The wave of curiosity, hyperbole, and hype ushering The Social Network (Columbia Pictures) into its opening weekend is a phenomenon that, irrespective of the movie’s merit, seems worthy of note. Listening to the debate—is it the best movie of the year, or merely very good? A narrowly focused biopic or a sweeping portrait of a generation?—I’m struck by how ready people are for films that are big and smart and ambitious and compassionate, how tired we are of being condescended and marketed to. I know I sometimes feel like cc:’ing a memo to all the Hollywood studio heads: Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar. Just give some money to some smart people with something to say and let them make a movie.
So is The Social Network the best movie of the year, or merely a very good one? Who knows—it’s barely October yet. But what a joy to sit in a theater and be engaged, surprised, challenged, amused. The bloggers’ comparisons to Citizen Kane are over the top (and when director David Fincher mentioned the two films in the same breath at an event, he was clearly joking). But thematically and structurally, Fincher’s eighth film does owe something to Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Both chronicle the progressive isolation of a young, brilliant, arrogant business tycoon, and both have a complex temporal structure that cuts among three or four separate timelines. The Social Network wants to be a social satire, a miniaturist comedy of manners, and a Greek tragedy; it bites off a lot, at times more than it can chew. But even the unmasticated morsels are pretty tasty.
Aaron Sorkin’s brisk, witty screenplay is loosely based on The Accidental Billionaires, a tell-all book by Ben Mezrich that narrates the ascent of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) from unpopular Harvard sophomore to unpopular world-renowned mogul. The book dramatizes the testimony of Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s classmate and the first CFO of the company, who was frozen out of all but a fraction of his shares just as the site went global. But in Sorkin’s retelling, the movie revolves around Zuckerberg, a socially autistic, status-obsessed, joyless dweeb whom Eisenberg refuses to make likable. This scorched-earth likability strategy is one of the film’s boldest gambits, because even as an anti-hero, Zuckerberg offers no traction. He’s the black hole at the movie’s center, yet we somehow don’t hate this needy young man—without caring for him as a person, we care about him as a character.
The script’s refusal to pull punches begins with the first shot. Before the studio logo has faded from the screen, we’re already hearing Mark Zuckerberg’s voice, his manic, insistent, uncharming voice, as he sits in a campus bar one night in fall 2003 lecturing his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) on the importance of getting into the right final club, a frat-like social organization at Harvard. * “I have to go study,” she hedges, clearly eyeing the lifeboats. “You don’t have to study,” he shoots back. “You go to BU.” Mark is such an abrasive snob that it’s a relief when Erica dumps him in the unkindest terms. But then the camera follows him back to his dorm room, and we realize that Erica may be free, but we’re stuck with this guy.
Drunk in his dorm room that night, Mark hacks into the university mainframe and puts up a misogynistic prank site that goes viral. Within a year and a half, he’s created a social-networking platform that’s poised to explode, and he’s being sued by two separate parties at once. Make that three: One litigant is Eduardo Saverin, and the other two are the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (played by Armie Hammer, blended with body double Josh Pence, in a nifty feat of digital technology). The Winklevosses, or as Mark contemptuously refers to them, “Winklevi,” are suing him for intellectual property theft; the idea for Facebook, they claim, came from a dating site they hired Zuckerberg to design for their final club.
The Winklevi are this movie’s Achilles heel; their subplot provides some of the film’s funniest moments and also a few of its unfortunate bouts of self-seriousness. They’re paragons and parodies of Harvard tradition, blond WASPs who row crew and frolic with European royalty. Their encounter with then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers (Douglas Urbanski) is a dryly funny delight. But a scene where we see them pulling oars on the Thames in slo-mo as the soundtrack plays a modern arrangement of Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” is the movie’s biggest “Why?” moment. I think it was meant as a mock-heroic exploration of the Winklevosses’ outsized self-regard, but it plays like a scene from Chariots of Fire.
Still, Sorkin and Fincher do an impressive job of making activities that are inherently dull to watch—typing at a computer keyboard, sitting in a deposition room—seem not only interesting but urgent. And not just by punching scenes up with suspenseful music (though there’s a bit too much of that in the first half) but by building characters and ideas with incremental care. After an hour of nimbly leaping among timelines, we feel we know not just Zuckerberg and Saverin but a lot of minor characters, too, including Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Faustian founder of Napster, who lures Zuckerberg from the Ivy League to Silicon Valley in a terrific nightclub scene shot in lurid neon tones. As has often been the case in Fincher’s films, the female characters are less well-drawn than the men—when Saverin’s girlfriend (Brenda Song) wigs out on him, we have little sense of who she’s been up to that point, and a lawyer played by Rashida Jones feels like a mouthpiece for exposition.
Maybe it’s enough of an endorsement of The Social Network to say that as soon it was over, I wanted to watch it again. Eisenberg is extraordinary—he should get an Oscar, but won’t precisely because he refuses to engage in Oscar-baiting hamminess—and Garfield is just as good in his performance as Zuckerberg’s spurned partner and only real friend, a proxy for the audience who keeps trying to warm up to this inscrutable reptile. I’m not sure whether the movie amounts to anything more than a very well-done character study with a gloss of zeitgeisty relevance. It might, though. To his credit, Fincher never signposts the irony at the film’s center: That the medium of our newfound global connectivity was invented by a guy with a total inability, or unwillingness, to connect. Does that tell us something about Mark Zuckerberg, or something about ourselves?
Also in Slate: Nathan Heller explains how The Social Network misunderstands Harvard’s culture. Luke O’Brien details the factual inaccuracies in The Social Network’s depiction of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s history. Plus: Predict how much the movie will earn at the box office.
Correction, Oct. 1, 2010: The sentence originally referred to a frat-like social organization at Harvard as a “finals club.” It is known as a final club. (Return to the corrected sentence.)