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The Social Network (2010, USA)

07/06/2011

Director: David Fincher    Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

Touted as one of the highlights of last year and widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike I had been avoiding The Social Network, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s account of the founding of Facebook. It’s not that I didn’t think it would be any good, in fact with Fincher and Sorkin behind it I thought quite the opposite, it was just that it became so shrouded in hype that I didn’t think I could see it without my expectations being too high and therefore being unjustly disappointed by it. Now that the dust has settled though, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

First of all it’s important to be clear that this isn’t a film about Facebook. Not really. Told in partial flashback and cutting between two different lawsuits filed by the people who, at least according to this account, Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) stepped on to get where he is today – the world’s youngest billionaire – it’s really about Zuckerberg himself and his relationships with other people. Or lack thereof. You always have to be careful with this sort of “factual” storytelling, prone as it can be to bias and exaggeration or just plain inaccuracy but taken on face value (and really I can’t see a reason to doubt it too much) Mark Zuckerberg is as emotionally crippled as they come. Ironic that a man with so few friends would develop an internet phenomenon about connecting with your friends, wouldn’t you say?

It’s here that the performers come into their own. Eisenberg is tremendous as the thoroughly unlikeable Zuckerberg. A narcissist of the highest order, convinced of his own superiority over everybody else, he spends his time confused why people don’t want to hang around with him (especially girls) and exacting petty, childish revenge on those he has perceived as wronging him. Which is just about everyone. While this makes him absolutely insufferable it does seem to provide the necessary drive to achieve his goal of global domination. You do get the sense though that if not for his gift for programming he would have been as likely to get the attention of his peers with pipe bombs and machine pistols as he was with social networking sites. All of this is delivered with utter precision by Eisenberg who captures the lack of engagement with the mere mortals who surround him and the consequent contempt he feels towards them and yet still manages to hold onto an ember of humanity, the clearly fragile and severely insecure side to Zuckerberg that all the other stuff is there to protect.

This is countered brilliantly by Andrew Garfield who plays Zuckerberg’s best (and only) friend Eduardo Saverin who not only supports him financially in his new endeavour but also with his business expertise and most importantly with moral support. The rapport between the two actors is very convincing, Garfield epitomising the resignation Saverin clearly feels every time he has a conversation with Zuckerberg, the sort of loyal acceptance that only a friend can provide, making it all the harder to bear when Zuckerberg plants the knife in his back and gives it a twist. The contrast between the cold, distant Saverin of the lawsuit scenes with the supportive, enthusiastic Saverin of the flashbacks is a sad reminder of the fragile nature of friendship and the cost of betrayal.

The supporting cast are good too. As much as I never thought I’d utter these words, Justin Timberlake is great as the Napster founder, wheeler dealer and all round unstable playboy Sean Parker who helps to lead Zuckerberg to the big bucks and there has to be a special mention of Armie Hammer who plays both the identical twin Winklevoss brothers in some of the most seamless and understated special effects shots I’ve seen on screen. This is a textbook example of how computers should really be used in cinema as the actor has been beautifully duplicated in these scenes but kudos is due to Armie (and those who worked with him in the scenes) as the acting and dialogue are wonderfully integrated in sequences that must have been built up from various different shots for each of the performances. It works because it’s a subtle effect that you don’t really realise you are seeing. Take note all purveyors of digital pudding.

Slap all that together with Aaron Sorkin’s fast paced dialogue, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ very apt original score and Fincher’s eye for what makes a beautiful image combined with his feel for the dynamics of male friendships (see also: Seven, Fight Club, Alien 3) and you have one helluva film. One that, I am pleased to report, I’m severely struggling to find fault with. How accurate a representation of true events it is I think we are unlikely to ever know for sure, that is for Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevoss’s to judge and there are probably plenty of non-disclosure clauses to prevent them from doing so publicly. This isn’t really an issue for the film in any way though as it isn’t about who invented Facebook first but about how we judge our success in this life, where we place our values. With Zuckerberg basking in the glory of his billions can we call him a success when we see the price he has had to pay to get his hands on those same billions? I’m not sure if this film answers that question, but it certainly asks it and does so with a rare combination of style and substance.

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