As trends go, movies now translate to the Internet, and vice versa. The Social Network is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg, a nerdy, 19-year-old Harvard doofus with his face glued to a computer screen and all the personality and charm of road kill, invented a Web site one drunken night in 2003 that evolved into a $25 billion phenomenon called Facebook that changed the fabric of how people throughout the world now talk to each other without speaking actual words–not, if you ask me, for the improvement of mankind.
The history of how Facebook spread from a dorm room in Cambridge to 500 million customers who have lost the ability to communicate without pushing buttons is a subject I find only slightly less appealing than the outbreak of a cholera epidemic. It is therefore much to the credit of a meticulous screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men), and a first-rate director, David Fincher (Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), that this film transcends its trendy, obvious limitations with enough vitality and vitriol to make it as informative and breathless as it is entertaining. I have to admit it’s a movie I surrendered to with trepidation and ended up liking in spite of myself. The facts are compiled in such an interesting way that The Social Network is less about technology than the kind of brilliant but flawed geeks who think up this stuff in the first place. The beginnings of Facebook are cheeky but humble; all the socially inferior Mark Zuckerberg wants to do is get into the right clubs and wreak revenge on the girl who dumped him for being a pompous ass–an obsession that leads to his hacking into the Harvard computer database and posting photos of her and other campus coeds for every male student to rate sexually in an embarrassingly public way. The site clocks 22,000 hits before the sun comes up. For violating copyrights, invasion of privacy and breaching campus security, he gets six months’ probation, but the seed is already planted for a get-rich scheme that could expand to other campuses. Targeting status-deprived students in a college class system who worry about connecting with the right people, Zuckerberg and his partner, Eduardo Saverin, maybe appropriate the idea from three other students who have thought of it first, proving that in the 21st-century computer wars, timing is everything. The movie makes no effort to soft-soap Zuckerberg as anything less than the epitome of ruthlessness–and Jesse Eisenberg plays him as an arrogant, self-absorbed and totally obnoxious heel you can’t help admiring in a screwy, contemporary way. The brains behind Facebook really belong to his decent, fair-minded best friend, Eduardo (soft-spoken Andrew Garfield, who is also a current sensation in Never Let Me Go), who puts up the original $1,000 to launch the site and expand it to the West Coast. Desperate for faster expansion and growing income, Zuckerberg goes behind Eduardo’s back and turns to Napster founder Sean Parker (a particularly sleazy performance by Justin Timberlake), who hooks him up with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and becomes a sort of financial guru, screwing Eduardo out of his percentage profits as co-founder. O.K., Parker is the pipeline to the corporate sponsors, but there’s a fine dividing line between guru and scumbag. Facebook becomes a combination money pit and snake pit, and everybody Zuckerberg ever knew feels his fangs.
To make a long story short, this slick, fast-paced chronicle of how to become an entrepreneur in today’s Internet traffic jam is intercut with the endless chicanery, cheating, betrayal and double-crossing that loses Zuckerberg every friend and ally he ever had who helped him on the way to the top, and leads to a gallimaufry of lawsuits. While he drives Facebook to global success at Eduardo’s expense, everyone drags him into court. The handsome Winklevoss twins on the Harvard rowing team, who came up with the idea similar to Facebook (both played by Armie Hammer with a lot of trick camerawork) get a $65 million settlement; Eduardo gets an undisclosed amount and his name restored to the Facebook masthead as co-founder. The price tag of becoming a pint-size Bill Gates is enormous, but Zuckerberg can afford it. He may have lost his professional trust and personal integrity, but he’s currently listed in Forbes as the youngest billionaire on the planet.
Based on the book The Accidental Billionaire, The Social Network combines a multitude of impressions and conflicting first-person accounts in a trajectory that is refreshingly coherent. How much is divided between truth and fiction is uncertain, but I cannot imagine the real Mark Zuckerberg being pleased with the way he is depicted onscreen. Reportedly unhinged by the script but unwilling to deny its accuracy, he has recently donated $100 million to charity–a move I suspect has more to do with damage control than logging in to some repentant new conscience. It might be too late. Like I said before, in cyberspace gridlock, timing is everything.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Running time 120 minutes
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara