How do you make a movie about a computer program?
That’s the problem David Fincher takes on with “The Social Network.” Maybe it helps to start with perhaps the most successful computer program ever written, an enigmatic, controversial program that hundreds of millions of people use daily and that has more than its share of critics and detractors, including people who will point to it as the downfall of civilization and social interaction as we know it.
It might also help to make your main character a brilliant villain with a Pentium IV chip for a heart. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, the computer program we’re talking about. As the film opens, he’s a student at Harvard, and looks to be the perfect product of Harvard’s mix of pressure, social classes, and genius. Zuckerberg is obsessed with gaining entrance into one of the uber-elite “final clubs;” Teddy Roosevelt was in one, and he’s convinced it leads to a better life. (Zuckerberg, not Roosevelt.) But because he’s arrogant, awkward, and not from a family with money, he has virtually zero chance of ever getting “punched.” So he invents Facebook instead, stealing the idea (or a germ of it) from the kind of guys who always get what Zuckerberg wants in life, but can never have. These include twins played by Armin Hammer, and Fincher isn’t afraid to make them easy to hate; they are 6’5”/220, perfectly coifed, rich, smart, and they row for the Olympic crew team. They go on and on about being “Harvard gentlemen” and running a good race, even if you don’t win. They’re pretty awful.
James Garfield plays Eduardo Severin, Zuckerberg’s best (and only) friend. He is Zuckerberg’s partner in the Facebook venture and seems terribly concerned with turning it into a profitable business; it is his money that’s been invested, after all. But underneath that seems to lie another motivation: Severin is constantly trying to humanize Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg accuses Severin of thinking small, of lacking ambition; perhaps Severin wants to keep things small because he sees how ambition—and all the trappings that come with power—are working to demolish his best friend’s already tortured soul.
Working against Severin is Sean Parker, the bankrupt inventor of Facebook, played with oozing charisma and intelligence by Justin Timberlake. He feeds Zuckerberg’s neuroses, alternately making him feel insecure and outside the party, then playing on that insecurity to drive his ambition. One could see Severin as the angel on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder and Parker the devil on his left; the tragedy of “The Social Network” is that he doesn’t choose so much as let the choice be made for him. Fincher has said that the dramatic arc of “The Social Network” is the same as that of “Citizen Kane”—it’s about a man who loses friends as he gains power, and from beginning to end, only wants to be loved. That may be true, but the greater tragedy of “The Social Network” is that Zuckerberg never seems to be aware of the choices he’s making that alienate him from the world around him. He gets everything he wants—the social standing, the notoriety/fame, the girls, the drugs—but he never stops to enjoy any of it. He doesn’t go to the parties he throws. I think this makes him a megalomaniac; he’s not addicted to power so much as the rush that comes from acquiring it. And he’s always looking for that next high. He works so hard, and so fast, it’d be easy to say that Zuckerberg is too busy and working too hard to have time for reflection; as played by Eisenberg, one wonders if he’s working so hard so that he won’t have to reflect on what he’s done, what he’s doing, and where he’s going.
The film is intercut with scenes from the two lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg, one by the twins and one by Severin. He’s never the least bit apologetic, or conciliatory. He never shows many redeeming qualities, and yet you can’t help but wonder about this kid, and what’s really going on with him. He’s anything but one dimensional, even if one dimension dominates his personality. Zuckerberg’s a brilliant guy with serious insight into the way humans work—every element of the design of Facebook portrays that, and it’s why it has succeeded when MySpace, Friendster and a hundred others have failed—but without much love for people. Maybe he’s more comfortable with computers because they work according to hard and fast rules, have limitless potential, don’t care about etiquette or ego, and can keep up with his blazing fast brain.
“The Social Network” was written by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote all those great “West Wing” episodes, and it’s so smart and clever that you hardly dare laugh at the funny/clever/snarky lines (and there are plenty of them) because you might miss the next, even funnier, one. A second viewing is practically required; there’s just no way to actually keep up the first time through. One thing I realized I was missing about halfway through was the direction by David Fincher; I almost always note the way a movie is being directed (film really is the director’s medium) but this time really all I can say is that Fincher surrounded himself with the perfect people—Sorkin’s amazing script, Eisenberg and Timberlake’s impressive performances, Reznor’s excellent music. Maybe that’s the work of a certain kind of great director: he gets the right people on the project, and then makes sure that everything else stays out of their way and lets them do their best work.
The plot structure is basically the first half of any biopic that concerns itself about a rise to power, be it about a rock star, dictator, or billionaire: it’s about the Idea that got them there, their devotion to that idea, and the friends and family they sacrifice along the way. Generally, these types of movies have a second act in which it all falls apart, they repent and return to their roots in search of some kind of peace of mind; “The Social Network” lacks that because, well, Mark Zuckerberg’s life lacks that. He’s still on top of the world, the youngest billionaire in history. His third act hasn’t happened yet. You can hardly fault the filmmakers for that.