David Fincher’s latest film is an absorbing drama about the battles amongst the founders of social networking website Facebook.
It begins with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) getting dumped by a girl (Rooney Mara) which prompts him to hack in to the campus computer network as revenge, whilst blogging about his reasons for doing so.
This brings him to the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who approach him with the idea of a social network site, but Zuckerberg opts to create his own version with the help of his friend Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield).
Originally called TheFacebook it is an instant success at Harvard and campuses across the US, which leads Zuckerberg to California where entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) helps him approach investors.
The narrative is intercut with flashforwards to various legal depositions, in which characters explain the conflicts which would later arise, with the Winklevoss twins and Narenda claiming Zuckerberg stole their idea, whilst Severin (who initially bankrolled the site) falls out with Zuckerberg over Parker’s influence.
This might not initially sound like the most exciting or dynamic material for a film, but with an A-list roster of talent behind the camera – director Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin – the end result is a stimulating tale of human relationships gone wrong.
It is also a very interior film, with much of the action taking place inside dorm rooms and legal offices, but Sorkin’s script does an excellent job at rattling through the events and digging out some juicy drama.
His sculpted rat-a-tat dialogue provides a mixture of humour, pathos and insight in presenting what Facebook did to the founders, plus the overall ironies for them and the wider culture that embraced it.
Whilst he has expressed doubts about the web and new technology, Sorkin is perfectly suited to this material.
As a more traditional writer, he mines the old fashioned themes of envy, jealousy and ambition inherent in the story, but from a distance which allows him to probe the social cost of relationships online.
David Fincher might also seem a counter-intuitive choice, but aside from directing with his customary skill and taste, he manages to ramp up the drama by keeping things simple and focused.
Compared to his previous work it moves quickly and the editing and structure all ground the information in a tight and engrossing package.
Fincher’s customary dark visual palette is on display again, but the balanced compositions from cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth nicely dovetail the crispness of the digital images (which were shot on the Red One digital camera).
Building on the visual look of the film, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a wonderfully discordant score.
Their compelling soundscape of samples and beats gives the film a distant and offset mood, which may or may not be a reflection of Zuckerberg’s personality.
In a film filled with fine performances, Jesse Eisenberg is the stand out with a focused and at times mesmerising portrait of Zuckerberg as an awkward, brilliant and driven individual.
It might not be as accurate as some have claimed but it captures the restless energy and intelligence that drove Facebook in its messy early years and kept it from being sold off (and ruined) too soon.
Garfield paints a convincing picture of a wronged friend unable to keep up with events, whilst Timberlake is charming as the one person who appreciates Zuckerberg’s idea of how big Facebook can actually be.
The Winklevoss twins – or “Winklevii” as Zuckerberg dismisses them at one point – are actually played by one actor, a feat achieved with considerable technical aplomb by both Armie Hammer and Fincher’s visual effects team.
Representing old school privilege, they also feature in a perfectly executed scene when they try to convince the then Harvard president Lawrence Summers (Douglas Urbanski) that Zuckerberg has stolen the site from them.
The dialogue, acting and direction frequently paint a telling clash between the traditional world unable to comprehend the new paradigm represented by upstarts in Silicon Valley.
Whatever the veracity of the sources used to inspire the film, and Ben Mezrich’s book on which it was based has been criticised, it is structured so that the audience can draw their own conclusions from the various perspectives offered by the Winklevoss twins, Severin and Zuckerberg.
Who comes out best will clearly be a debating point for audiences, but the portrait of Zuckerberg as a social outsider driven by something other than just money is not as unflattering as one might think.
A lot of the debate surrounding the film is the portrayal of Zuckerberg himself.
Although it paints a picture of an intense and potentially haunted individual, you can also see him as an irreverent visionary battling against negativity to build something millions of people use.
There are thematic parallels to Citizen Kane: a young wunderkind creates an empire, has huge ambitions, women issues, breaks up with a friend and collaborator, is left seemingly alone despite creating over millions of virtual connections for other people. (For Rosebud, substitute an ex-girlfriend).
In a sense The Social Network is the cinematic equivalent of a Facebook profile: it uses selected facts to present a portrait of an individual; features potentially embarrassing information; and harvests personal data that will be seen all around the world.
For tech journalists a little too concerned with the details, let’s remember this is a representation of the facts and not a definitive statement.
But like Facebook, it has been assembled with considerable technical skill and may strike a deep chord with audiences hungry to find out more about an online phenomenon so embedded in contemporary life.
How future viewers will judge it is hard to predict, but I suspect two very different perspectives could emerge.
For some it will be the cautionary parable of a website which connected over 500 million virtual friends which also broke up the actual friends that created it.
For others Mark Zuckerberg could become like Gordon Gekko, an unlikely figure of inspiration to a generation who use technology to change old assumptions and beliefs.
With its mix of potent ideas and impeccable craft, it is a likely Oscar contender and deserves the recognition and kudos, as it paints a fascinating picture of age old tensions at the heart of new technology.
The Social Network is out in the UK on Friday 15th October