FILM REVIEW: The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network (USA, 2010)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer

When a director you admire drops the ball, it's bad news. It becomes worse news if other parties choose to reward said director with good reviews and awards nominations - the more encouragement he or she gets, the more likely it is that it will happen again. So as the months roll by and the director's next project looms, you sit there on tenterhooks, hoping that it was just a blip and that this time it will be different.After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher's future seemed to hang in the balance. When it emerged he was making a film about Facebook, it was hanging by a thread. Even when the first trailers emerged, trepidation remained as to whether it would be even faintly compelling for those of us who can't write HTML. How wrong we all were. The Social Network is one of the best films of 2010 and about as big a return to form as you can get.

Within ten minutes of The Social Network starting, you can put to bed all fears that Oscar buzz had somehow gone to Fincher's head. His new film is better than Benjamin Button in every conceivable way: it's tauter, has more substance, is more engaging and doesn't keep collapsing into a bottomless pit of sentimentality. The Social Network is classic Fincher in both its subject and execution: intelligent, multi-layered, complicated and icy cool.Purely from a visual point of view, The Social Network is a sight to behold. Following on from his work on Zodiac, Fincher uses the cutting edge in digital photography and visual effects to create a uniquely enveloping cinematic world. Like his contemporary Christopher Nolan, Fincher has a real gift for finding reality in the fantastical, grounding all his bright and lofty ideas into something which we would easily recognise. Jeff Cronenweth, who also shot Fight Club, shoots the opening scenes with a perfect balance of gloss and brooding, bringing out the best in Harvard's intimidating architecture.Fincher has managed to do what Noah Baumbach never managed - to take a bunch of horrible people and make them engaging and interesting. This becomes an even bigger coup when you consider that most of the so-called action scenes in The Social Network consist of writing code and hacking into servers. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World earlier this year, The Social Network manages to take something which on the surface is impenetrable to anyone with a life, and find the interesting stories within that.

The Social Network is not primarily about Facebook, any more than Scott Pilgrim is primarily about video games. It is instead about an extraordinary paradox: the world's biggest friendship tool was invented by someone incapable of friendship, who may also be a tool. The Mark Zuckerberg presented on screen is someone of immense intelligence and programming skill, but who is completely inept when is comes to physical interaction (of whatever sort) with other human beings. It takes him a minute to realise that he is being dumped, and a whole hour of the film to talk to the girl in question (ranting online about her bra size didn't help matters).The casting of Jesse Eisenberg is significant, considering he played a similar character in The Squid and the Whale. But there is a crucial difference between Walt and Mark, and this is the difference which makes the film compelling. Walt is so utterly assured of his own intelligence that he feels the need to constantly belittle others; both he and his close circle of friends are so completely up themselves that we just don't care what happens to them. Mark may appear to be the same - obnoxious, privileged, highly intelligent - but he is completely unaware of how socially inept he is. He expects so much of other people but doesn't know how to deal with it when they fall short. As the lawyer remarks at the end of the film, "you're not an asshole Mark, you're just trying really hard to be one."

Despite the presentation of this character, The Social Network is not a thinly-veiled attack on the real-life Zuckerberg. Neither does it attempt to compensate for this portrayal with bald hagiography on the part of his classmates. Our sympathies shift between the characters, and the only constant is that all of them have incredible intellects and are living extraordinary lives beyond our wildest dreams.The film is on one hand a character study of Zuckerberg and the highly intellectual undergraduates which Harvard unleashes on the world. Where Revenge of the Nerds' characters were well-meaning and loveable, the nerds in this film are ambitious, aggressive and uncompromising. They're not a million miles from the modern-day jocks, embodied by the Winkevoss twins. The party scenes in The Social Network refine the template founded in Animal House, keeping the sense of chaos but disposing of anything distractingly adolescent. The fact that Fincher keeps his cool even when two characters are being fellated in a toilet is a clear demonstration of the film's self-discipline.

The film is also a detailed examination of just how ruthless and cut-throat modern capitalism is. Harvard students are presented as born-and-bred winners, who invent jobs rather than taking them and don't know how to take coming second. The film examines how painfully easy it is to get left behind, both in the fall-out between Eduardo Savarin and Shaun Parker, and in the fate of the Winklevoss twins. The last time we see them on screen, they have just come second in a very close race. The film ends on a spiky note, commenting that they "finished sixth" at the Beijing Olympics.Most of all, The Social Network is about the nature of modern-day friendships and the rapid speed at which life seems to move. Aaron Sorkin's Rashomon-like screenplay balances three timeframes and shows us different versions of what occurred in those fateful days in 2003-4. The characters talk with a natural impatience, demanding that you keep up with them or get left behind; it takes a good few minutes to get in the zone and be a part of their conversations. The film brilliantly demonstrates how Facebook and its counterparts have become a proxy or substitute for genuine friendship. The computer screens act as an artificial barrier between individuals; regardless of how much information we share, we are drifting apart even as technology brings us together.

The film is not quite flawless due to a couple of problematic scenes. Having spent so much of its running time in claustrophobic rooms with the intensity building, the boat race is like someone taking the lid of a pressure cooker; we feel like we need it, but the film is never quite the same again. This sequence feels like a very deliberate way to end the twins' part of the story, as if the film couldn't deal with four stories running side by side. The ending also drags a little for the simple fact that so much of this is recent history; how do you put a definite ending on something which is still ongoing?In spite of these little niggles, The Social Network is one of the best films of the year and a high point in Fincher's illustrious career. It is every bit is intense and atmospheric as The Ghost Writer, and every bit as entertaining as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It raises all the right questions about its subject and contains a number of very fine performances, particularly from Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. If nothing else, it's the most exciting film you could make about a bunch of unlikeable men sitting in dark rooms arguing about copyright. Inception remains the best film of the year, but this is a very close second.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: One of the year's best films


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