According to David Fincher‘s film, the world’s best loved social networking site was created by Harvard’s least loved computer nerd. Now, thanks to Hollywood, the whole world gets to bask in his warm personality.
Jilted by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), super-brain Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) comes up with a beer-fuelled dorm-room prank to get back at her that ends up crashing the Harvard mainframe and landing him (not for the last time) across the table from a bank of angry lawyers. Now notorious, he is approached by rowing hearties Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, playing two people for what hopefully wasn’t the price of one) to start an exclusive college-only social network, only to put them on the back burner as he develops a similar project of his own with seeding money from his long-suffering buddy Eduardo (future web-slinger Andrew Garfield). To the outrage of the Winklevosses, that project – known then as The Facebook – is an overnight success. Its burgeoning popularity (he’s ‘the biggest thing on a campus that included nineteen Nobel laureates, 15 Pulitzer prize winners, two future Olympians and a movie star’) gets him an audience with Sean Parker of Napster fame (who tells him to drop the ‘the’) and California beckons, but will Eduardo make the move with him or be left in the dust?
As scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the narrative segues restlessly from college days to a post-Harvard world mired in depositions. Not that the college days offer much in the way of simplicity or camaraderie. Harvard’s social life, with its ancient, powerful clubs and gentleman’s code, is about as relaxed as a Japanese tea ceremony, while the students are just the kind of remorselessly intelligent and self-aware specimens that Sorkin – best known until now for the hundred words a minute TV series The West Wing – lives to write about. Beady-eyed, ferret-faced, his lower lip sucked deep into his mouth, Eisenberg plays Mark as a tightly corked bottle of angst, always ready with a slighting remark or belittling put-down. ‘You should be proud of that right there,’ he tells Eduardo when he makes it through to the second cut of the Phoenix Club shortlist. ‘Don’t worry if you don’t make it any further’.
Eduardo is the closest thing to an average Joe The Social Network has to offer. His falling-out with Mark just before the millionth member party at the shiny new Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto – shot in a series of low camera angles that recall the firing of Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane – is the dramatic crux of the story, the ghost in this particular machine. Even in the depositions, he speaks more in shell-shocked grief than in anger. ‘I was your only friend. You had one friend’.
‘Creation myths need a devil,’ says one of Mark’s lawyers. From Eduardo’s point of view, that devil would be Sean Parker, the man who comes between Facebook’s co-founders. Played with mesmerizing conviction by Justin Timberlake, to look at he is everything Mark isn’t – the dazzling ring-master to a circus of drugs, groupies and high-octane living – while actually harbouring levels of paranoia that run as deep as Mark’s, if not deeper. He promises glittering prizes (‘that’s where you’re headed. A billion dollar valuation’) and dire penalties for failure (‘the water under the Golden Gate is freezing cold’).
But Eduardo might be wrong to heap the whole blame on him. There’s a hint that Mark is the kind of person who can’t wait to hurt the ones he loves, or who love him. ‘I was nice to you, don’t torture me for it,’ complains Erica.
This guardedness from the word go means that The Social Network isn’t the story of lost innocence and buddies falling out over huge sums of money you might expect (that Mark doesn’t care very much for money is a point made repeatedly, even by those who are suing him). Instead it’s a melodrama about power and status, about who’s going up and who’s going down, its cinematic forebears the movies playwright Clifford Odets had a hand in during the 1950’s, notably The Big Knife and Sweet Smell of Success (with Justin Timberlake being every bit as good as Tony Curtis‘ ‘cookie full of poison’ Sidney Falco).
Thanks to a clever blending of elements, that melodrama is never in danger of becoming overblown. Light relief is provided by the Winklevosses, portrayed here as a pair of well-meaning, over-privileged oafs hopelessly out of their depth. Andrew Garfield brings humour and resignation to his role as the embattled Eduardo – there’s a great scene where the jet-lagged young CFO is arguing with Mark on the phone while his girlfriend sets fire to the scarf he bought her in the background. Mark, meanwhile, emerges as neither hero nor villain but as a conundrum, unknowable even to himself.
Lusty performances from the young cast, fast, self-effacing direction from David Fincher and a sharp, quotable script make The Social Network a triumph for all concerned. But couldn’t they have dropped the ‘the’?
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