As 2010 is nearly coming to a close, perhaps it’s about time for cinema to turn its head and look back at what really defined the past decade in this planet – Facebook. Nothing short of ubiquitous, you may or may not disagree with it, but Facebook has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we, earthlings, socialise and communicate. This phenomenal, culture-shaping online platform has as much influence as any radical movement in the past century, which is also, in turn, a great cultural irony – it connects 500 million users around the world, whilst rapidly destroying this generation’s skills to communicate properly. So a film about ‘Facebook’ could easily explore this central theme by zapping throughout the globe, creating a clichéd über-montage of people’s faces glued into their screens, lighting up souls in a subconsciously desperate bid to impress, to connect, to be liked. Yet, this is not that Facebook movie. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin leaves that entire social-commentary lecturing in the Media Studies department. Instead, their sole focus is the founding of Facebook and its progenitor Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a tale brimming with technological banters, legal battles and verbal put-downs, but if you’ve imagined a cluster of techno-nerds huddled around together, programming a website, is astronomically yawn-inducing, you’re proven wrong. The Social Network is perhaps the cleverest, most exhilarating film ever made about website-making, and a genuinely strong contender for this year’s best screenplay.
From the film’s opener itself, a fast-paced dialogue exchange of Zuckerberg (a spectacularly spot-on Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara as The Social Network‘s Rosebud, Citizen Kane‘s unattainable one, and now Fincher’s dragon-tattooed girl), the scene is set for the rest of the movie. We have an anti-hero in our hands: an egomaniacal, narcissistic, socially-inept, ambitious, coldly logical piece of work, condescending his girlfriend, and perhaps everyone around him. This rivetingly reflects the very main themes Fincher and Sorkin are trying to nail here, the distancing of human relationships and failure of communication. Fed up with Zuckerberg’s intellectual arrogance and obsession of infiltrating Harvard’s ultra-elite final clubs, said girlfriend dumps him in a pub in a classic break-up scene, and instead of bursting into catharsis, his self-absorption barely allows him to understand where his relationship went wrong and launches into a barrage of hate-blogging, calling ex-girlfriend a flat-chested bitch, followed by a palpably misogynistic online beauty contest “Facemash”, and lo and behold, the birth of Facebook.
It sounds simple, but the film doesn’t surrender to easy film viewing. Sorkin’s brilliantly sketched screenplay moves in a linearity breakdown, yet still remains chronological, leaping through timelines, from a latter-day lawsuit case hearing and back into the online network’s early conception, exploring all characters involved with unexpected depth and nuance. Those that gripe whether what we’re seeing have actually taken place or not, accuracy here is beside the point. Cinema is art, not a history documentary channel. Even Schindler’s List got plenty of historical details wrong, and that’s the Holocaust we’re talking about. The Social Network isn’t interested on finger-pointing, on who’s telling the truth or not, who are the villains and the heroes in this fiasco, but rather keen on exploring the nature and subjectivity of truth. Often, it plays like a modern rendition of Akira Kurosawa’s incendiary Rashomon, where every single player has their own version of truth-glossing. Sorkin’s narrative lurches from one perspective to the next, from Zuckerberg’s insistent intellectual proprietorialism, to ex-BFF Eduardo Saverin’s claim of partnership and fiscal betrayal, to Harvard’s upper-class Aryan bluebloods the Winklevoss twins, who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their idea of exclusive Harvard networking. None of these characters seem worth rooting for, but in Fincher’s tightly controlled yet perceptive drama, we see motivations, psychologies and hurt beneath these individuals. Zuckerberg – part-billionaire, part-genius, part-arsehole – is hardly a protagonist to root for, but actor Eisenberg shows an impressive understanding of Zuckerberg, a young pioneer driven by the need to belong. There is a quietly poignant opening of Zuckerberg walking through the Harvard campus at night in a hoodie and flip-flops, an outcast traversing through a social jungle and ends up in his dormitory, flaring up the blogosphere. This is intercut with scenes of the super-exclusive night-parties of the Harvard elite, ramming home the message of Zuckerberg’s disjointedness, far-flung from the parties he is never invited and welcomed.
Focusing on the human drama that revolves around Facebook is a stroke of genius. Fincher, arguably an underappreciated director of our time, takes a thriller approach to excite the proceedings, all rapid-fire editing, darkly yet beautifully lit cinematography, but he never undermines all that emotional undertow here. When we see Eduardo Saverin (a subtle, vulnerable performance by Andrew Garfield) losing his temper at Zuckeberg and Sean Parker (a smart casting of Justin Timberlake) for their corporate betrayal, we feel his car-crash outburst. When we see free-spirited, Machiavellian Napster-founder Parker transform from swaggering, cocksure bastard to a rabbit-caught-on-headlights for dealing with coke, we feel pity. That’s because Fincher invests much on dramatic build-up throughout scenes. Come the inspired final shot, Zuckerberg perpetually pressing F5 (Refresh) on Erica’s Facebook page, it’s plainly obvious that The Social Network isn’t so much a movie about Facebook as a timeless, cautionary tale of selfish ambition and capitalism pursued in expense of lifelong values such as friendship and real human relationships. At its bitter heart, the 500 million users might want to befriend Zuckerberg, but he remains inconsolably, incontrovertibly alone.
Beneath its understated workings, The Social Network emerges as a deceptively crafted, erudite, marvellously written and directed piece of zeitgeist-nailing screenplay. We have films that reflect a generation in our lifetime – The Graduate, Easy Rider, even Fincher’s own Fight Club – and this is one of them.