Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Social Network

Facebook is a social media giant that has indisputably changed the world, affecting everything from how people share their lives, to how people market, promote and sell businesses, products and even their own talents. In fact, Facebook is so prevalent in our modern digital age that it even has the power to change the topography of culture, pop-culture, art, politics, and in rare cases, even religion.

Given that Facebook is what it is today, I must admit that it’s somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for a movie to be made about its origins. And while that movie, The Social Network, is an interesting and visually rich exploration of the events that led up to arguably the most influential invention of a generation, a lackluster ending and overall feeling of pointlessness mark it well short of being the film which defines a generation.

To put it bluntly, to make it as succinct as possible, The Social Network is one of the best movies I have seen all year. It is far too early to say it is the best, and I would have to go through every movie released this year before I could even consider labeling it as such, but it is definitely up there, and will likely be in the discussion when people begin to talk “best of” and awards begin to circulate.

David Fincher manages to pull off two amazing feats with The Social Network. The first is that he has made a bio-pic that does not feel like a bio-pic. It is paced so well, and shot with such precision that even if it were not based on a real story, even if everything were entirely fictional, it would have been a great film. It helps that the subject is fresh and interesting, but there are a whole bunch of movies that are based on real events that do not come close to The Social Network. The second thing he does is to create a movie that does not have one specific character that you end up rooting for. He tells the story and leaves the interpretation to the audience of who is right, which is a bold decision. Odds are this movie will cause a dramatic spike in sales on books based on Facebook’s true origins from people that want to know more, and that is high praise for a bio-pic.

There are a few moments where the needs of the film outweigh the truth of the real story, but they are understandable, and there is never a moment that people familiar with the real events will roll their eyes in dismay. From start to finish the movie is shockingly good, and it is in many ways a masterpiece.

As the events depicted in the film are based on true events (even if they are slightly fictionalized), it is difficult to keep this review entirely spoiler free. If you know the real life events, then it won’t matter, and of course I won’t go into detail on the ending. Still, if you are not familiar with the story of how Facebook was founded, and if you wish to remain surprised, then be aware that there are some very minor spoilers below.

Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal by Ben Mezerich, The Social Network tells the slightly fictional and mostly factual story of the founding of Facebook. In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg, as portrayed by Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg, was a narcissistic, arrogant, and lonely sophomore at Harvard, who was looking to be accepted by the school’s elite in order to have “a better life”. He also happened to be a genius. After a particularly jarring breakup, Zuckerberg pulls off an impressive feat of computer coding, and in the span of a few hours creates Facemash, a website that asked students to choose between two girls and pick the one they thought was better looking. The website lands Zuckerberg in trouble with the school, alienates him with the female student population, but also brings him to the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer with additional shots using Josh Pence as a stand in), and their partner Divya Narendra (played by Max Minghella).

The trio hire Zuckerberg to help code their website HarvardConnection. The idea was to create a social network that thrived on the idea of exclusivity, and Zuckerberg soon agrees to help. Shortly after, he tells his friend Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield) that he has had an idea for a social network of his own, and with Saverin’s money and a promise to make him CFO, Zuckerberg begins work on TheFacebook.

As TheFacebook take off, the movie begins to intertwine with events from the future, notably two separate lawsuits against Zuckerberg, one by the Winklevoss twins and Narendra, and another by Saverin. In the Winklevoss suit, the three claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea, while Saverin’s lawsuit is based on his eventual removal from Facebook.

TheFacebook continues to grow, and within less than a year the site has gained over 150,000 members and is available on several college campuses, including Stanford, where Sean Parker, the founder of Napster (played by Justin Timberlake), discovers the site. Parker arranges a meeting with Zuckerberg, which sets in motion a chain of events that sends Zuckerberg to California, and eventually leads to issues with Saverin.

The simple description of the plot cannot do the movie justice, as the plot drives the movie, but the way it is told is what really stands out. As a guy wrapped deeply in tech, most of the story was already of interest to me, but to people only familiar with the website Facebook but not its history, it is a fascinating- albeit somewhat fictionalized account of events that carry your interest throughout. The lawsuit flashes, while they might sound gimmicky, are handled with such mastery that they do not feel obtrusive at all.

The performances are pretty spectacular – especially those of the two leads, Eisenberg and Garfield. Eisenberg has been tagged in some circles as “the other Michael Cera,” referring to the latter actor’s penchant for playing the loveable nerd in virtually every role he takes on. This is not at all true for Eisenberg, who portrays Mark Zuckerberg as something of a tragically ironic figure: an acerbic genius who is totally clueless when it comes to human interaction; a guy who earns fortune and fame off a website dedicated to social circling, but has very few “real friends” to call his own.

Eisenberg flat-out steals just about every scene he’s in, glaring at people around him like they are nitwits, while delivering scathing insights that could make a person feel that very way. A definite standout performance that is worthy of recognition (provided people don’t find his character too unlikable).

Andrew Garfield is a fast-rising star: he’s already been tapped as the new Spider-Man in Sony’s reboot of that franchise, and he has another prestige picture, Never Let Me Go, due out this fall. Here, Garfield plays a near-perfect straight man foil to Eisenberg’s eccentric genius. Eduardo Saverin is the type of smart kid who (ironically enough) prefers the actual social experience of college to sitting in dim-lit dorm rooms creating an online imitation of it. Garfield successfully builds Saverin into a three-dimensional character with a range of a emotions, a slightly naive kid caught up in a gold rush that is moving way too fast for him (or anyone) to keep ahead of.

The scenes of Saverin and Zuckerberg in their happy days at Harvard juxtapose well to the later days when they’re ultimately sitting across the table from one another, talking through lawyers.  The climatic scene of their falling out actually packs some emotional punch, which is a credit that goes directly to the talents of both young men.

Of course, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t mention Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the inventor of Napster who eventually partners with Zuckerberg to transform Facebook into the behemoth it is today. Timberlake manages to shed his celebrity image and slip into his role pretty well, portraying Parker as an extremely savvy businessman who is simultaneously chock full of B.S.. All in all, Timberlake continues to prove that he is not the joke of an actor some people may want to label him as.

Conclusion - The Social Network is a masterpiece on many levels. It is one of those movies that will have the rare appeal to a wide audience, and still be deep enough to satisfy even the most intense film critics. There really are no flaws in the movie. Maybe the subject material will not appeal to you, and maybe you are so familiar with the real events that the slightly bastardized version of events will turn you off, but the movie can very honestly be called art.

Even after watching the events, and even knowing where the movie diverged from truth, it is an interesting story, as well as being well told. As I left the theater, I looked around at the audience who were on their way out. Many immediately turned on their cell phones and went to Facebook to check their pages without a hint of irony. It is one of the great stories of our time, and while not every fact is 100-percent accurate, it is totally enjoyable.


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