David Fincher's latest exquisite dip into the anxieties of our culture is the most subdued and least auspicious film he's ever made. It lacks the whirlwind aesthetic of "Fight Club," the dark paranoia and period rendering of "Zodiac," or the romantic meditations of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." But "The Social Network" is undoubtedly the work of an artistic genius, for in its dark irony and immense cynicism about the collapse of social fabrics it's turned a story of pointing fingers and technological innovation into a haunting tragedy of obsession and self-destruction.
Earlier this year, Nolan's "Inception" claimed that the most valuable thing was a pure idea, and the idea of Facebook is a battleground for the first half of the movie - who invented it, how can it be properly implemented, and what it means to the users who spend time on it. These questions are, importantly, never answered, and instead of pushing the film outward -- to look at how Facebook effects the world at large -- writer Aaron Sorkin instead pushes it inward -- looking at how its development changes its CEO and disputed creator, Mark Zuckerberg. And over the course of the film, Mark Zuckerberg himself morphs and transforms from complete asshole to... well, he's still an asshole, but he's victimized and corrupted by the people around him.
As played by Jesse Eisenberg ("The Squid and the Whale"), Zuckerberg is a cold, calculated individual whose obsession with making a name for himself and with computer coding make him a complete outsider to 2003 Harvard. Dressed in flip-flops and hoodies, he's never effected by the frigid cold, and he constantly changes focus halfway through sentences. Eisenberg cracks Sorkin's dialogue without taking a breath. His eyes seem sunk back in his head and pitch black. It's a wholeheartedly brilliant and ruthless performance, one where Zuckerberg himself is crafted like a robot, like part of the technology.
But Eisenberg is so subdued you might miss the many nuances he pours into his performance, especially if you're caught looking too hard at the rest of this stellar ensemble. Andrew Garfield in particular is absolutely devastating as Eduardo Sevarin, one of Facebook's co-founders and its CFO, who later sued Zuckerberg for cutting him out of the company (or so the story goes). Garfield is the perfect antithesis to Eisenberg, ambitious in business but cautious in his choices; he tries desperately to cling to human relationships and, in the last act, he almost rattles the whole movie in one scene. The showiest guy in the movie is Justin Timberlake; he flashes and parades across each moment as Sean Parker, founder of Napster (and mentor to Zuckberg).
But beyond the acting and the writing, it's the craft that makes this such a powerful and amazing film. It's not noticeable and showy, and this is the first time Fincher has actually shown reasonable restraint in developing his own ideas. That's not an insult to Fincher -- he's one of the few filmmakers who actually seem interested in what he can make the image look like, but "Social Network" is a whole different animal for him. Jeff Cronenweth, who shot "Fight Club," makes Harvard look dark and grimy; he makes California look frighteningly bright, and his brilliant uses of focal planes shape the perspective of the film throughout.
Film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall give the film a real sense of pulse. There are times when the editing flairs and drives, cutting miraculously around Zuckerberg's fingers and eyes, or moving towards or away from stronger close-ups. They also weave in and out of the deposition rooms, collapsing flashback and storytelling over and over. Then there are times when it cools and withdraws, cutting around small shifts in action with a superb sense of purpose. And the music -- oh, the music. Rarely has a score sounded so haunting, so creepy in a drama. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do amazing things mixing traditional orchestral/pianos with unorthodox bass synthesizers, infiltrating technology in such an uneasy way.
What can't be forgotten is that this is historical *fiction.* It's a dramatization of what led to a technology that drastically altered how people experience each other. Sorkin's decision to let the depositions of two lawsuits guide the narrative make it clear that this is about peoples' perceptions. Importantly, Mark Zuckberg never really gets a chance to tell his side of the stories. He sits on the sidelines, interjecting and correcting bits and pieces. But this is vivid, procedural fiction -- it knows what the facts are (as much is on record, at least), and it knows how to push those facts to make its points.
But again, this is a meditation on how technology creates ideas. The comparisons to "Citizen Kane" that some major reviewers have made are not unwarranted. This is a movie about someone who had a vision for what the world could be, but the film paints him as someone who doesn't quite understand how he was about to change the world, and he had no one to share that vision with him. Yes, we can reduce it to -- "the guy who created Facebook has no friends" -- but that's a reductive way to think about the darker implications of Fincher and Sorkin's piece.
And it is dark. The best invention the film offers is Erica (Rooney Mara, startlingly good in two scenes), a woman Mark loses in the first few minutes of the film, but she's never gone completely from his mind. Subtly, almost invisibly, she guides every motion of the narrative. But this isn't just about someone who changes the world for a woman. No, it's not JUST about anything. It's actually, oddly enough, about close to everything. It's about the impulse to create, the desire to be remembered, the need to be immortalized. But it's also about the price of greed and fame. In these ways, Mark Zuckerberg is this generation's Charles Foster Kane -- a man who can only be understand by the people around him, but his story is so diluted through the raw emotions of those who know him best.
It's a wham-bam-pow knockout of a film, and even though it only happened seven years ago, its events feel like part of a cultural mythology because Sorkin, Fincher, and their cast and crew make this a wholly American epic for the age of technology. As it races through its breathless two hours, you may miss all the internal beats, all the construction, all the smart choices it's making as it builds and builds and builds to... a very small ending. It's the ending that finally illuminates everything the film only hinted at for 120 minutes. Two medium close-ups, one of a computer screen and one of Mark Zuckerberg, engaged in a fairly typical shot-reverse shot as the camera gradually tracks into each, uniting the man with his creation but also making it a trap.
"The Social Network" may be the smartest, and in some ways maybe the bravest, historical film a major Hollywood studio has produced in several years. It certainly elevates David Fincher to a different stratosphere and confirms him as an artist who is deeply concerned with the evolution of the American tapestry and the people haunted by its images and culture.