Review: David Fincher’s ‘Social Network’ falls short of masterpiece status, but is still pretty fantastic
By Todd Gilchrist
HollywoodNews.com: There are few directors whom I admire and respect as much as David Fincher, or whose name inspires more automatic confidence in his movies’ quality. And yet, after watching his latest film, The Social Network, a chronicle of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, I felt the same way I strangely did when he announced that he was making it in the first place: so what?
Fincher, working from a well-constructed if emotionally uninvolving script by Aaron Sorkin, crafts a fairly interesting character study and a surprisingly revealing document of the last decade as embodied in the rise of social networking. But the bloodlessness of its dramatic twists and turns, combined with a focus on one of the single least likeable protagonists in recent (mainstream) movies, makes The Social Network an almost-great film whose cultural significance unfortunately outweighs its emotional substance.
It probably doesn’t help that the film stars an actor whom audiences have thus far only hesitantly accepted as a sympathetic or likeable leading man. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) plays Zuckerberg, an obnoxious, insecure Harvard sophomore whose ability to get under people’s skin is exceeded only by his aptitude for computer programming. After being dumped by Erica (Rooney Mara), a girl he seems incapable of not insulting as he pleads for her attention, Zuckerberg scurries back to the safety of his dorm room and retaliates against her, first with a scathing Livejournal entry, and then an improvised internet stunt that garners him the attention of the school’s blue bloods.
Recruited by twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) to develop a campus social network, Zuckerberg constructs his own site, called The Facebook, using seed money from his roommate and friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield. Before long the site becomes a major sensation at Harvard, and Mark conspires to expand the site to other universities as the Winklevoss brothers and their fraternity brother Divya (Max Minghella) mount a campaign to stop it and reclaim what they argue is their idea. Soon, Mark finds himself at the head of an exponentially-expanding company, and as he focuses on developing and refining the site itself, his friendship with Eduardo deteriorates as he scuffles with Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) not only over Facebook’s future, but Mark’s confidence.
Virtually all of this character interaction is juxtaposed with conversations and depositions held during Zuckerberg’s two main lawsuits, first between himself and the Winklevosses and then himself and Eduardo, and Sorkin’s decision to bounce back and forth in time substantially enhances what might have been a completely dry biopic of Zuckerberg. Indeed, the film moves along quickly and effortlessly, cramming in far more information in its just-over-two-hour running time than one would expect possible, and it still explores these characters in substantive, multi-dimensional ways. But watching the story unfold in a compellingly authentic way doesn’t feel like enough, mostly because the audience is never given much of a reason to feel anything, except when Eduardo finds himself on the outs with Mark.
In a way, it’s probably fair to say that Zuckerberg isn’t the main character, because as influential as he obviously is, the orbiting conflicts of the people around him are what drive the drama, at least in the film. But Sorkin’s script does put him in the middle of virtually all of the action, and paints him as a dour, critical, arrogant, passive-aggressive, vengeful, deliberately obtuse person whose massive success not only validates his socially-unsuitable pursuits, but reinforces the desperate sense of superiority he wields over the people he hates for having to work for their approval. In that regard, the film offers an almost reassuringly honest portrait of “nerds,” demonstrating how their social awkwardness and special (and specialized) talents more frequently combine to create obnoxious, unlikeable people than the well-meaning, family-friendly geeks who have penetrated the mainstream in the last decade.
In fact, it’s probably that sort of clarity which gives the film its true resonance. Even if you don’t know the ins and outs of Zuckerberg’s rise to fame as filtered through the company’s expansion and hearsay of legal battles, the basic story of Facebook’s creation will be familiar to most viewers, but what is genuinely affecting is the way in which the movie acknowledges that textbook underdogs can be as big of jerks as the silver-spoon bullies who supposedly look down on them. The Winklevosses are to the manor born, to be sure, and no doubt believe that their privilege should be reflected in the propriety of an honest – meaning one-sided, money-driven – ownership dispute. But it takes a special kind of asshole to make guys who could be prototypical villains in an ‘80s teen comedy seem more appealing and sympathetic than the guy they’re ostensibly trying to muscle.
That said, the technical merits of the film are indisputable. Although the film runs just over two hours, Sorkin’s script must have been massive given the rapid-fire volleys of dialogue which not only communicate story but character details, and Fincher peerlessly condenses all of that dialogue into a focused, dramatically compelling, cohesive and streamlined whole. Visually, Fincher reunites with his Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, and the duo creates a film that maintains a perfect sort of look for the pristine, mahogany-accented Ivy League world where so much of the action takes place.
Thankfully, in this regard Fincher never makes the juxtaposition between the frat boy haves and Zuckerberg’s community of have nots too emphatic; of course the truth is that divide was basically self-imposed by Zuckerberg himself, so there’s no reason to position him as a latchkey kid in comparison to his affluent, statuesque adversaries, but it’s admirable that the filmmakers didn’t need to draw the distinction in more simplistic terms.
Simultaneously, Fincher once again indulges his ongoing penchant for cinematic trickery, and accomplishes two feats in one: enlisting one actor to play two roles, and then coaching that actor to two great, distinctive performances. Because most audiences won’t be familiar with Armie Hammer’s previous work, they’ll no doubt be surprised to discover that the Winklevosses are not in fact real-life twins, especially since Fincher clearly distinguishes the two characters, and then makes their interactions with one another and with other characters so seamless that there’s no reason to doubt their coexistence, either spatially or emotionally.
Suffice it to say that despite the film’s purported authenticity, Sorkin’s screenplay somewhat transparently takes dramatic license with some of the details of the story in order to create a compelling narrative; for example, even a casual search for Zuckerberg’s personal information online reveals that he has a longtime girlfriend, but the film depicts him as a relentless loner whose few existing friendships all disintegrate, and he seems unable to generate new ones. But even though accuracy is of relatively little importance, even in a biopic or film based on a “true story,” the question remains: why were these changes made, other than to give the movie more dramatic momentum?
One supposes the film has something to say about our cultural migration onto the internet over the last decade, prodded by the convenience of online friendships that are more easily maintained than real-life ones. And it’s to the film’s credit, again, that it doesn’t judge that collective shift in the way we interact, but merely observes it.
But that also doesn’t make the movie “about” anything more than the events that take place on screen, at least in a significant sociological way, and almost not at all emotionally. Because of that, The Social Network succeeds as a chronicle of Facebook’s inception, an honest and quite frankly, little-seen look at the events of the last decade, and an examination of the way that Zuckerberg’s (or at least the Zuckerberg in the movie’s) strengths as a technological visionary both impeded and reinforced his personal convictions. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin do a wonderful job telling us this story, but ultimately, the movie falls short of being a masterpiece because it doesn’t use the story to tell us anything else.