Monday, October 18, 2010

The Social Network - directed by David Fincher & written by Aaron Sorkin

directed by David Fincher & written by Aaron Sorkin

I have to admit that I'm a fan of Aaron Sorkin, dating all the way back to his A Few Good Men, which began life as a play and then became a blockbuster movie with a truly A-list pedigree that featured Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Keifer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, and Rob Reiner. (Whew!)

Sorkin's writing, as best characterized by the acclaimed TV series that he has helped create (such as the underappreciated Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), features rapid-fire, scintillating dialog that is as substantive as it is stylized, provoking as much thought as laughter.

So, when I heard that he was adapting Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires into a screenplay, I was excited. The book itself is informative enough about the creation of the network that links more citizens of the world than any other, but I anticipated that Sorkin would do for Facebook what he had done for the White House. I felt sure that Sorkin would dramatize it with vivid, memorable characters while giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts reality of the place, all the while making us laugh.

Then I heard that David Fincher was also attached to the project, and my hopes soared even higher. I remember respecting (if not exactly enjoying) Fincher's first feature film, Alien 3, which was so existentially bleak and so stylistically dark that audiences hated it, even though I think it perfectly captures the nihilistic spirit of that particular sci-fi franchise.

Fincher is a master of cinematic atmospherics, and, although he has made his Hollywood bones with blockbusters like Se7en and cult-faves like Fight Club, for my money, his best movie is Zodiac, which created an entire cityscape of dread that was as suspenseful as any horror movie. Others may favor The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which reunited Fincher with Brad Pitt, but I find that movie strangely undramatic, despite credible performances from everyone involved.

And Sorkin & Fincher's The Social Network begins with a bang, in a scene between Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg and his erstwhile girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara. Their banter is vintage Sorkin, set amidst the chaos of a crowded college bar, and it's a master class in constructing a conversation between characters who are at cross-purposes. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as socially-inept but brilliant, and Mara plays Erica, an intelligent & perceptive young woman who has had enough of Zuckerberg's obsessive oddness. What's more, she finds his naked ambition a bit off-putting, a sign that he sees other people as nothing more than a means to an end. Zuckerberg may be a contemporary stand-in for Gatsby, but Erica is no Daisy.

It's a scene that anchors the character of Zuckerberg for us. He's a social climber who's especially bad at interpersonal interactions, though apparently he's some kind of super-nerd. He thinks social acceptance is essentially an equation, and he's got the math-smarts to solve it. And Erica is a stand-in for normality (or as close as it gets in the ivy-league). But normal just isn't in the cards for our hero, and he's blind-sided by her rejection, which will haunt him for the rest of the story.

After Erica conspicuously leaves him in the bar, Zuckerberg wanders home and begins building what will become Facebook, stepping on more than a few toes in the process and getting himself mixed up with some very fast company, including Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster who functions as a kind of devil-on-the-shoulder of Zuckerberg.

The rest of The Social Network unfolds in what could be called a "deposition-with-flashbacks" format, detailing the building of Facebook from its origins as a network for college students to its emergence as a multi-billion dollar corporation with worldwide penetration. It's fast-paced, and every scene has a payoff, whether it's a punchline, a sight-gag, or some ironic image. And it's interesting for its portrayal of how an internet startup can explode into relevance seemingly overnight. Don't we all wish we could come up with a widget or website that could not only change the world but make us wildly rich?

So, is The Social Network just another movie in a long line of American rags-to-riches stories? In a way, yes. (And I've already compared Zuckerberg to Gatsby!) But the reason such stories are so popular is that they capture particular zeitgeists so perfectly. Oliver Stone's Wall Street is compelling not only for the story it tells but for the era it depicts. And so it is with The Social Network. I predict that future generations will still be viewing The Social Network, though I can't decide if it will be with regret or nostalgia.

But the movie has problems (it's awful talky), not least of which is the central dispute that causes the very lawsuit that frames the movie. The key issue is why Zuckerberg squeezed out his former classmate and original investor, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). Though The Social Network presents lots of evidence as to why such a move was made (such as the fact that Saverin wasn't a part of Facebook's move to Silicon Valley or the implication that Saverin's ambitions for Facebook were decidedly more modest than Zuckerberg's), the scene where Zuckerberg actually decides to shut out Saverin is never depicted. It's a bit like Hamlet without the soliloquies. All we get are the contracts and the fireworks.

Besides Sorkin's always-enjoyable dialog, the bravura camerawork and tactile photography of Fincher is also ever-present, but it's never ostentatious. It never calls attention to itself (except in a scene depicting a rowing tournament). Instead, Fincher's work sets a distinct and vibrant stage in which his characters don't so much perform as inhabit. It's a world that those of us who have never set the world on fire can only hope to catch glimpses of, but it's clear from this movie (as it should be clear to anyone with a shred of wisdom) that it's also a world that is choked with human folly.

In the end, I very much enjoyed The Social Network. Then again, I'm kind of a nerd myself. But, tellingly, I didn't recommend the movie to my girlfriend, who is as addicted to Facebook as anyone alive and so should enjoy the story of its genesis. I guess I also realized that she's more like Erica. She's just too normal to think this kind of story is fun.

written by Aaron Sorkin & directed by David Fincher
starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield  & Justin Timberlake

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