The Social Network

29 October 2010

David Fincher's latest film is an engaging, involving work. Its opening scene is a shot-reverse shot sequence of a couple's final date that unfolds at a rapid pace and culminates in the girl walking out on the boy and leaving the latter with unfinished pint in hand and bewilderment etched across his face.

The boy is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard undergraduate student who later that same night gets drunken revenge by creating a simple, one-click website that allows others to compare an endless selection of female students to one another, the photographs of which have been attained by hacking into the university's computer system. This isn't some serious attempt to overcome the kind of personal loss or hurt that drove Jon Favreau's self-pitying Mike in Doug Liman's Swingers (1996); it's not even a more immediate, 21st century equivalent. This is an altogether more violent act, a hurtful, callous display of frank, bitter confession, itself a product of the blogger generation that has helped validate a great deal of dorm-dwelling douchebaggery blind to its own pathetic juvenility or the emotional frailty it betrays.

Zuckerberg of course created Facebook; in this film, he makes it. From the outset, as played by Eisenberg, he converses with people – friends, hangers on, lawyers, those he perceives as enemies – with all the delayed, haphazard logic of electronic interaction. Quick to commit to a comment, Zuckerberg here talks as if he expects everyone to listen without reply; he doesn't speak in monologues, though, but in quick, curt ripostes whose meaning is immediate to him and not immediate to others. In short, he is already half on his way to the stop-start rhythm that embodies online communication in his wake.

Written by Aaron Sorkin and performed superbly, the script captures a sense of hurt for its characters, the kind of hurt that brims beneath the surface, finding its everyday expression in the form of social alienation that has Zuckerberg and friends on the one hand pressing their noses against the windows of the fraternity clubs from which they'll forever be excluded, whilst on the other hand forming a self-congratulatory elitism of their own, silently smug at figuring out the source code that allows them to hack their own university's computer system and later wanting to be thanked for it.

This kind of hurt finds its most outward expression in the scenes most connected to the real world that exists beyond student dormitories: the two court cases through which the film's story is framed. This is a talking film, and not only is the dialogue delightfully sharp (to a fault?), but the film's emotional baggage, even if it often stems from the devious actions of petty opportunism and corporate capitalism, seeps through by way of the literally verbal recollections of those suing the boy billionaire and the lawyers representing them.

The Social Network's promotional tag line reads, “You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. As a matter of fact, the narrative seems to suggest, you don't get a site as global or profitable as Facebook without some serious big-money investment. Indeed, without the flashy business bluffing of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), remains the popular but unendurable dream-that-never-was of Havard friends and co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

This point is significant: the raison d'être for the film, both in story and narrative terms has its very seeds in the gem of Facebook itself. The very nature of this story is governed by its necessary pace: it's arguable that Facebook could only become the site that it now is by expanding so rapidly that it could beat any other would-be competitors and meeting the profit demands of short-term capital. This would preclude Saverin and Zuckerberg making it alone, and thus in turn making it at all – and so, since their final decision to sue is because of Facebook's international success, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) would never have sought compensation from Zuckerberg for violations of their intellectual property.

This is the quiet tragedy at the heart of Fincher's film. But if this is inherent in the material, the director doesn't stress it. From the outset, there's that contradiction familiar to all of Fincher's films: a certain level of interest in the material as it presents itself to him, but a careful, deliberate detachment from it on his own part. This means that even if Fincher knows how to stage a scene and his directorial style is consistently immaculate, his work as a whole is uneven; when the script is formidable, you get something like Zodiac (2007), when patchy, something like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

Fincher's latest film presents its world in a matter-of-fact manner, and in doing so creates an apparently authentic sense of life at one of the world's most elitist institutions. In having events unfold mostly through Zuckerberg's viewpoint, though, Sorkin's script lacks the critical emphasis required of Fincher to make a genuinely provocative film that reaches beyond the betrayal of friendship between Zuckerberg and Saverin.

Even if the makers don't indulge too much, Zuckerberg is quietly admired. And if there is nothing inherently wrong with this, you get a sense that Fincher has missed the point. Where is the film's genuine interest in the actual social dynamic of something not only as politically complex, but as culturally significant, as the formation of Facebook?

As a film about the heartbreak of a friendship gone wrong, The Social Network is an often powerful film; as a film concerned with how one underestimated sophomore came to be the youngest billionaire in the world, it's both dramatic and hilarious. But without a deeper commitment as to why both the friendship and the development of the website itself is governed by much wider forces, the film can't be anything more than these things. And so Fincher and Sorkin's 'no-nonsense' presentation of their subject matter allows both aesthetic appeal and unfulfilled potential: there's no attempt to understand why Zuckerberg – or anyone else for that matter – would find solace in blogging in the first place, nor why it's so important to Zuckerberg to be 'cool' as opposed to rich, why there are girls willingly attending frat parties or why such parties even exist...

Many commentators have declared The Social Network as the 'film of the decade', as a 'film of a generation' and so on. Perhaps the most influential example of such praise came from Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, when he placed the film as one of 13 that defined their respective generations; the claim has met criticism and agreement from a wide range of professional critics and bloggers. Worse than mere hyperbole, the notion that The Social Network 'defines' this current period of time – or even that of 2003 – is severely misguided.

If youth can't see itself in this movie, it's just not paying attention”, writes Travers, who seems not to notice or care about the condescension involved in such a statement. Furthermore, if we look at the other films Travers lists as defining their generations, several are critically fruitful from a reception studies point of view, but are too far removed from reality to tell us anything significant about history or society: Star Wars (1977), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971).

These films might epitomise a specific film culture more than something as homogeneous as an age group. Certainly, they are 'cult films', but their appeal is then limited to a certain group defined by something much more than age. Regardless, whatever constitutes a 'generation-defining' work, it must speak to and about the forces that govern it. As C. Robert Cargill of writes, “I find it hard to believe that a generation is going to identify with a kid already going to the world's most prestigious school, who happens upon an idea that makes him one of the world's richest men, just because he's hung up on a girl and abusive to people who remind him of his past tormentors”.

This is not to say the film doesn't deliver in the areas it wishes to. Fincher might be the most adept storyteller currently working in Hollywood, regardless of the material he chooses to work with – though given the common elements found within his films, we might wonder what draws him to them repeatedly. Further to this, the cast is remarkable. Fincher shows himself once again as a director of actors – under him, Garfield seems to have matured considerably; as Sean Parker, Timberlake steals the film. And it seems as if Fincher is one of a few film-makers working in the mainstream who is able to pull of an otherwise incongruous scene such as that stylistically brave and strangely magnificent boat race sequence in the final third of the film.

But for all the mastery of technical achievements, there remains a careful detachment from the material itself. Though we might be able to extrapolate various, concrete implications from the narrative's events, it seems Fincher does not want as an artist to commit to anything resembling critical distance as opposed to the general 'clever cynicism' that marks the rest of his work. It might be that Sorkin's script needed a final shift in emphasis, before shooting began, in order to place itself in a better position to answer some of the larger questions left unexplored. Or perhaps the story is in itself a limited one, and that in order to speak to and of a generation increasingly dependent on the phenomenon of social networking and electronic interaction, and a generation for that matter increasingly removed from this story of big-big-bucks, it might have been better to tell a different story altogether.

As it is, we're still anticipating a film that speaks of and for this generation.

Director: David Fincher | Year: 2010 | Country: USA

With: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara