The Social Network, a history of Facebook written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, begins in a crowded, chatter-filled bar with the sound of two people engaging in a rat-a-tat series of exchanges that doubles as a battle of wills. It ends, without giving too much away, in a strikingly different environment, with one person struggling with a radically redefined version of friendship. Between those two scenes, there’s the story of how social interaction has changed profoundly over just the last decade, though The Social Network largely keeps that story in the background. Focusing squarely on Facebook architect Mark Zuckerberg, through his site’s genesis, growth, and especially the attendant lawsuits swirling around each stage of its development, The Social Network sometimes relegates the actual effects of Facebook to passing lines of dialogue and offhand references. But there’s plenty to explore in its causes, and Zuckerberg’s story ends up feeling bigger than his own life.
That’s partly because, at least as portrayed in this film adapted from Ben Mezrich’s unflattering book The Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg was driven by some pretty universal motives: isolation, jealousy, ambition, curiosity, and a desire to go where others hadn’t, if only virtually. It’s a credit to Jesse Eisenberg’s remarkable lead performance that he can make all those needs evident beneath an almost-Vulcan exterior and sense of focus. His story opens in Boston, where an ugly break-up leads him to follow a nasty blog post about his ex (Rooney Mara) with Facemash, a mean-spirited site that lets users rank the networked photos of Harvard’s women. An instant success, the site earns him some disciplinary action, but puts him on a path that eventually leads to Facebook as we know it today. Success has many fathers, however, and the film flashes between the story of its growth to a pair of lawsuits filed by those who feel shut out from the Facebook phenomenon, one of them from Zuckerberg’s best friend, site co-founder Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield).
Sorkin (famous for the breathless dialogue of A Few Good Men, The American President, and The West Wing) and Fincher (famous for his deliberate, understated image-making in Seven and Fight Club, among others) seem like unlikely partners, but their odd-couple friction propels the film. The Social Network’s characters talk and talk, but the film’s crisp, dark images, plus an eerie ambient score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, create an unsettling divide between words and action, as if everyone’s talking about unstoppable events set in motion long ago. Facebook starts small, and—to use the word Eisenberg’s character clings to—“cool,” but becomes an inescapable monster that attracts fans with dubious motives, like Napster founder and Internet cool-magnet Sean Parker (played with tremendous pop-star magnetism by Justin Timberlake), and those looking to turn friendship into a commodity. And that’s the story behind the story here, and what gives the title several shades of meaning. Feeling marginalized by women and the network of entitled elites that determines success at Harvard, the hero seeks to find a new way of connecting. And he succeeds, only to end up alone with everyone else.