I am not on Facebook. I used to be on MySpace, but quickly tired of it. I was enthusiastic about Friends Reunited, which Facebook seems to have replaced, but cancelled my membership when they sold it to ITV, which was the end of it anyway. I am on Twitter, and have been since May 2009, although I admit I am tiring of that. But I’m not against social networking per se. It is a thing of our age, for better or for worse. Anyway, you don’t need to be on Facebook or Twitter or any of those social networking sites to know that The Social Network is a fantastic film, nor more than you need to go horse riding or carry a gun to know that Rio Bravo is a fantastic film. (I watched Rio Bravo again recently; it is a fantastic film.) Indeed, I rather suspect it is being enjoyed more by those who aren’t caught up in the whole Facebook thing. Chiefly because it’s not about Facebook; it’s about ambition biting hard and falling out with your friends.
My love for Aaron Sorkin, who wrote The Social Network, knows few bounds. Clearly, I worshipped at the feet of The West Wing – even after he’d left, actually, as the show continued in his image – and gave Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip as many chances as it needed. I loved the dialogue – and the emphasis on dialogue – in A Few Good Men and The American President before I cared enough to remember the name of the writer. And I enjoyed Sports Night, the show Sorkin wrote before West Wing. Charlie Wilson’s War is fine, although it made me wish he was still writing The West Wing. The Social Network makes me glad he’s not still writing The West Wing.
Last week I went to the Curzon to see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and was so let down. This week I went to the Curzon to see The Social Network for the second time – that’s how good it is. You know you’re watching a Sorkin movie from word one of scene one, in which Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is being dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in a Harvard bar: both talk like Sorkin characters – wordy, clever, withering, quick – and yet, they are utterly distinct. This is his skill – he’s like David Mamet in that sense; his dialogue crackles and few of his characters come off stupid, but the subtle nuances are there for a good actor to conjure with. It’s all too easy to forget David Fincher in all of this Sorkin-love, but the performances of the actors in this film are a lot to do with him and the way he directs them. Known as a flashy, tricksy director, probably because of the stylish nature of Se7en and Fight Club and not helped by the ornate and effects-driven Benjamin Button, Fincher proves here that he’s an actors’ director, and a writer’s director.
Warning: this film will not make you like 21st century Harvard nerds. It will help you despise them. Its depiction of Harvard will not dispel your notion, based upon countless other American movies, that the caste system of fraternities and societies, especially at the socially elitist Ivy League schools, is as poisonous and destructive as our own class system (which is at least having the common decency to mutate and change with the times). Harvard has its Final Clubs, which as I understand it are basically secret societies – much of the first scene of The Social Network is about Zuckerberg wishing to elevate himself socially by gaining access to one of these Final Clubs – and we see the kind of initiation ceremonies that seem so foreign and frankly pathetic from the outside, when Zuckerberg’s slightly less socially inept best friend Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield, joins some elite club or other.
But from this unpleasant and alien world springs our story, the story of how one nerd who’d been dumped started a website, drunk, in 2003, that gave him the idea for Facebook (or “the Facebook” as it’s incongruously called at the beginning of its life). Although Zuckerberg is clearly a whiz, some might say a computing genius, he’s not nice. The way he’s written by Sorkin and played by Eisenberg, he seems to glean almost no pleasure from anything that he achieves, merely a more hardened layer of smugness and a heightened disdain for the rest of the stupid world. Garfield’s character, Saverin, is much more worldly and approachable, which is why, as the Facebook grows from Harvard to other elite universities and eventually worldwide, he’s out there trying to sell it. When Zuckerberg is forced to attend a pitch meeting or, as the story gets nasty, a series of lawsuit depositions, he is a liability. It’s a while since I saw a mainstream Hollywood movie whose lead character is such a dick. (Whether Zuckerberg is that much of a dick is open to question – he keeps himself to himself, and rarely gives interviews – although I found it interesting that the film company’s press notes included, in full, the recent New Yorker profile by Jose Antonion Vargas, which you can read here, and should.)
Many very positive things have been said about The Social Network – that it is a story for our times, like it or not; that it is a modern classic; that it is going to be all over the Oscars – I concur with these things. It’s intelligent, bracing, involving, original, beautifully paced and carefully acted. Because the dialogue is so flashy, it is, I think, incumbent on the actors reading it out to do so without flashiness, and to make the brilliance of their words sound casual. I would imagine this is very difficult. Eisenberg, Garfield and Justin Timberlake do this, as does Douglas Urbanski, who hilariously plays Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, in one key scene and I understand is a non-actor. Fincher moves with a sure eye around the campuses of Harvard and the suburbs of Palo Alto, his camera still for all those meetings around boardroom tables, so that we feel we are witnessing actual events. God, this film could be so boring! People at laptops? People at meetings? People at more laptops? A fleeting glimpse of girls in their underwear dancing at some unattainable party? Then back to people at meetings? It is not boring. It is one of the least boring films I have seen all year. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, now that is a boring film.