On the face of it, I really had no interest in going to see this film. The story behind the founding of Facebook, and exactly how obnoxious Mark Zuckerberg is/was to his friends and colleagues is already a matter of some public record, and so the idea of a film based on an unauthorised book concerned with highlighting the exact extent of his douchebaggery certainly didn’t fill me with anticipation. There were, however, a few things that did pique my interest. For one, The Social Network is helmed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), one of the most respected directors of the past decade, and a consistently safe pair of hands (well, maybe except for Alien 3). In fact, he’s usually more than that: capable of turning simple scripts and setups into compelling and believable thrillers (see 2002’s Panic Room) without the aid of big budgets, big name stars or elaborate special effects, though equally comfortable working with them all (e.g. Fight Club).
Now that’s almost enough to get me to see the film by itself. But when you add to that the fact that the film’s screenplay is adapted from the aforementioned book ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ (by Ben Mezrich) by celebrated The West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, well, then you’ve got my attention. It also doesn’t hurt that Kevin Spacey is an executive producer, and, on a more personal note, it stars a certain Andrew Garfield, AKA the next Spider-Man, as Zuckerberg’s best/only friend. Though they might have diminished by all this, I still had my reservations going in to the film that what I was about to see would be a dirt-dishing, tabloid-level sensationalist morality tale about a dotcom genius and the people he trod on on the way to the top. I needn’t have worried. The Social Network delivers a tight, surprisingly entertaining 2 hours, and, even if you’re already familiar with the story, it provides enough great performances and witty scripting to make the experience fresh.
So, how much can you reveal about a ‘true’ story without it being considered a spoiler? Well, the simple summary of the plot is this: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a misanthropic, slightly misogynist Harvard undergraduate/computer genius, invents Facebook with the financial backing of his friend Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) and possible inspiration from a project he’s hired to code for some other Harvard undergraduates, the privileged Winklevoss twins. Things get worse as the site becomes more popular, culminating in Zuckerberg being simultaneously sued by both his now ex-best friend and the Winklevoss twins.
On the face of it, it’s a pretty straightforward story, but the skill in keeping the audience interested is Fincher’s biggest accomplishment here. He intersperses scenes of the legal interviews of the two lawsuits with flashbacks to the founding of the site and its early successes, maintaining tension but at the same time making the most of Sorkin’s at times bitingly sarcastic dialogue. He also squeezes great performances out of every single character, from the spoilt, preppy Winklevoss twins (played by Armie Hammer in a role he can do in his sleep, even though he is playing both twins here – a decision I suspect was just Fincher showing off his technical chops) to the main characters of Zuckerberg, Savarin and internet maverick/shallow bastard Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).
Jesse Eisenberg particularly deserves special mention for his nuanced, understated but generally reprehensible portrayal of the man who by all accounts is all those things and more. He plays Zuckerberg with a vicious contempt, an aloof and intelligent arrogance with just the right hint of vulnerability and unhappiness that keeps the audience just about on his side. Once upon a time (say, after he did Zombieland) I might have called Eisenberg a budget Michael Cera, but as of this film he should definitely be considered the superior actor, and one to watch in future.
The other revelation is Timberlake’s take on Napster-inventing, controversy baiting ‘bad boy of silicon valley’ Sean Parker. He oozes confidence and creepy shallowness in equal measure without a hint of irony, and is required to present an even more extreme example of selfish, intelligent, childish arrogance than even Eisenberg, combined with a deadly charm. It’s genuinely to his credit that he is not just comfortable in such company, but inhabits every scene with vicious and captivating bastardliness that is great to watch.
Andrew Garfield also impresses as the stalwart best friend and put-upon ‘nice guy’ who gets screwed over, portraying Savarin with warmth and later bitterness as required. Of the three main protagonists, Savarin is by far the least interesting and very little time is given to his motivations and development throughout the film, except for a few amusing scenes concerning a chicken (you’ll have to see it). Though not endorsing the book, Savarin was consulted during its writing, which is surprising as he comes off as at best naïve, and at worst foolish in the face of mounting betrayal by Zuckerberg. Perhaps he was keen to have Zuckerberg painted as unremitting asshole, but in the end there are some good points made that make you feel that, though he did not deserve the treatment he received by Parker and Zuckerberg, he certainly should have seen it coming and better protected himself. You can definitely see from this film why he was chosen to be the next Peter Parker/Spider-man, and this film has also succeeded in making me very interested in seeing how that one turns out too.
In all, The Social Network is an example where everything went right with a film. Right director, right script, right actors. Though it’s unfair to say the story is a bit of a sow’s ear, it’s certainly fairly simple (jerk creates website, website becomes popular, jerk meets bastard, jerk also becomes a bastard, bastard gets sued), and the combination of top class talent involved turns it into a silk purse. It’s not the riveting ‘must see’ some people would have you believe, and certainly won’t sate people looking for an all-out scandal thriller, action film or biting satire, but it punches above its weight in terms of both spectacle and entertainment, and well worth watching if you get the chance.