Film Review: The Social Network

2010 – 120mn – 12A

Directed by David Fincher. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rashida Jones.

Review by Walter Nichols

AT the risk of sounding like a technophobic pensioner: that Facebook is everywhere at the moment. Shops are increasingly advertising through it, it’s at the core of the documentary (Catfish) everyone is talking about in America, and it’s the subject of the year’s best-reviewed film, The Social Network.

The film tells the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a sociopathic but prodigiously gifted student at Harvard, went back to his dorm one night after being dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and created a website on which male Harvard students could rate female Harvard students in order of physical beauty (or, to put it in their terms, “hotness”). The website was an instant hit, and from that idea Zuckerberg conceived a website that would replicate, online, the social experience of an Ivy League university. That idea became Facebook – Zuckerberg’s brainchild.

Or was it? This story is framed by two lawsuits, taking place several years later. In the first one Zuckerberg is being sued by the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Justin Spence), fellow Harvard undergraduates who claim that Mark stole the idea of Facebook from them. In the second – and much more damaging one – Mark’s best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who co-founded the website with him, is accusing him of forcing him out of the company in favor of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster and entrepreneur who took Zuckerberg under his wing once Facebook took off. Intercutting back and forth between the lawsuits and the college days, The Social Network explores how Facebook was really invented, and at what cost the website became the world’s most popular website – and Mark Zuckerberg its youngest billionaire.

The pedigree behind the film is impressive: written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), produced by Steve Rudin (No Country for Old Men), and directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). And while there’s no denying that it’s a good film, it’s also very hard to make the case for it as a GREAT film.

Most Read

It’s a difficult film to get emotionally invested in. The characters, with the marginal exception of Saverin, are deeply unlikeable jerks; and as hard as the filmmakers try to raise the stakes, it never really feels like any of the action really matters. The invention of Facebook is clearly not life and death, and Fincher fails to make us feel like Zuckerberg has a soul to lose or save either. The everything-is-essentially-one-big-flashback structure doesn’t help: we know from the start that all the relationships in the film will end in recrimination and lawsuit, so long stretches of the action feel like going through the motions to a long-foregone conclusion.

The actors are all very good – Timberlake the standout, seizing his handful of scenes to make his Sean Parker a believable, charismatic paranoid narcissist – but they’re let down by Aaron Sorkin’s script. No one does witty, zippy dialogue better than Sorkin, but often emotional depth gets sacrificed in exchange, the human stakes over-simplified into mere structural plot points. Here Zuckerberg is a cipher: ambitious, socially inept, self-involved, Sammy Glick with the second and third dimensions conveniently wiped away. His motivations are equally lazy: a girl broke up with him and he needs to prove to her that he’s as good as he thinks he is. Who the girl is or what she was like isn’t really dealt with, and why their relationship mattered so much not even given a second of screen time. We’re just meant to accept and believe it.

This superficiality is what’s so underwhelming about the film. There is such potential here for a reflection on the very meanings of relationships and community – after all, it’s the story of a near-friendless person (who betrayed his only friend) who re-invented the way people relate socially (while having no social skills himself), building a website where every action is centered around “friending” people, “requesting” they become your friend, or “add you to their friends” (again, this is someone who had no real-life friends). What we get instead is the age-old story of the ambitious kid who did it all for a girl, and because he wanted to sit on top of the world. No less, but unfortunately no more.

However the film is entertaining and accurate. It doesn’t talk down to either its characters or its audience, which it easily could’ve done. There are plenty of good scenes, many of them funny, and even one electrifying one (you’ll know it when you see it).

Several reviewers (all of them much older than the generation they are talking about) have, somewhat condescendingly, called The Social Network a film that defines its generation. This is a gross misstatement and an exaggeration. While the film is occasionally insightful (most often in throwaway lines, like one near the end when Timberlake’s character explains how people lived in villages, then in cities, and now we’re about to all live online), the core story is a very archetypal, almost tired one: ambitious young man betrays friends for fame and ego, is led down the wrong path by corrupting mentor, and realizes the error of his ways only too late. None of the melodrama is representative of this or any other generation either. Yes, the film does touch on the idea that “cool” has become the young’s foremost currency, and that our interactions on the Internet might be taking over so much of our lives because we’ve lost the ability to suitably interact in real life (or is it in fact the other way round?). But in The Social Network these are minor chords rather than major ones, and unlikely to be the things you’re thinking about as you leave the theatre. What you will be thinking is about that weird young geek, how awful and sad it is that he betrayed his only friend, and isn’t it incredible how much Facebook is now worth (the final title card lets us know) – none of which is new, or original, or enlightening.

Polls both in the US and the UK have found that, out of people who have seen The Social Network, older viewers feel validated in thinking Facebook is awful, and younger viewers feel reassured that it is as important, vital, and life-changing as they claim it to be. Maybe that’s the ugly truth about The Social Network: it doesn’t tell you anything you don’t, rightly or wrongly, feel you already know.

Star rating: 3 � out of 5 stars