The history of movies is littered with voguish instant classics which, with only a few years’ hindsight, become instantly dated.
David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin are smart enough to know this, which is why The Social Network, a film so on the button its subject matter only launched seven years ago, is treated as a period piece to start with.
At its core, it’s a biopic, the genre of great lives… but the film rewrites the rules by getting in on the ground floor. Mark Zuckerberg is still only 26; his ultimate greatness remains to be seen.
But in today’s culture, it requires only one idea – cool enough and profitable enough to fight over – to justify making a movie. Yes, Facebook is ‘only’ a website, but put it in perspective: Jordan had released three volumes of autobiography by the age of 30.
By making ‘the Facebook movie’ now, Fincher and Sorkin can concentrate on the brief, critical period between conception and global uptake with forensic detail, enough to warrant a bumper two-disc Blu-ray.
Across two fact-packed commentaries, one from Fincher, the other uniting Sorkin with the cast, the territory is mapped out. It’s fresh enough to be relevant, old enough to offer a compelling dramatic arc of betrayal and seduction, and broad enough to take a telltale snapshot of the world we live in.
And what a dark world it is, even without the trademark gloom of Fincher’s dimmerswitch lighting.
Sorkin’s sophisticated social satire reverse-engineers the Facebook experience to its origins in the rarefied elite of Harvard, playing out the website’s gossip and envy and aspiration in the flesh.
It’s a smart move, bypassing both the intricacies of computer code (which neither Sorkin nor Jesse Eisenberg properly understood) and the inherent boredom of filming the internet (type, click, yawn…) in favour of social rituals.
Fincher simply plays voyeur at Harvard’s parties and lets us subconsciously tag images and poke potential friends. Real life is in the process of being digitised, the internet’s cloak of anonymity normalising the sociopathic behaviour Fincher specialises in.
The strongest, most Sorkin-ian woman in the movie is future Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara, whose shunning of Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg kick-starts an undercurrent of misogyny that lasts until his closing heart-to-heart with Rashida Jones’ balanced lawyer.
In between, Zuckerberg sees only sluts and bitches… and so do we: a bravely subjective gambit that hopefully won’t fly over people’s heads. With the arrival of Justin Timberlake’s charismatic, lingerie-model-dating Sean Parker, Zuckerberg’s reality takes a step closer to his fantasies, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t change a beat.
He remains the borderline-autistic savant, twitching and blinking in joyless, mute observation at achieving the status he’s craved, and barely comprehending the lives he’s wrecked in the process.
Accused by some of character assassination, Fincher and Eisenberg offer a more sympathetic take, pointing out the decisions that make Zuckerberg less the devil of creation myth than an overenthusiastic, modern-day “graffiti artist” so fixated on his passion he doesn’t spot the collateral damage.
Ironically, it’s those blinkers that made him the perfect businessman, which is why even Andrew Garfield’s grounded, likeable Eduardo Saverin – the nearest this film has to be a hero – ends up being reduced to whiny petulance by standing too close to Zuckerberg’s accidental malevolence.
Meanwhile, the Winklevoss twins (a sparkling comic performance by Armie Hammer and, face unseen, Josh Pence), flounder in this brave new world where the geeks have already inherited (and uploaded) the earth.
“We are talking about a drama where no one lost their lives... We are talking about the degree to which a handful of people got rich,” Fincher muses wryly, but these kids might shape the world’s future.
Throughout, the film wrestles with locating the universal in what Fincher jokingly refers to as “semi-important things”. So while the electro pulse of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score throbs with modernity, the film’s defining motif is the ethereal, piano-led elegy of ‘hand Covers Bruise’.
Likewise, Fincher’s mastery of CGi has been used chiefly to digitally replace Pence’s head, but his features are physically similar enough to hammer that the director wonders if it couldn’t have been done the old-fashioned way. “Maybe there were tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of work that was unnecessary, but at least it was done impeccably,” he laughs.
Compared to, say, Fight Club’s fireworks, this is Fincher in classical mode, the shifting relationships dramatised through formal framing and body language.
And yet, the film’s energy is restless, achieved through the turbulence of Sorkin’s words (162 pages of ’em: Fincher made him read the script out loud to prove it could be done under two hours) and the aggression of the editing, shuffling the chronology and daring us to keep up. In today’s dislocated world, who’s keeping track of time?
An instant classic, yes – but The Social Network is future-proofed to prevent it sliding into obsolescence.
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