Film Review: The Social Network (2010)

It's hard to make a good courtroom film. There's only so much that can go on in the legal setting that comes across as believable and worth watching. It's also hard to make a good character study of an unlikable person. How do you convince the audience that  It's even harder to make a good film about computers. Compound that exponentially for a film that realistically discusses computer programming, complete with algorithms and intense sequences of furiously typing at a screen. It's like making a film about writing--the physical act of using a computer is boring to watch. Somehow, in spite of being a hybrid of all those elements (and more, like college experience films), The Social Network balances the disparate elements into a challenging and rewarding cinematic experience. Not since Capote have I left a movie theater in such a daze of confusion, anger, resentment, and deep concentration. How could I possibly wrap my head a film that had a group of leading and supporting characters so unpleasant that I thought all of them deserved to fail? There is so much to like in a film about such horrible people.

It occurred to me hours later that I was not supposed to like the characters in The Social Network with two exceptions: Erica Albright and Marilyn Delpy. Played by Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones, respectively, these two female characters are the only ones in the film not invested in some way in the rise of Facebook. They are the outside observers--the voices of reason--that allow the movie-goer to observe and judge the actions of everyone else in the film.

The character arcs are mirrors of each other.  Switching from care and concern for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to disinterest and detachment from his life and work (or vice versa), Erica and Marilyn represent the spectrum of emotions and thoughts created by the rise of the self-proclaimed "asshole" who created the pivotal social networking platform.

The film plays out in two intertwined storylines. First, you are introduced to the creation and growth of Facebook. Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a Harvard student with minimal impulse control related to computers. After breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright, he gets drunk, blogs about all her faults, and creates the FaceMash website where Harvard students can rate the appearance of students against other students (a privatized, if you will). After punishment from the Harvard administration, Zuckerberg is approached by twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to help create the website Harvard Connection--an exclusive Harvard-only dating site. Zuckerberg finds inspiration from the idea to create The Facebook with start-up money from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

The second storyline is introduced a few minutes into the film. It is a few years after the creation of Facebook and Zuckerberg is facing two law suits. The first is from the Winklevoss twins and their business partner Divya Nerenda for stealing their social networking idea.

The second is from his former friend/business partner Saverin for a variety of business contract infractions. This storyline plays out almost entirely at a long table in a law office where three teams of lawyers (and new law associate Marilyn Delpy, only observing) grill all of the plaintiffs and defendant with probing questions about the rise of Facebook. This plays out in a constantly evolving set of linguistic twists, where Zuckerberg repeatedly shuts down leading questions on the basis of semantics and claims of perjury against everyone else in the room. The legal meeting shapes the first narrative to key moments told in deposition from the key players in the case and leading to flashbacks.

For the first act of the film, I was very disengaged from the narrative. That's my major problem with the film. I'm not invested in Zuckerberg because he did something horrible in the first fifteen minutes of the film out of petty revenge against an ex-girlfriend. Saverin is a non-entity for a long time, just the smiling and supportive friend with money. The Winklevoss twins and Nerenda come across as elitists, essentially demanding free work from Zuckerberg in exchange for improving his reputation on campus. The lawyers in the second storyline are equally unlikable, attacking Zuckerberg's character again and again to compensate for the lack of evidence for the intellectual property rights case (as in, none, as everything used in Facebook--coding and design--was Zuckerberg's design; a pitch can't be copyrighted--unique coding can--but I digress, as focusing on the "facts" of the lawsuit doesn't work in a film this fictionalized).

Around the point where The Facebook is launched, I changed my approach to viewing the film. Since I couldn't stand the characters, I focused in on the business, the technology, and the rhetoric of the film. That was all it took to get me into the picture. Thinking retroactively for a few minutes, I realize the reason I didn't walk out of the theater was the rhetorical style of the film. The programming, legal, and business concerns were not dumbed down. These characters were talking real programming and legal concerns.

I'm already partial to this subject matter as a freelance web writer and, as portrayed in this film, the field is very fascinating. It's exciting to see Zuckerberg come up with an idea, race to his computer, and implement it on the developing website. In a way, focusing on these technical elements actual made the characters across the board feel more realistic and compelling. The people may be unlikable, but their story is fascinating and worth watching.

Their are two true stars in this film: director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Fincher has carved out an excellent career by directing films that shouldn't work on face value. If someone pitched a thriller hinging on an understanding of the seven deadly sins by way of Dante's Inferno or a crime procedural told from the prospective of a reporter investigating a series of still unsolved crimes, it would seem like a huge feat to breathe life into them on the screen; yet, time and again he creates critically acclaimed films like Se7en and Zodiac. They are intelligent films, simultaneously hyper-realistic and symbolic, that come across better and better with repeated viewings. The Social Network will be no exception. There is so much happening on screen that it would be impossible to absorb it all on a first viewing.

This time, the vision of Fincher is drawn from writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is best known for his Emmy-winning work on the television series The West Wing. He is no stranger to crafting compelling stories from real events and presenting them in interesting ways. Here, his greatest attribution is how he characterizes the principle characters through their interactions with the controversial Facebook groupies. Some might view these interactions as misogynistic, which is sadly a very narrow-minded and, frankly, inaccurate view of an inventive narrative trick.

Each of the main characters treats these women very differently. Zuckerberg could care less that the women are there, often abandoning his fans to jump on his computer and further develop Facebook. Saverin is far more caring, actually dating the first girl who approached him, Christy (very-well played by Brenda Song), for years as his business obligations grew. Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) treats the women as playthings, more concerned with the glitz and glamor of instant web fame than his business reputation. Their relationships with the women are the core of how they interact with everyone else, from their business partners to their legal counsel, and define the core of their personalities.

Jesse Eisenberg plays the most difficult character in the film. Zuckerberg is an isolated, hard-working figure with a quick and brutal wit. He seems incapable of being charming until mere niceties will no longer help his situation. Though the character is very static throughout the film, Eisenberg makes it very clear that the "asshole" is a persona used to distance himself from the world and justify an unending work ethic. The few cracks that develop in the film reveal a compelling and well-executed portrait of an unlikable character.

I almost feel bad discussing Andrew Garfield because he is excellent as a paper-thin character. Saverin is merely the nice guy, the doormat, the man whose sole contribution to Facebook is seed money. He is outside the computer field and doesn't understand any programming. His mind is set in a traditional business mode and Garfield brings out the growing frustration in watching the rise of a new business platform that has to generate immense popularity before any revenue can be seen. It is a thankless role that can't even have a showy scene because someone else always gets to step on the doormat.

The reason I feel bad for discussing Garfield is how much attention Justin Timberlake gets. He is very good and brings a lot to the Sean Parker character. As written by Sorkin, Parker puts up a confident party guy persona the same way Zuckerberg puts up an "asshole" persona. This is to hide his paranoia, which may or may not be justified, about dealing with anyone else in business. He parties too hard than does everything he can to spin his life back on track. He is convinced if other people do what he does it's fine to act that way. Timberlake brings a surprising amount of depth to the character, exploring Parker in less-than-obvious ways that make his arc especially tragic. The pop singer is once again defying expectations, growing from child star to boy band frontman to solo pop star and to formidable actor.

The trio of featured female players--Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones, and Brenda Song--are all strong in their roles. They all make the most of their limited screen time, selling very basic character arcs in a realistic way. Mara and Jones are more significant to the overall film, though Song does an excellent job playing off of Garfield to improve his performance. These actresses are the final pieces of the puzzle that comprises the challenging film.

The Social Network is a film without easy answers. I was surprised that the film ended where it did and tied up the loose ends with a few lines written about each major character. However, if the resolution of the film was staged, the final scene would not be nearly as powerful. I believe this is a film that people should see as it challenges many of the traditional notions of filmmaking while tackling a very timely subject in a compelling manner.

I doubt that this film will come across as dated in the future even as technology advances far beyond the means of Facebook. Is To Kill a Mockingbird any less compelling because of the Civil Rights Movement? No, because it's a well-crafted film that rings true. The Social Network rings true, even if much of it is fiction. It is, in a way, a portrait of the rise of technology in the 2000s and it's painted beautifully.

Rating: 10/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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