At the press conference following the New York Film Festival press screening of ‘The Social Network,’ director David Fincher jokingly compared his college-set tale of betrayal and jealousy to ‘American Graffiti.’ I say “jokingly,” because he’s constantly been calling it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of John Hughes movies.” At least superficially, ‘The Social Network’ – with all of its late night parties and petty squabbling – could be something like a post-millennial ‘Animal House.’ But it’s with the ‘American Graffiti’ comparison that I’d rather dwell. Just in the same way that ‘American Graffiti,’ at the time, defined a generation that had just passed, so too will ‘The Social Network.’ As brilliant and gutsy as any film I’ve seen this year, it will define this particular moment in American culture, for better or worse.
‘The Social Network’ begins on the night that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend (future girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo Rooney Mara) and sets about seeking revenge in a perfectly immature, collegiate way. It’s just that this college kid is a certifiable genius, and his revenge takes the form of cutting-edge payback: a scalding blog accompanied by a web site that allows his fellow Harvard students to decide which girl is hotter (using stolen photos from the different houses’ online facebooks). This one act, as bold as it is cowardly, sets the rest of the movie in motion, and all the treachery the tale entails.
Since Zuckerberg was being sued, at roughly the same time, by two different sets of people – the co-founder of Facebook Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played, in a stirring feat of Fincher-esque technological derring-do, by Arnie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) – the movie uses their depositions as a framing device. This is very clever, in the way that it cuts back and forth between the stuffy boardrooms and the debauchery of college exploits (credit Aaron Sorkin’s pitch-perfect script), but it’s also a way to keep the audience shifting allegiances. The filmmakers and the press have often cited ‘Rashomon’ as a comparable example, but that’s not quite right. These aren’t entirely separate versions of events, but rather a prism that refracts each event in several different lights.
It’s through this prism that we view the foundation of Facebook, the worldwide social network phenomenon that has hundred of millions of users, and the site that made Zuckerberg into history’s youngest billionaire.
The movie is relentlessly paced like a thriller. To give away any of the many twists and turns would be a disservice to the story, and to the performances which have so much depth and range. In particular, it’s fitting to single out Justin Timberlake, who corrals all of his pop star appeal (and the manic, borderline paranoid energy that goes along with that) into his portrayal of Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who had a similarly anarchic streak and level of technological savvy. His performance is the best example of the different ways the story could be read, too. In one moment, he’s a fountain of charm, a beguiling avatar here to spirit our characters to bigger and better things. Just as quickly, he can become a ghoul, as enraptured with himself as anyone else, and catastrophically self-destructive. Mark my words: Timberlake is Oscar-bound.
Critics who’ve claimed that it’s weird to see Fincher direct such a talky script have completely ignored his 2007 masterpiece ‘Zodiac.’ Those that say that he’s toned down his visual style are equally high. This is one of the slickest-looking movies you’ll see all year. (You can thank cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter.) There’s one visual set-piece that, while only a handful of minutes long, puts most feature-length motion pictures to shame. Special consideration should also be made to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ glitchy electronic score. Along with the haunting visuals, it will instantly have you spellbound.
But what does it all mean? The movie is a meditation on the current, ADD-addled culture, in which ideas are formulated and enacted before they’re even thought through. This can often lead to the misunderstandings and betrayal that the movie makes its backbone. The characters scramble to gain control of their lives as they move in a bracingly quick pace to an all-new tomorrow, leaving a train of emotional wreckage in their wake. You aren’t likely to see a better movie all year.