THE SOCIAL NETWORK is status-worthy cinema

September 30, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

If you considered a movie about the creators of Facebook an awkward and likely unsuccessful prospect, you weren’t alone. The controversies surrounding the inception of Facebook are well documented, and it’s rare that such a contemporary character profile works as both a bold, true portrait and as an entertaining film.

“The Social Network” is that rarity. Inherently — and legally — the film must be a careful depiction of recent and true events, and it succeeds brilliantly. While based on a true story, artistic liberties were taken when necessary.

The center of the film is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, “Zombieland”), the now well known billionaire founder of Facebook. The story starts back in his college days at Harvard, where he’s dumped by his girlfriend and retaliates by blogging about it. Then, in a single night, he programs a Harvard “hot or not” imitation site called “FaceMash,” generating 22,000 hits in two hours and singlehandedly taking down the internet access on campus.

Early on, it’s clear how brilliant and yet relationally inept Zuckerberg is. The more ambitious he becomes with his social networking plans, and the more successful he is, the more the audience must sit painfully through his failures in friendship and watch him quickly gather enemies, both legal and personal.

All the while, we witness the ironic creation of The Facebook and the beginning of the social revolution every college student in the world has experienced in some capacity. We watch its rapid expansion across the world, and its subsequent evolution from networking site to social institution.

“The Social Network” hits a current college environment full of Facebook veterans accustomed to the complex, app-filled Facebook with “Like” buttons and news feeds. Watching Zuckerberg discover the idea for “the Relationship Status” and discuss the idea for “the Wall” is made surreal by a palpable sense of dramatic irony in the theater. The chorus of viewers snicker collectively at how real this movie-going experience truly is.

Aaron Sorkin, one of the most revered writers in the business, puts on an absolute clinic. “The Social Network” is just as much proof of his brilliance as “A Few Good Men” and TV’s “The West Wing.” With his ample research, he handles Zuckerberg’s technical terminology with ease. Maintaining his characteristically rapid and sharp dialogue, he conquers the greatest challenge of the film with tact and yet dares to fully explore controversy.

Jesse Eisenberg is the beneficiary of a well written main character, but his performance adds a boyish, sensitive charm to the role. His character is more Eisenberg than it is the real Mark Zuckerberg, but he executes his script with fine attention to detail.

David Fincher (“Fight Club”) uses appropriate stylistic elements – montage and tightly bound editing – to keep the mise-en-scène young, fresh and far livelier than the average based-on-true-events movie, appealing to the generation most familiar with Facebook.

He and Sorkin together handle the film’s flashback/flash-forward structure in expert fashion. The film depicts a pivotal meeting between Facebook co-creators Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”) and Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). At the same time it intercuts with a scene a few years later, in which Zuckerberg and Saverin sit across the table in court, opposite sides in a civil suit.

While not a revolutionary filmmaking style, it’s cleaner and more fruitful study than any similarly structured contemporary film. Fincher and Sorkin dare to challenge your attention, and as a result, they score the big reward.

Narratively, though, the film suffers slightly from a sense of self-importance. When all is said and done, the film never brings to full light the true weight of its own story, but rests on the viewing experience as evidence enough.

Beneath the filmmakers’ narrative tools lies a somewhat unfulfilling message. Comparisons to a similar hurt-by-his-own-ambition protagonist in “Citizen Kane” only partially work: Mark Zuckerberg is still alive, but also still among the most successful people of his generation and the youngest billionaire in the world. His failures, while personally unfortunate, didn’t lead to his downfall. The film leaves creating an inconclusive, bitter opinion of Facebook’s true creation.

“The Social Network” will undoubtedly stimulate debate for months to come. Those who use Facebook to laud or criticize the film should realize their analyses of “The Social Network” indirectly continues its story. But given the conflicted nature surrounding audiences as they step through the film and out of the theater, it seems that Sorkin, Fincher and company have pulled off an impressive feat — showing a contentious set of circumstances in a fair light, while still entertaining from start to finish.

Leave a Comment