By Mark Bell | October 1, 2010

“The Social Network” is the dramatized story behind the rise of Facebook and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, “The Social Network” follows Zuckerberg during his early days at Harvard, where a failed relationship begins a domino effect that leads Zuckerberg to create the eventual social networking powerhouse while alienating and devastating friends, battling lawsuits and, ultimately, becoming financially successful (though arguably emotionally bankrupt).

In some ways, “The Social Network” could be viewed as the “Citizen Kane” of New Media. The Zuckerberg character is as flawed as Kane (though hardly as charismatic), and the film does share a certain rise-and-fall story (though I would argue, in the end, there really isn’t a fall at all). Zuckerberg has his “Rosebud” too, though it is not cryptic. The movie sets the subconscious stage early enough that the audience isn’t making any huge stretches in their interpretation of Zuckerberg’s character if they note that everything he does is tied to feelings of either his own inadequacy, and a need to punish those who make him feel that way, or even the opposite, his feeling of superiority, and his need to constantly prove it, regardless of how it makes him look. It is that internal conflict of inadequate versus ego gone wild that sets the conflict that comes across as momentary sentiment or concern (and maybe makes him a bit sympathetic) when, in actuality, it’s not the case at all. Which is not to say the character is evil, but moreso to say that his moments of kindness are far more complicated, and operate within a space far more conflicted than simply being a kind person. If you think he’s a good person, it’s because he wants you to think that, and will hold that superiority over you, if you allow it.

Eisenberg plays the Zuckerberg character perfectly, with enough charisma to keep you listening, but with so much insensitivity and superiority that you can’t help but also hate his guts. He is not likeable, and as the film goes on, every insinuation that he has done anything wrong, from allegedly stealing the idea for Facebook to setting his friends up for various levels of ruin, is met not so much with the normal level of “innocent until proven guilty” but more of a “what an a*****e, of course he did it.” The truth will always be more complicated, of course, but the cinematic Mark Zuckerberg is a villain… who also is ridiculously successful and, hey, who needs friends when you’ve got billions of dollars, right?

The other actors doing the heavy lifting in the film, Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker and Andrew Garfield as Facebook co-founder, and Zuckerberg’s best friend, Eduardo Saverin, acquit themselves nicely. Timberlake’s Parker is charismatic, but in the same way a used car salesman can be charismatic; they keep your attention, but eventually they’re going to make you uncomfortable in an effort to sell you something. Garfield’s Eduardo is sympathetic; his idea of how to go about Facebook is far different than Zuckerberg’s, and he doesn’t seem to understand what it will take to make the company successful in the way Parker and Zuckerberg do. From a business standpoint, the decisions Eduardo makes are not the smartest, and I can understand how his fate eventually arrives. That said, contrasted to Zuckerberg, and focusing on their friendship, it’s easy to forget the business side and say, “yeah, he’s messing up here but… they’re friends.” Then again, for all the volleys fired at Zuckerberg in the film regarding petty reactions and passive-aggressive revenge, Eduardo has his moments too. But, you know, he’s more likeable so… “awwww, poor Eduardo.”

A special note of credit should go to Armie Hammer (who plays both Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Harvard students who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their social networking idea) and director David Fincher, for having me convinced the entire film that the characters had been cast to the only twin actors who could play the part as opposed to the truth, which is that one person played both characters. They’re flawlessly integrated onscreen together, and, again, it wasn’t until after the film, when looking at the cast to write this review, that I realized this.

Visually the film is Fincher-familiar, though not as dark and foreboding as previous films, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is both haunting and unique to the film and the digital domain in which its main character focuses. It’s also a reminder of the last days of Nine Inch Nails (there are musical moments when I thought, “man, this could be on a new NIN album… oh, right, Reznor did this…”). The editing is quality too, cutting between the rise of company to frat parties to lawsuits without you ever losing your space in the narrative. Essentially, the “now” of the film is all times under scrutiny at once, but it doesn’t confuse or distract.

“The Social Network” is also one of those rare movies based on a book where I would go so far as to caution those who have not read the book, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, to not do so, but to see the movie instead. You can question the validity of what goes on in the film, but you’ll feel the same way upon reading the book and, of the two, the movie is far more entertaining. That is an unfair criticism, of course, because the film has the talents of Fincher, Sorkin, Eisenberg, Timberlake and Reznor in its corner, and the book is just a straight-forward interpretation of Facebook and Zuckerberg’s early days.

In the end, the film is a snapshot of success in today’s age of social media, and a portrait of how one company went from a private school network to one of the biggest websites in the world and… that story either interests you or it doesn’t. If you make it into the theater, you will not be disappointed. The film definitely grows on you, but it also ends somewhat abruptly. There is some closure, but since this is based on real life (and real life is still in progress for the real Zuckerberg and Facebook), it can’t end as cleanly as, perhaps, one would like. Bad behavior is not necessarily punished, and “good” people do not necessarily “win.” But that’s life, and “The Social Network” is a solid portrayal of it.

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