Mischief, mayhem and misanthropy in David Fincher’s The Social Network
David Liu | 29 September 2010
“For to what purpose,” Adam Smith once wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence?” Had Smith, the patriarch of all our modern innovation-driven societies, lived to witness the conception of a billion-dollar virtual enterprise like Facebook, he likely would have raised similar inquiries.
We have arrived at the Age of Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old self-made entrepreneur who holds Internet communication in the palm of his hand, and The Social Network is both his story and very much our own. Building on the wisdoms and ironies of ages past, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a compelling hybrid of grand entertainment and incisive social commentary, the rare American studio picture that edifies and enlightens.
The film’s memorable pre-credits sequence thrusts us into the heat of a feisty argument between Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). He brags about status and she brands him an “asshole”; in the wake of this bruising verbal exchange, a relationship crumbles and a revolution is born. In the scenes that follow, Zuckerberg returns to his dorm, grabs a cold beer and begins coding furiously. As the film cross-cuts between his bitter epiphany and a massive house party taking place elsewhere on campus, progress and decadence clash head-on, suggesting an upheaval born of geeky retribution.
Harvard University in The Social Network stands firmly rooted in the soil of Old World stratification, oppressive yet brimming with elusive opportunities. Zuckerberg both fits and breaks the Ivy League mold - he’s arrogant, sharp-tongued and intelligent, but also socially awkward and far removed from the elitist campus clubs he wants so desperately to be a part of. Convinced of his idea’s marketability, Zuckerberg enlists the business acumen of best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a good-natured economics student who is in many ways Zuckerberg’s moral conscience.
After accepting an invitation to code for social networking site ConnectU, Zuckerberg promptly unveils Thefacebook.com, much to the chagrin and suspicion of his classmates-turned-competitors. “I’m six-foot-five, 220 and there’s two of me,” gloats one of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), co-founders of ConnectU and proud members of Harvard’s rowing crew. Yet for all their aristocratic machismo, Zuckerberg’s would-be rivals are hampered by one inevitable notion: Power and privilege, once inseparable, are no longer one and the same.
A time-lapse shot of the San Francisco skyline signals our hero’s pilgrimage to the proverbial Promised Land: California’s booming Silicon Valley, where Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) holds the keys to Facebook’s ascendance. Shrewd and street-smart, Parker exudes a devilish charm. “Private behavior is a relic of a time gone by,” he reminds Zuckerberg. “They don’t want you, they want your idea.” Relishing the opportunity, Zuckerberg invites Parker into the fold and, in turn, sows the first seeds of discord in his relationship with Saverin. As Sorkin’s screenplay darts back and forth between an ongoing lawsuit and Facebook’s meteoric rise to prominence in Palo Alto, loyalties disintegrate and impending chaos looms.
Embodying the spirit of the Internet Age, The Social Network occupies the same wavelength as 2007’s Zodiac, Fincher’s other magisterial dissection of the relationship of man to media. Like the journalists and detectives in Zodiac, Kevin Spacey’s ruthless killer in Seven and Edward Norton’s white-collar waif in Fight Club, the twenty-somethings in The Social Network are restless forces of nature, obsessive and meticulous to a fault. Their hunger for social revolution appeals to us even as we deplore their personal shortcomings. For all we know, Eisenberg’s interpretation of Zuckerberg may or may not mirror the real man, but it’s all of a bravura performance: hilarious, abominable and sympathetic by equal measure.
Driven by Sorkin’s blistering narrative, The Social Network gains further leverage from Fincher’s procedural vision. Editing flourishes, elaborate camera compositions and intricate sound design coalesce in epic fashion, powering the film through its 120-minute running time. A Henley Royal Regatta race set to a variation of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” recalls the primitive might of an Eisenstein montage. Such fleeting, expertly constructed moments lend the film an atmosphere of intensity that borders on infectious.
Under Fincher’s supervision, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating musical landscapes amplify key moments of anxiety and revelation. In one scene, deafening club music stops just short of drowning out a key conversation between Zuckerberg and Parker, augmenting the hyperreality of their discourse. In another, dead silence is punctuated only by the sound of fingers on a keyboard, as a close-up of Zuckerberg’s face confirms his evolution from obscure wunderkind to lonely sovereign of a virtual empire.
“Creation myths need a devil,” one litigation attorney tells Zuckerberg late in “The Social Network,” capturing the essence of history being simultaneously made and rewritten. From the film’s exhilarating buildup to its morose conclusion, the one-two punch of Fincher and Sorkin rarely misses a beat, and it’s beautiful to behold. Straddling the divide between art and industry, they have elevated the genesis of Facebook into a sprawling rumination on one man’s Pyrrhic conquest. Like all great American sagas, the result feels at once mythic and momentous.
Originally published as “The World Is Yours” in the October 4, 2010 edition of The Daily Californian. Copyright © The Daily Californian 2010. All rights reserved.
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