Cocksure, impatient, instinctively perceptive, and blisteringly entertaining, The Social Network is a quintessential American story of capitalism and greed, fueled by envy and lost innocence, packed with irascible incident and hard-hitting performances.
Cold and exciting, it captures the essence of selfishness and treachery, all under the guise of a heady, rib-tickling action picture. Despite the whiz-bang topicality and the headlong intelligence, this new-style movie hews closely to an old-style playbook. It’s both an energetic, straightforward work of pop storytelling, and a soapy, gossipy tale of class-based infighting and young people behaving badly at America’s most elite university.
The Social Network is anchored by Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland, Zombieland), who, as Mark Zuckerberg, swaggers with a bravado born of insecurity. It’s a turbo-charged performance that’s subtly superb. When Eisenberg makes Mark’s face go blank, the character seems scarily emptied out. The opening scene, a motor-mouthed breakup at the hands of the unassailable Rooney Mara, is one for the history books.
Andrew Garfield (Boy A) is equally, shatteringly good as Eduardo Saverin, the soul of the film. Justin Timberlake, as the thoroughly odious, desperately seductive, textbook-case metrosexual Sean Parker, brings so much reptilian fun that he threatens to unbalance the whole enterprise.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay operates with cyberspeed wisdom, and Jeff Cronenweth’s camera prowls the excesses of youthful genius gone wild. David Fincher’s directorial verve can imbue virtually any tale with urgency, be it the search for a killer (Se7en, Zodiac) or the search for a killer app; the film is directed to within an inch of its life. To everyone’s credit, a movie set in front of computer screens and in deposition rooms has the hold of a suspense film.
Due to Fincher’s use of special filters, the rowing competition might as well be taking place inside one of Charles Foster Kane’s snow globes. The contest sequence looks like a child’s play set, and it’s a high-tech homage to Orson Welles. When that final buzzer sounds, the glass breaks, and Zuckerberg’s foes are washed away in the flood.
The Social Network’s influences are innumerable, reading like a laundry list of classics early and late: it’s deliberately indebted to Citizen Kane; the structure is close to All About Eve or 12 Angry Men; it draws on Network and All the President’s Men; it’s part GoodFellas, part Revenge of the Nerds. Its depiction of Zuckerberg is basically a 21st-century version of Jay Gatsby.
Yet such reliance is fruitful: The film has the staccato wit of a drawing-room comedy, the fatal flaw of a tragic romance, and the buzzy immediacy of a front-page headline. It even underplays its central dramatic irony: that the greatest tool for communication in the modern age was created by someone who has no idea how to communicate with other people. Fun, intrigue, and humour aside, we’re complicit in a system that, no matter how “awesome,” is sequestering in its impact.
With potent direction, a wickedly literate screenplay, a thieves den of Shakespearian characters, a splendid ensemble cast, and subject matter that speaks to a generation and beyond, The Social Network is a stout and addictive moral fable. It rushes through a coruscating series of exhilarations and desolations, and ends with darkness closing in on an isolated soul.
Driven by desire, marked by triumph, tainted by betrayal, Zuckerberg transforms an idea into an empire, singlehandedly erected by his own mental agility. The Social Network is inspired by the gospel of the Internet age: the geek shall inherit the earth.