In Popcorn Classics, I take a look at the films that have left their footprints on the world of cinema. Next up, I review the incendiary, brilliant Facebook origin story The Social Network.
For many of the people dismissively referred to in the tabloids as “digital natives”, it’s tough to conceive of a time before Facebook was the epicentre of the human social experience. Well, that time was 2003. It’s mad to think that a dorm room at Harvard University on an autumn evening 15 years ago provoked the moment of inspiration that would lead to the biggest technological innovation of the 21st century.
It’s that process that forms the centrepiece of The Social Network – arguably the best film of the last decade, and undoubtedly a classic in the making. It unites the filmmaking dream team of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for a movie that spews a verbal barrage while showcasing visual dynamism far beyond the idea of people sitting in front of computers for two hours.
Quick Wits and Gigabits
The Social Network opens with a mission statement. It begins with a nine-page dialogue scene between Jesse Eisenberg, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and his then-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). The scene took 99 takes to get right, which is a lot even for the notorious perfectionist Fincher. It’s a fizzing exchange of Sorkinese that tells us everything we need to know about Zuckerberg. He’s a status-obsessed narcissist with no consideration for others and even less ability to pick up on social cues. Fincher simply points his camera at the actors and allows the dialogue to take centre stage. It’s masterful.
What follows is a sequence that marries Fincher’s visual wit with the elegance of Sorkin’s writing, as Zuckerberg drinks and blogs while hacking the facebooks of multiple Harvard houses in order to create a crude, misogynistic website in which users compare the attractiveness of undergraduates. The quickfire hacking is intercut with hedonistic scenes of a final club party – contrasting Zuckerberg’s tragic isolation with the more conventional college experience he wants to be a part of and that he, ultimately, will have supremacy over. It’s essentially a drunk loner sat at a computer typing and chatting about technical stuff that only a fraction of the audience will understand, but Fincher makes it one of the most memorable sequences in the entire movie.
What follows is a scandalous, dramatised account of the process that led to Facebook, framed using depositions in the two lawsuits that had been brought about against Zuckerberg. The first pits Zuckerberg against his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who believes he was screwed out of the company in favour of charismatic Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, he’s also being sued by the Winklevoss twins – or the ‘Winklevi’ as they are so perfectly dubbed – who are both played by Armie Hammer.
This framing device allows for Sorkin and Fincher to get past the easy biopic condemnation for historical accuracy. In The Social Network, the audience is essentially watching three different, contradictory takes on the same story being told simultaneously. The fact that these stories form a semi-coherent whole is testament to the perfectionism of the Fincher and Sorkin collaboration. This is a film that’s constructed like a fine garment, woven from a variety of different fabrics that ultimately produce a beautiful piece of work.
Jesse Eisenberg has spent the last eight years on the hunt for a role that fits him in even close to the way that Mark Zuckerberg did. Eisenberg, who was Oscar nominated for the part, told the Baltimore Sun he liked the insensitivity of the character and it felt “more real to me in the best way”. It’s easy to see why the character appealed to an actor. This is a man who always believes that he’s the smartest man in the room – a sentiment Eisenberg would literally go on to espouse through his magician character in Now You See Me a couple of years later.
Eisenberg never smoothes the edges off Zuckerberg and plays him as something akin to an explicit villain, alongside the more wholesome idealism of Garfield’s Eduardo and the slightly snarky business savvy of Timberlake as Sean Parker. The casting of a well-known pop star is a neat, self-referential coup as the character is essentially a Timberlake-esque celebrity to Zuckerberg and in this tech arena. It’s a great venue for Timberlake’s charisma and he feels like the ideal counterpoint to Garfield’s serious, straight-faced Eduardo – a man who has all of the business knowledge, but is caught off guard by the need for him to apply it immediately and with the highest possible stakes.
One of the common criticisms of Sorkin and his characters is that they all speak like overly verbose screenwriters. In The Social Network, though, these are Harvard-educated smartarses and so the verbal style suits them completely. We believe that people attending elite universities probably speak like they have swallowed a thesaurus and walk around with an arsenal of pithy putdowns in their back pocket, just in case they ever need to hand someone a verbal dressing down. Nobody delivers this stuff better than Eisenberg, who obviously relishes every moment of the part.
Fit For An Oscars King?
In any other year, The Social Network would have likely been a serious Oscar juggernaut. However, the movie appeared at the 83rd Academy Awards, which was marked by the dominance of The King’s Speech, despite a crowded field that included Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, The Fighter and 127 Hours, as well as Social Network. Despite this competition, Fincher’s movie did manage to win three gongs – Adapted Screenplay for Sorkin, Best Original Score for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and Best Editing for Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter.
To say the movie was absolutely robbed at the Oscars is something of an understatement. It seems that the Oscars ceremony of 2011 was a prime case of all of the riskier, more interesting choices splitting the voters, allowing the most middle of the road option to win the day. Everyone remembers The Social Network, but even Colin Firth sometimes has trouble remembering The King’s Speech.
This film, however, will certainly have a legacy. It ends with a scene in which Zuckerberg tells a junior legal eagle, played by Rashida Jones, that he’s checking on the company’s progress in Bosnia – “they don’t have roads, but they have Facebook”. An on-screen text tells us that Zuckerberg settled both lawsuits and that Facebook now has 500 million members. In this sense, the movie is almost pleasingly quaint. Facebook is now the single most dominant tech company and media empire – despite Zuckerberg’s protestations – in the world and has more than two billion active users.
With that in mind, The Social Network now feels like an interesting historical document. It’s a perfect depiction of a hugely significant breakthrough in technology, but it also has plenty to say about the toxic, misogynistic world in which Zuckerberg made that breakthrough. The movie shows him at the end as a man with all of the financial success in the world, but more than his fair share of loneliness as he refreshes the page of his ex-girlfriend’s profile, waiting for her to respond to his friend request.
This is a movie that works as the perfect union between writer and director, as Sorkin and Fincher complement each other’s styles in the best possible way. Sorkin’s hyper-intelligent dialogue is enhanced by Fincher’s directorial flair and sense of perfectionism, while Fincher relishes the chance to get these performances out of a hugely talented roster of young actors, who have since gone on to multiple award nominations and blockbuster roles. For me, The Social Network is not only one of the best movies of this millennium – but one of the greatest of all time.
What do you think of The Social Network? Does it deserve its reputation as one of cinema’s all-time classics? Let me know in the comments section.