To put it bluntly, to make it as succinct as possible, The Social Network is one of the best movies I have seen all year. It is far too early to say it is the best, and I would have to go through every movie released this year before I could even consider labeling it as such, but it is definitely up there, and will likely be in the discussion when people begin to talk “best of” and awards begin to circulate.
David Fincher manages to pull off two amazing feats with The Social Network. The first is that he has made a bio-pic that does not feel like a bio-pic. It is paced so well, and shot with such precision that even if it were not based on a real story, even if everything were entirely fictional, it would have been a great film. It helps that the subject is fresh and interesting, but there are a whole bunch of movies that are based on real events that do not come close to The Social Network. The second thing he does is to create a movie that does not have one specific character that you end up rooting for. He tells the story and leaves the interpretation to the audience of who is right, which is a bold decision. Odds are this movie will cause a dramatic spike in sales on books based on Facebook’s true origins from people that want to know more, and that is high praise for a bio-pic.
There are a few moments where the needs of the film outweigh the truth of the real story, but they are understandable, and there is never a moment that people familiar with the real events will roll their eyes in dismay. From start to finish the movie is shockingly good, and it is in many ways a masterpiece.
As the events depicted in the film are based on true events (even if they are slightly fictionalized), it is difficult to keep this review entirely spoiler free. If you know the real life events, then it won’t matter, and of course I won’t go into detail on the ending. Still, if you are not familiar with the story of how Facebook was founded, and if you wish to remain surprised, then be aware that there are some very minor spoilers below.
I “Like” the Story
Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal by Ben Mezerich, The Social Network tells the slightly fictional and mostly factual story of the founding of Facebook. In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed by Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg, was a narcissistic, arrogant, and lonely sophomore at Harvard, who was looking to be accepted by the school’s elite in order to have “a better life”. He also happened to be a genius. After a particularly jarring breakup, Zuckerberg pulls off an impressive feat of computer coding, and in the span of a few hours creates Facemash, a website that asked students to choose between two girls and pick the one they thought was better looking. The website lands Zuckerberg in trouble with the school, alienates him with the female student population, but also brings him to the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer with additional shots using Josh Pence as a stand in), and their partner Divya Narendra (played by Max Minghella).
The trio hire Zuckerberg to help code their website HarvardConnection. The idea was to create a social network that thrived on the idea of exclusivity, and Zuckerberg soon agrees to help. Shortly after, he tells his friend Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield) that he has had an idea for a social network of his own, and with Saverin’s money and a promise to make him CFO, Zuckerberg begins work on TheFacebook.
As TheFacebook take off, the movie begins to intertwine with events from the future, notably two separate lawsuits against Zuckerberg, one by the Winklevoss twins and Narendra, and another by Saverin. In the Winklevoss suit, the three claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea, while Saverin’s lawsuit is based on his eventual removal from Facebook.
TheFacebook continues to grow, and within less than a year the site has gained over 150,000 members and is available on several college campuses, including Stanford, where Sean Parker, the founder of Napster (played by Justin Timberlake), discovers the site. Parker arranges a meeting with Zuckerberg, which sets in motion a chain of events that sends Zuckerberg to California, and eventually leads to issues with Saverin.
The simple description of the plot cannot do the movie justice, as the plot drives the movie, but the way it is told is what really stands out. As a guy wrapped deeply in tech, most of the story was already of interest to me, but to people only familiar with the website Facebook but not its history, it is a fascinating- albeit somewhat fictionalized account of events that carry your interest throughout. The lawsuit flashes, while they might sound gimmicky, are handled with such mastery that they do not feel obtrusive at all.
Each role is cast exceedingly well, and it is possible, maybe even likely that most of the stars of this film will go on to become big stars. Eisenberg is already on his way, and Garfield will soon be thrust into the public spotlight when he takes over the mantle of Spider-Man in 2012. Hammer, who plays both Winklevoss twins is also poised to make a name for himself, and the supporting cast under the careful eye of David Fincher, all turn in fine performances.
Maybe the biggest surprise is Justin Timberlake. I have never really had strong feelings for Timberlake one way or the other, but this movie might cause a great deal of dismay from his musical fan base, when the recognition begins pouring in and he finds himself offered not just several movie roles, but quality roles at that. Timberlake plays the complicated character of Sean Parker, who will probably have his own movie made about him someday. He is portrayed as a party animal who knows how to get things done, and in both the movie and in real life, he acted as a mentor to Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook before going on to becoming president of the company. Timberlake portrays him with layers, and the character is either villain or an anti-hero depending on your point of view.
Although Timberlake might be the biggest surprise of the movie, the film rests firmly on the shoulders of Eisenberg, and to a lesser degree, Garfield. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as part genius, part a-hole, and in the context of the movie, he is flawed but somewhat sympathetic. It is hard to root for him based on some of his actions, but as people continue to attack him, you can’t help but defend him in your mind a bit. The portrayal isn’t entirely fair to the real Mark Zuckerberg, but oddly I found myself rooting for him even as he does things that are hard to forgive. That is a compliment to both Fincher and Eisenberg, with a nod to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay.
Much of the movie focuses on the friendship between Zuckerberg and Saverin, which doesn’t become entirely clear how important that relationship is until late in the movie. The friendship becomes one of the main plot elements, so I won’t spoil it, but it is handled very well. Garfield plays Saverin as a likeable guy who attempts to be friends, then partners with Zuckerberg, but is overshadowed by events that move at a lightning pace. If there is a single hero in the movie, it would be Saverin, who comes across as an honorable guy that ends up at odds with Zuckerberg. The depiction is not quite historically accurate, but for the film it is necessary to bring a satisfying conclusion to the movie, and it works well.
I have long been a fan of Fincher, and The Social Network simply solidified that admiration. The subject matter might or might not appeal to the Academy, but he should receive an Oscar nomination for his work. If not, it is a shame. From start to finish, each camera angle, each performance and each addition to the movie helps to push the plot without feeling forced. While I was engrossed in the plot, I was also happy to simply watch it unfold at the pace Fincher set. I don’t generally like flashbacks (or flash forwards as the case may be), they usually feel like cheap storytelling mechanics, but Fincher used them to such affect that I could not imagine another way for the movie to have been filmed. Part of that is thanks to Sorkin’s script, part is due to the actors, but a good deal of the credit must go to Fincher.
The music is also worth noting. Scored by Trent Reznor and composer Atticus Ross, it is never overpowering, but it is always present and original. The music just fits. If it were lifted from The Social Network, it probably would sound out of place in any other movie. Again, it just worked.
There is a lot of credit to spread around for making this film a success, and some of that credit must also go to Aaron Sorkin’s script. As with most of Sorkin’s work, there is heavy emphasis on the dialogue. With the inclusion of the lawsuits, there are a few moments that could have been easily overdone, but it all comes together. One example is during a moment at the deposition with the Winklevoss twins, when Zuckerberg verbally spars with the opposing lawyer and the plaintiffs. If handled badly it would have been laughably bad, but Eisenberg turns Sorkin’s words into well aimed missiles that hit their targets perfectly.
Fact vs. Fiction
As a guy that has been inundated with the tech world, it is impossible to escape the shadow of Facebook. Because of that, I have heard a great deal about the real events leading up to the formation of Facebook that the movie recounts. As with many Hollywood-ized version of true events, I was expecting the truth to be mauled in the name of the plot, but thankfully there are never any moments that really took me out of the movie, even though there were some inaccuracies. Again, I have to credit the actors and the film makers for allowing me to overlook that, but there are a few things that stood out.
The movie is based on the book by Ben Mezerich, who has gained a bit of a reputation for taking a few facts and constructing his own story around them to fit the events in a way that is “sexier”. Another movie based on a book of Mezerich’s, 21, is a prime example of what I was afraid to see. 21 is the story of a group of MIT students who found a way to beat the house in Vegas. The film takes the real events, replaces the mostly Asian people that actually did the events with hot young white stars, then makes it “sexy”, throws in intimidating villains, and makes the real plot of a group of brilliant kids secondary to the “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” style. 21 wasn’t a bad movie, but it was nowhere near the real story either. In The Social Network, there aren’t as many issues, but the source material is still an issue.
The bulk of the book comes from the point of view of Eduardo Saverin who was the primary source for the book, which explains why he comes off as a hero and victim. In the real events, Saverin made several major mistakes, and nearly singlehandedly derailed the development of Facebook. This is hinted at in the movie, but the truth is that Zuckerberg tried repeatedly to get Saverin more involved, but when it came time to actually get things done, Saverin seemed to disappear. Zuckerberg was then forced to “betray” Saverin, which is portrayed differently in the movie. Saverin also had a good deal to do with the Winlevoss lawsuit, and that was handled differently in the movie, but that was to be expected and it is a minor quibble. The movie should be judged by its own merits, but after you see it, I recommend people doing their own research.
To go into more details would be to ruin the plot of the movie, even though most of it is public knowledge. Eisenberg offers a fantastic portrayal of a man like Zuckerberg, but it is a bit unfair to the real person. There was also far more hard work put into the development of Facebook, especially on the coding level, but nobody would want to watch two hours of people coding. It would be painful. None of the inaccuracies should affect your enjoyment of the film though, but I recommend people recognize the divide between the truth and the movie.
The Social Network is a masterpiece on many levels. It is one of those movies that will have the rare appeal to a wide audience, and still be deep enough to satisfy even the most intense film critics. There really are no flaws in the movie. Maybe the subject material will not appeal to you, and maybe you are so familiar with the real events that the slightly bastardized version of events will turn you off, but the movie can very honestly be called art.
Even after watching the events, and even knowing where the movie diverged from truth, it is an interesting story, as well as being well told. As I left the theater, I looked around at the audience who were on their way out. Many immediately turned on their cell phones and went to Facebook to check their pages without a hint of irony. It is one of the great stories of our time, and while not every fact is 100-percent accurate, it is totally enjoyable.
Pretty much everything, and I do not say that lightly. The acting is well done, and Fincher should at least earn and Oscar nomination.
It is not totally fair to Zuckerberg, and many people will not see the difference between fact and fiction.
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