook movie,” “The Social Network” isn’t terribly concerned with the mechanics of the site itself — the addition of the field of relationship status and the creation of the Wall take place in the background of the personal maneuvers that are the focus. But that ends up emphasizing the odd, only semi-meaningful signifier that connecting with someone on Facebook has. Real life relationships are messy, complicated and sometimes hurtful. On Facebook, everyone’s your friend, and your life is as neat as the details you choose to reveal. And for Zuckerberg, allowing people that makes him the world’s youngest billionaire, which is entry into a very exclusive club indeed. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still just a guy sitting by himself with his laptop.
“The Social Network” opens on October 1st.