When critics refer to films that “invite analysis,” there’s a certain kind of film they’re talking about: films like Persona or 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which surreal, abstract concepts bounce around the screen, challenging you to link them all together. Although I love 2001 as much as the next guy (okay, maybe a little less), what entices me about films like that is the mystery, not the solution, and analyses can be exhausting, constantly threatening to take away the visceral effect that drew me to the film in the first place. On the other hand, the films I find most thrilling to take apart are the ones that are the most deceptively simple, because the puzzle lies in the very question of why you even like the movie. As the point of a critic is to delve into what it is that makes a movie good or bad, an unexpectedly great movie can be a real thrill, just as an unexpectedly bad movie can be infuriating.
Such a movie is The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 biopic of Mark Zuckerberg, the prodigal inventor of Facebook. The idea for a movie about Facebook, at first mention, sounds terrible – formulaic rags-to-riches Oscar-bait designed to cash in on the Next Big Thing. After all, Zuckerberg’s story is still far from completion (currently, he is only 31 years old). Indeed, when it first came out five years ago, that’s what I thought. I was too young at the time to notice the universal acclaim, the fact that it topped the lists of many critics for best film of the year. But seeing it for the first time five years after the hype has died down, The Social Network reveals itself as some kind of masterpiece, the perfect combination of director, writer, cast, and even composer.
The story begins with Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) getting (rightfully) dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright (a completely fictional character, played by Rooney Mara), after an exhausting conversation in which both characters weave in and out of topics, trying desperately to figure out which one the other is on. To Erica, Mark’s speech is aggressive and narcissistic, but to Mark, the situation is equally confusing – at one point he reacts to a sarcastic remark by accusing her of speaking in code. But back at his dorm, Mark gets revenge not just on Erica, through a couple vicious blog posts, but on every woman in the school, through a website called Facemash.com, in which he hacks into each Harvard dorm “face books” to collect pictures of every girl in the school and pit them against each other on a page where viewers can rate their attractiveness.
This feat of misogyny gains Mark enough of a reputation that when the elite Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) need someone to help them create their brainchild, a website called “The Harvard Connection,” they recruit him. Mark sees the germ of an idea in their website but is uninterested in working with the twins, who he sees as dull and uncreative. Instead, he strings them along, pretending to work on their project, while in fact getting his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to become CFO and put up the money to create a website that will put “the entire social experience of college” online. It will be called Thefacebook.
Unusually, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is as essential to this film’s identity as the director. Sorkin’s style is unmistakable; his characters talk at lightning speed, throwing dialogue back and forth with a level of wit that would take a normal human hours to come up with. My enthusiasm for Sorkin is completely without reservations, but even if you balked at, say, The West Wing, Sorkin’s style here melds completely with the speaking style of jittery Harvard undergrads who are too clever for their own good. Sorkin’s dialogue propels the story forward at an unrelenting pace, filling the movie with so much banter, it’ll take you days to realize how complex the characters he’s created are.
The Social Network begs comparisons to Fincher’s other big critical darling, 2007′s Zodiac. Zodiac is about a vastly different subject – the hunt for the Zodiac killer – but they are both about characters whose obsessions alienate them from the people they most care about in their pursuit of what they see as the ultimate challenge of their intellect. They also both challenge the director to make logical sense out of a mess of real events. Zodiac only partially succeeds on this front, occasionally struggling to find a central focal point, but The Social Network is as laser-focused as its protagonist. The question of how to bridge long spans of time, unresolved in Zodiac, is answered in this film through the frame of two lawsuits against Mark, one from the Winklevoss twins, and one from none other than Eduardo, suing after being butted out by the charismatic and manipulative Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), former founder of Napster, who figured out quickly that Eduardo didn’t share Mark’s single-minded ambition and was willing to do something about it.
But if the style makes it a good film, the depth of the characters makes it a great one. Fincher and Sorkin refuse to let you pick good guys and bad guys, instead embracing the moral ambiguity that real life conflicts are full of. In Mark’s position, many of the actions that lead to his lawsuits seem to make logical sense. Even more of them stem from the intense insecurities that make Mark act the way he does. When he scoffs that the reason the Winklevii are suing him is because “for the first time in their lives, things didn’t go exactly the way they were supposed to for them,” I laughed sympathetically, but then realized the absurdity of someone who’s worth $35 billion trying to present himself as the underdog. We’ve been trained to see the rich as inherently untrustworthy, and struggle to accept the fact that, yes, Mark took more than a little bit of “The Harvard Connection” for Facebook.
I could go on all day pointing out all the things The Social Network does right. Jesse Eisenberg slips just the right amount of emotion into Mark’s cold narcissism. Justin Timberlake surpasses all expectations with his ruthless Sean. The cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth is all subtlety, using extremely shallow depth-of-field, as Jim Emerson brilliantly points out, to convey a sense of isolation. And the soundtrack by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame adds a note of foreboding, warning of things to come.
The Social Network is not about Facebook. It’s about Mark Zuckerberg, but more than that, it’s about the ways we connect and interact with people, how we decode our social codes (or how we don’t), where and why we seek validation, how we create the image we choose to present of ourselves. I do not know whether critics of the future will have cooled on The Social Network or see it as an entrenched classic, but what I do know is that five years later, it still seems to have captured the sensibility and the struggles of the era we live in.