Friday, October 8, 2010

The Social Network

The Social Network, the latest work of unsettling ambition by David Fincher, opens with an already much talked about scene set in a bar near Harvard University, where are hero\villain Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) rattles on and on before being dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be media firestorm when she takes center stage as the American Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)  She seethes with the same wordy dialogue courtesy of Aaron Sorkin as Zuckerberg, and ends with: "you might think girls won't like you because you're a nerd, but you're wrong, it's because you're an asshole."  Cue to opening credits.  Not many films would open with such a seething indictment of their leading men, but The Social Network isn't like other films.  It's an exciting, verbose account of the foundation of Facebook, and in great American filmmaking fashion, hearkening back to the glory days of the '70s, which is where aesthetically, if not historically, where it lives; it also perhaps the first 21st century film, at least one funded by a big Hollywood studio, that culturally and impeccably examines our cyber age.  The age of which, for better and worse, was partially indebted to Zuckerberg, and the other nerds\assholes at center stage in Fincher's great suspenseful morality play.

Fueled by alcohol and rage, with perhaps a hint of shame that he wouldn't dare let out, Zuckerberg lashes out after being dumped.  First with lashing insults on his blog, then with a vision, a revenge vision of creating a website where one can vote on the hotness of Harvard gals.  The site becomes a smash, big enough to crash the Harvard server, and bigger enough to attract the attention of the Winklevoss brothers, members of the Harvard elite, and twins, both played by Armie Hammer, with the help of some Benjamin Button digital craftsmanship.  They invite Zuckerberg to their inner circle of prestige, and perhaps a chance mingling of Harvard's exclusive clubs that Mark craves membership of; the talk mostly is of business, as the Winklevi want Zuckerberg's cyber-inclined brain power in starting up a Harvard-only social networking site.  The main function mostly, is simply put by one the twins: "Girl want to hook up with Harvard guys."  And thus a generational zeitgeist is formed.  Zuckerberg (allegedly as it is purported that the film may perhaps be bending the truth, the screenplay was based on the novel "The Accidental Billionaire, by Ben Mezrich) took the idea and ran with it, creating "The Facebook," with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), but mostly his checkbook.

The Social Network entertainingly and extremely pleasurably rat-a-tats back and forth between Zuckerberg, the Winklevi and Saverin over the foundation and eventual litigation process both parties took with Zuckerberg, but the excitement is electric because it's current enough that everybody remembers the birth of Facebook, which again for better or worse defines a large chunk of our modern time.  The fantasy\reality of Facebook is that you can create almost another world of perception, which the film examines.  As in such, the subjects of The Social Network are neither heroes nor villains; Fincher and Sorkin are far too multi-faceted artists for that, and the perception of Zuckerberg namely largely seats in the eye of the beholder.  That this nerd\asshole, one of limited friends (perhaps Saverin, at first, being his only true one) was able to tap into a generational divide of kids practically raised online is revolutionary, until you think about how truly sad, and kind of revolting it is.

The last main character to be introduced is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), as the visionary, and criminal mind behind Napster, who seduces Zuckerberg from the refined Harvard elitism into the Silicon Valley elite.  Like Zuckerberg, Parker is a game changer, and like Parker, Zuckerberg later has to pay for the damage he's caused by "his" idea.  Through the chronicle of the story, we see the litigation hearings of the men who sued Zuckerberg, first the Winklevoss twins, and then Saverin, and while the idea of a courtroom drama may be old hat, Fincher and Sorkin stage them with such an immediacy, that in a perverse way, it's almost crowd-pleasing.  I suppose, at least on paper, that Fincher and Sorkin would be an odd fit together, what with Fincher's reputation of a visionary auteur, fond of ultra-controlled settings and low light mood, and Sorkin's dialogue tripping verbosity, but here they strike the right balance between complementing each other, and it works as the best of both worlds. 

And perhaps both artisans have found their muse in Jesse Eisenberg, who is in short spectacular.  Understated, in a similar mopped-top goofball\nerd way that made him so in agreeable in films like Adventureland and The Squid & the Whale, but with a detached glare that's almost nihilistic, he devours the Sorkian language, making Zuckerberg a consummate intellectual bully, but with an "I'm bored, now" stillness.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that he makes one compassionate about Zuckerberg, who in real life is still the youngest billionaire ever, but humanizes him to a degree in that when he attacks with his words, we hate him more, perhaps because he might actually be right.  The acting surrounding Eisenberg is nearly across the board as rich, with Garfield, Timberlake and Hammer all nailing their characterizations, no matter how factually based, and all turning the drama on each other in such unsettling ways that it's hard to come up with a winner or loser in this morality play.

It might feel like cinematic blasphemy, or hyperbolic absurdity, but since it's been mentioned before, I don't quite so stupid, but long stretches of The Social Network feel achingly and spine-tingly in sync with Citizen Kane.  I'm not exactly saying Fincher's film is as good, I wouldn't dare, but since both films are warts and all, take no prisoners accounts of media behemoths, and both are in their respective time periods, blazing assaults of language and scope, I feel the comparison is apt.  Yet the wonder of Fincher's magnum opus here, is that like the expert handling of Zodiac, he has the control and ideas of a filmmaker of early-'70s, the look and mingling of character study vs. bigger meaning is so expertly and unobtrusively handled (one never gets the sense of a bigger idea being forced fed into our mouths) feels achingly in tune with films like All the President's Men and Network.  But comparison means nothing, for The Social Network is a grand and meaningful entertainment all its own, and while parts play as though Zuckerberg is bullying us with his barrage of dialogue, I for one welcome a second visit.  A

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