For a film scoffingly written off since its conception as "the Facebook movie," The Social Network is as complete a cinematic package as I've seen all year. That's not to say it's my favorite movie of the year, because it's not, or even necessarily in the top five, but it is to say that no element of it slacks and there's shockingly little to critique. The script, an easy Oscar contender. The cinematography, gorgeous. The performances, unanimously powerful. The pacing, more breathless than most action thrillers. Even the score is a pulsating, vibrant piece of work. It's a film where every single craftsman listed in the credits should be proud of what they've done, right down to the guys who set up the lights.
But best of all is its topicality. Though the concepts of greed, betrayal, and invention that it explores are old as cinema itself, viewing them through the prism of a website yanks them forcefully into the modern age in a way that may just make this film stand up as one of the iconic works of its era as the decades move on. Just as August's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is easily the best movie to date about video games, I suspect The Social Network to be the best movie yet made about the internet.
The real trick that lifts it from slick entertainment to something fascinating is its characterization of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The film gives us someone to root for in co-founder and business manager Eduardo Saverin, portrayed in a decidedly sympathetic light, and someone to root against in Napster co-founder and future President of Facebook Sean Parker, depicted more or less as a piece of shit, but Zuckerberg himself is an enigma. He's portrayed as neither hero nor villain — nor antihero, for that matter — but something perfectly in the middle. An antivillain, perhaps, if that's a word. A programming genius, perhaps even a visionary, but a possible thief and ruthless backstabber. Comparisons to There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview wouldn't be entirely unwarranted (though Zuckerberg's kill count is much smaller, spoiler alert).
These characters are given impressive onscreen life by the film's three key performances. Andrew Garfield is exceedingly likable as Eduardo Saverin, with (to the relief of Spider-Man fans everywhere) a seamless American accent and, without giving away specifics, a real showstopping Oscar clip near the end of the film. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake reveals himself a legitimate actor as Sean Parker. He has the charisma to make you see how Zuckerberg fell in with Parker in the first place and if Timberlake's ego gave him any pause about making himself look like a conniving piece of shit he gives no sign of it. But it's Jesse Eisenberg who dominates, to the point that I'll be surprised if he isn't nominated for Best Actor. If he wasn't a multibillionaire then the fact that Eisenberg's brusque, assholish, mildly autistic Mark Zuckerberg is going to go down for decades to come and possibly beyond Zuckerberg's lifetime as the onscreen interpretation of the man would make me feel sorry for him.
Aaron Sorkin's script is terrific, alternatingly funny and intense and blisteringly paced with nary a dull moment. If you've watched Sorkin's The West Wing or Sports Night or A Few Good Men you know what to expect — characters are hyperarticulate and just a little too quick with flawlessly witty zingers and retorts that make the feel of the thing just 10% askew from reality. Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" monologue from A Few Good Men is one of the greatest movie monologues ever, but no one the history of the human race has ever actually said anything so perfectly poetic and aesthetically pleasing to the ear spontaneously and at such length. The Social Network has dozens of moments like that, where you think "there's absolutely no way the people involved really said that," but it sounds great, so who gives a shit? Not me.
A few critics have said that the film's structure feels inspired by Citizen Kane, but those suckers need to brush up on their Sorkin. There's a great West Wing episode called "Noël," arguably one of the best of the entire series, where the character of Josh Lyman undergoes therapy and most of the episode's events are seen in flashbacks that stem off of dialogue in the therapy scene. The Social Network's narrative structure is identical. The movie frequently cuts back to Mark Zuckerberg's depositions in two separate lawsuits against him, one by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss alleging that he ripped off their site Harvard Connection and one by Eduardo Saverin for diluting his shares in Facebook, then jumps off of parts of Zuckerberg's depositions for flashback scenes that take up the bulk of the film. Just as Sorkin's "Noël" script worked brilliantly, so does The Social Network's, and Sorkin quite possible deserves an Academy Award for it.
Although, to be fair and critical, Sorkin is also responsible for the film's most groanworthy moment when he cameos playing an executive. The vast majority of people probably won't notice, but I did, and it was terrible. Yes Aaron, we know that you had a failed career as an actor before you became an award-winning writer. Take its failure as a sign, please.
Director David Fincher deserves equal credit. Everyone knows that Se7en and Fight Club are great (Zodiac's greatness unfortunately remains secret to most), but with The Social Network he has made his first film that is great without being dark, violent, and edgy. Not that I object to those things in any way, but it's nice to see that he's not a one-trick pony. The lighting and cinematography are moody are fuck for a film about a website, while the insane pacing miraculously crams Sorkin's 161-page script into two hours including credits without cutting a single scene, spitting in the face of the 1 page = 1 minute industry standard. The music and propulsive editing make the scene where Zuckerberg creates Facebook's misogynistic predecessor Facemash into one of the most gripping cinematic sequences of the year, leaving nearly every actual action scene in its dust, which is crazy for a scene that is basically just a dweeb typing away at his computer.
Much like in Zodiac, Fincher implements terrific CGI in what you'd never think of as a CGI movie. Identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (or "the Winklevi," as Sorkin's witty interpretation of Zuckerberg's dubs them) were portrayed by the unrelated Armie Hammer and Josh Pence on set, but Hammer then strapped on a blue screen camera helmet and performed all the lines for the other twin and had his face digitally grafted over Pence's. The effect is completely invisible and the best depiction to date of one actor playing two characters onscreen. CGI used to create Na'vi and Balrogs and the USS Enterprise will always have its place, but it's Zodiac and The Social Network (along with the mindblowing John Adams) that may represent the true future of computer imagery as a way to quietly depict the real world.
It's ironic that The Social Network was released just seven days after Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and makes a statement about corporate greed in the modern era through a morally ambiguous character far beyond what that film was able to accomplish. Nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (from The Accidental Billionaires) are guaranteed, while nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor for Andrew Garfield, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Score are warranted. It won't win Best Picture (the subject matter is too hip and too youthful; Inception won't win either for the same reason), but it fuses the work of two great artists, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, near their very best.
(For the record, I haven't logged onto Facebook in over two years for anything beyond a minute to check someone's phone number. Which, of course, has no bearing on liking the film. But I've seen a lot of people on forums and blogs saying they refuse to see The Social Network because they don't like / use Facebook, which is as reductive and moronic an argument as saying that you refuse to see Inglourious Basterds because you don't like war and never fought in World War II, or you refuse to see The Departed because you disapprove of mobs and have never personally been in one. If you're intimidated by an intelligent film centered around dialogue and would rather wait for Transformers 3 then I suppose that's your business, but please, don't bring the "but I don't like Facebook!" argument within fifty yards of me. It offends me as a person with a brain.)
4 Stars out of 5