The Social Network is an ensemble effort in the truest sense. There is no singular recognized auteur steering the ship here. With all due respect to the exceptional performances of supporting stars Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake, not to mention the haunting Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score, the two-hour “birth of Facebook” feature only works under the combined efforts of three people: David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg. Remove just one from the equation and the multi-layered tale would crumble like a disrupted house of cards.
The Social Network unfolds against the backdrop of two lawsuits filed against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), one from the alleged originators of the website’s concept, Cameron & Tyler Winkelvoss (Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the other from Zuckerberg’s college friend and site co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Garfield). As the deposition for each case unfolds, referenced events are allowed to play out from one of the three at-odds perspectives. The net result is a film in which viewers are challenged to decide for themselves which party is more in the “right” than any other, if such a value judgment can even be made.
Easier to judge is the quality of the craftsmanship behind The Social Network. Fincher has long since proven that he’s not so much a genre director as he is someone with an eye for the dark and stormy. His resume is marked by films like Se7en and Zodiac, heavily stylized features with a focus on violence and the more depraved aspects of the human condition. The Social Network is not so different in this regard, only the violence is more cerebral, the depravity more conceptual. There’s absolutely nothing bright or cheery about Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg allegedly stealing the idea for his multi-billion dollar social networking empire from Narendra and the privileged Winkelvoss twins or later pulling the corporate rug out from under Saverin, his best friend and business partner.
Eisenberg sells it, too. He affects the persona of a socially disconnected computer geek, a guy with few friends and probably a long history of encounters with the schoolyard bully. Early scenes of debaucherous behavior in the crowded backrooms of Harvard’s most prestigious student organizations were reportedly well-researched and not “sexed up” in any way… but it ultimately doesn’t matter, as these moments are viewed through the lens of Zuckerberg’s own fantasies.
He’s a guy who desperately wants to fit in. His lack of interest in monetizing Facebook in the early going has nothing to do with him having a shrewd business sense; it’s simply that the website has become the latest “cool” thing and he doesn’t want to let that go. Eisenberg expertly sells that desperation; his Zuckerberg is both brilliant and abrasively confrontational, but it is apparent throughout the film that it’s an attitude grown out of his burning need for social acceptance.
Tying Fincher’s aesthetics and Eisenberg’s nuanced performance together is a dense script from The West Wing architect Aaron Sorkin. Lines are delivered at a breakneck pace, their gatling gun rhythm a perfect complement to the work of both the director and the star. Fincher layers scenes on top of scenes – indeed, the film’s opening lines play out over the studio logo, as if there’s not a second of screen time to spare for pleasantries.
What’s more, Sorkin finds his perfect performer in Eisenberg. The kid is simply made for scripts like this. His sense of timing and delivery is impeccable, and well-suited to Sorkin’s densely worded verbal exchanges. While Fincher strings everything together with visually arresting examples of scene-setting and staging, the combined efforts of Sorkin and Eisenberg turn what is ultimately best described as a tale of corporate infighting into an experience as uncomfortably tension-filled as any psychological thriller.
The Fincher/Sorkin/Eisenberg trio is undoubtedly the beating heart of The Social Network, but there is much to say of the supporting players as well. Saverin, though not in any way blameless, is probably the most sympathetic figure in the story, and Garfield rises to the challenge of bringing to life a character who is at once likable and misguided. Any naysayers who doubt his ability to step into the role of Marvel superhero Spider-Man need look no further than this performance.
Timberlake’s role as Napster founder Sean Parker is light on screen time, but the pop star makes the most of his time on the screen. This role of a party-loving veteran Internet entrepreneur could have been played as a one-note performance, a caricature. Timberlake’s Parker is more human than that; for whatever vices the real life Parker may have, it takes a considerable amount of depth and brilliance to accomplish what he’s been able to.
Nods too to Hammer and Minghella; they get a smaller amount of screen time than the other key players, but they play well within the strict confines of Sorkin’s script.
Special mention also must be made of the score’s composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Musical selections from The White Stripes, The Beatles and others are peppered throughout the film, but the moody, wordless and largely electronic compositions playing behind most scenes mesh perfectly with the unfolding action. The score to The Social Network finds more parallels with Reznor’s recent conceptual outings, like Ghosts I-IV (which Ross also collaborated on), than it does with more traditional film scores. Fans of the artist’s music should treat it as such.
Is The Social Network a perfect film? No, but any criticisms are inconsequential in light of the finished whole. The biggest issue is probably the Winkelvoss/Narendra plot line, which all but disappears in the back half of the film. It's not surprising, given the way the real-life events unfolded. It's a jarring absence though, and perhaps also a credit to the strong performances of Hammer and Minghella that you notice when they are gone. In general, more plot could have been relegated to the deposition scenes, though not at the cost of any flashbacks. If any cuts were made, they were the right ones; while the rhythm and the performances of these conference room scenes are flawless, the movie fits snugly into its two hour running time. It’s hard to argue that more scenes would have resulted in a better film.
It all comes back to the talented trio in the end. Eisenberg finds the heart and soul of a genuinely unlikable subject, Sorkin provides the fuel for that character and those around him, and Fincher keeps everything on course, wrapping this tale of betrayal up in a suitably atmospheric package. It is fair to say that this is the director’s best work, but like Facebook itself, The Social Network is nothing if not a group effort.