Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Social Network: The Anti-Twitter Review

This is "The Anti-Twitter Review" because it is so long and languorous and it took me so long -- with some stretches in between where I couldn't get to the keyboard -- to crystallize my thoughts on the many different elements of the film. Sorry for the delay, so now block off half of your day and start reading...

The Social Network
is a gangster epic that happens to be about a 21st-century internet phenomenon. It is Goodfellas for the Age of Internet Isolationism.

Now, hold on just a second: the above statement does not automatically mean the film is a classic masterpiece on the level of Scorsese, Coppola, or the like. There have also been critics who have mentioned the film being reminiscent of Citizen Kane, which is an equally gargantuan leap of critical affirmation, though there are ways in which it is structurally and thematically accurate (yes, this movie has its own version of "Rosebud"). But in the way in which it unfolds, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, is a great mob epic that chronicles the lightning-fast rise and grandiose fall of a young genius. That fall, by the way, has nothing to do with money, as the film's chief anti-hero, Facebook mastermind Mark Zuckerberg, still thrives as the world's youngest billionaire. No, Zuckerberg's fall is one of humanity. His is a loss not of innocence, since the man is not portrayed as having a ton of innocence -- or likeability -- to begin with, but a loss of the precious commodity that is human joy and connectivity. Kind of ironic for a guy who allegedly linked the entire electronic world together.

In essence, The Social Network presents the impetus story for one of the most infamous and iconic socio-boons of our current culture. It is part docu-drama, part character study, and part social chronicle. What perhaps keeps it from becoming an instant and enduring classic is its emphasis on the former two elements rather than the latter. As I've noted in a previous article, the birth and growth of the social networking craze possesses implications that run so deep that it seems nearly impossible to fully encapsulate its social significance, the ways in which the rise of electronic friendships has led to interpersonal isolation and other ills. This film feels like an epic, but its canvass is not broad enough (perhaps in this specific incarnation, it can't or shouldn't be broad enough) to encapsulate the cultural strains that Facebook and its like has infected, both positively and negatively (primarily negatively). But in telling this story, in focusing intently on these characters, in bringing a "face" to this phenomenon, The Social Network does find itself on the precipice of making a profound cultural statement, which in itself is mighty impressive. And the film is rendered with such magnificent prowess on every possible level that it would be monstrously entertaining even without the real-life social implications.

The film's true focus is on character, and in that pursuit is able to achieve that most laudable of narrative accomplishments: using the specific to influence and comment upon the general. The main protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, in his best screen performance), is the nerdy Harvard genius whose billion-dollar empire was, according to this story, born of a relationship gone awry, a drunken moment of infantile vindication against a woman who rejected Zuckerberg's particular brand of narcissism. In that moment, depicted in the film's brilliant opening sequence (arguably its best, although it isn't accurate to say the film goes downhill from there), Mark's sort-of girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara, whose screen presence instantly commands star-level attention), rebuffs the repulsive arrogance that Zuckerberg bears naturally, and it sends the hurt and angered young, entitled genius back to his dorm room, where the initial seeds for The Phenomenon That Would Be Facebook were planted in a soil of alcohol, blogging, and mind-boggling algorithms.

Most interesting about the Fincher-Sorkin-Eisenberg distillation of Zuckerberg (since this film is proudly a compilation of reality and rumor, of documented reality and cinematic invention) is that he is not so much a driven megalomaniac but rather a boy genius who is driven by girlfriend revenge and henceforth intent upon being seen as cool. In The Social Network, Facebook is invented in order to get girls, make friends, be seen as cool. And that is the goal that drives Zuckerberg for the remainder of the film: he wants to be cool. Plain and simple. He makes billions, but it is coolness that he seeks, and that never fails to be his ultimate mission. It is an interesting psychological representation, and one that does speak to the ultimate nature of social networking as it has progressed (transgressed?) over the better part of the 21st century: people want to add to their friend lists, want to be liked and enjoyed by a wide swath of people. Coolness is the goal.

Eisenberg is brilliant in this role. He is always fabulous -- has been since his big-screen debut in Dylan Kidd's wonderful Roger Dodger, and that continued through roles in The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, and Zombieland, among others. What is so brilliant about Eisenberg's embodiment of the cinematic Mark Zuckerberg -- indeed, what is so ingenious about Sorkin's creation of this character -- is the viciously sharp edge that is brought to the traditional Geek Hero. Zuckerberg is simultaneously the film's anti-hero and its chief villain -- he is a complete prick, hateful and full of arrogance. He comes by these traits naturally, as his genius is nearly unparalleled even by his Harvard classmates. He can create a web universe in a week's time, then turn around and spin verbal yarns that twist his foes into knots when they question the validity of his enterprise. He is a complete nerd -- the kind that usually is presented as so sweet and wonderful in most modern comedies, and the kind that Eisenberg has made a successful career at perfecting -- but the hard truth is that nerds have the same seedy underbelly, the same cutthroat desire for likability and success, the same reckless narcissism that pretty, popular people possess. It is such a precise twist on the perception of the Cinematic Geek, such a unique upending of expectations, and such a beautiful tweak to Eisenberg's typical persona that the character is divine. And Eisenberg is a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination, and at this point is likely the odds-on favorite to win.

Eisenberg is joined by a stellar ensemble cast, including the breakout Mara (who will take on the title role in Fincher's upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, and on the basis of her work here I believe she can do it justice); Andrew Garfield (the new Spider-Man) as Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's best friend and co-founder of Facebook, whose mild-mannered business strategy is eventually flattened in the wake of Zuckerberg's big-thinking; Justin Timberlake, oozing slime from every orifice as Sean Parker, creator of Napster, who ushers Zuckerberg into the world of megalomania; and Armie Hammer, who comes out of nowhere to play twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, hulking members of the Harvard rowing crew who ask Zuckerberg to help them with a smaller, Harvard-based concept similar to Facebook, who eventually sue when he leaves them in the dust to pursue the much-larger worldwide phenomenon.

The film unfolds in a Rashomon-style multi-perspective style, which underscores the notion that there is no one answer to the Facebook conundrum. Many characters have many different ideas of how certain events unfolded, and none of these characters are truly, completely knowable. One thing that we know for sure: it is awfully lonely creating such a widely-embraced social enterprise, a fact that leads this Zuckerberg down the road of the aforementioned quick-rise, hard-fall gangster kingpin. He has "500 million friends," as the film's tagline cleverly exploits, and yet he is alone in a room, sitting in front of a screen. That is how his empire was created, and it is how his story concludes. It might seem ironic, but it is quite fitting.

There is a visceral excitement both within and surrounding the film, that sort of cosmic energy that tends to befall the films we think of as The Great Films. It is one of those movies where the beautiful combination of director, writer, cast, and crew that seems to breed unbridled greatness. Here the director, David Fincher, he of the gorgeous moody lighting, ambitious themes, and sardonic humor, has brought his particular cinematic attitude and worldview to a form and a genre that he has never before tackled. After a string of epic thrillers (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac) and a throwaway literary adaptation (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Fincher finds himself squarely in the midst of a real-life drama. Because of the nature of this story and the attitude of this culture, Fincher is in many ways the ideal director for this subject matter.

In the same way, the writer, Aaron Sorkin -- he of the masterfully witty dialogue, unendingly intelligent characters, and tales of interpersonal love and struggle writ very emotionally large -- is a very interesting choice for this screenplay, which carries with it all the weight and implications discussed above. He brings a different sensibility to the table than one of the other big-name writers who might normally tackle the "Based On a True Story" cine-epics, like Eric Roth or Brian Helgeland or William Broyles, Jr. Sorkin brings a verbal energy and colloquial verve that automatically heightens the atmosphere, leavens the proceedings, injects a vial of sass. It automatically shifts the tone -- not from heavy to light, but from leaden to buoyant. At the same time, a guy like Sorkin could also easily cutesify the narrative with its talky nature and purposely heightened verbosity.

I've written forever, and yet there is still more to say. The conversation will surely continue for the rest of the year, as this film will surely be a frequent topic throughout awards season. The Social Network is an epic for the moment. It is not perfect, but its vast audacity and grandiose form lend it a certain magic that make it great. There likely is no way to make a single film that perfectly deconstructs the social networking phenomenon, but in tackling the myth head-on, The Social Network is about as ultimate as any such film could be.

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