Early in David Fincher’s The Social Network there is a brilliant crosscutting sequence where Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg and his Fackbook co-founders are working away on their computers creating the Facebook prototype while a wild party is taking place at one of the exclusive college clubs that Zuckerberg desperately wants to be a part of. As the film cuts back and forth between the computer science students in their room and the college students partying, the juxtaposition seems to invite a scornful comment on the geeks with their computers versus the beautiful young things at play. However, as the sequence progresses and the significance of what is happening sinks in, it suddenly becomes clear that what is really being depicted is a future entrepreneur and billionaire hard at work making history while the born-to-rule kids are stuffing around.
The film that unfolds is a fascinating representation of how Facebook began as a contemptible page called FaceMash, where the attractiveness of female undergraduates was rated, to the revolutionary internet phenomenon that currently boasts it has over 500 million active users. Most of the story is told in flashback with the film set during the time that Zuckerberg was involved in two lawsuits; one with the founders of ConnectU, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea, and one with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg who up until now has been somewhat typecast in films such as The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and Zombieland as the awkward-yet-endearing-slightly-nerdy-but-kind-of-cool guy that filmmakers turn to when they don’t want Michael Cera. Eisenberg certainly gives Zuckerberg the necessary computer-geek persona but he also goes far deeper than that to present him as a paranoid, defensive and obsessive monster who seems incapable of empathy and will do what it takes to get his way. His obsessive and at times ruthless behaviour makes him not too dissimilar from the obsessive serial killers in Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac. He is also not too far from the characters in Fight Club as he is likewise an angry young man with a misguided sense of entitlement. As he is told at the beginning of The Social Network, he is not going to be disliked for being a nerd but for being an asshole.
Yet, Zuckerberg is not completely contemptible and there are certainly scenes in The Social Network where his defiance of authority and his ability to stand up to the members of the privileged class makes him bizarrely heroic. Also, unlike most of the other characters in the film, he is not motivated by money but simply does what he does to make his mark on the world. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as an almost blank slate whose limited facial expressions suggest that his inability to express empathy, despite some scenes where he seems to be able to want to, is something more pathological.
The real heart of the film comes from the breakdown of Zuckerberg’s personal and business relationship with Eduardo Saverin, which led to the lawsuit. Played beautifully by emerging actor Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) Saverin is by far the most sympathetic character in a film containing mostly very dislikeable characters. Watching him and Zuckerberg drift apart is genuinely sad and made all the worse when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by pop singer Justin Timberlake in a nice bit of ironic casting) enters the scene as a rival for Zuckerberg’s affections.
The Social Network could have been a deathly dull film but Fincher’s impeccable direction and the smart and surprisingly funny script by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin make it utterly engaging. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame also supplies an extremely impressive score that channels his trademark industrial beats and nihilist angst into several pieces of music that distinctively accompany what is happening on screen without ever becoming overbearing. The combined result is a film of our times that captures the spirit of a generation that isn’t prepared to wait their turn or pay their dues and instead will make the opportunities for themselves or tear it away from the less ambitious. It’s like a gangster film where the young hoods prove themselves to the older wiseguys by doing something audacious despite breaking all sorts of codes of honour. It’s both admirable and threatening, exhilarating and terrifying. However, in this case, the antiheros aren’t left in jail or dead but are left to endlessly refresh a browser to see if an ex-girlfriend has accepted their friend request.