Nov 6, 2010

REVIEW: The Social Network

First class. The Social Network is first class filmmaking.

Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, and this is his tale through the eyes of the author Ben Mezrich, who wrote the controversial book The Accidental Billionaires, that Aaron Sorkin then turned into a screenplay. Remember that: this film is a fictionalised account of what took place in the years before and after Facebook took over the world and made Jesse Eisenberg and his youthful cohorts billionaires. How much of it is real and how much of it isn't will create a maelstrom of discussion online for years, maybe decades. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that the elements Sorkin has created and director David Fincher has visualised tell a terrifyingly true-to-life portrayal of our modern time. I agree with other critics; this film captures the zeitgeist.

David Fincher is a great director. He's had his share of misses, but his hits become pieces of cinema that will be remembered long after he's gone. His direction here is masterful, subtle and restrained. This isn't a wild, psychotic visual ride like Fight Club, but more of a steady, mature journey like Zodiac. That Fincher re-teamed with Jeff Cronenweth is a blessing, as the DP's own style has matured into a gorgeous collection of techniques that blend together to show a stark, contrasty, somewhat high-definition digital looking modern Boston and California. The opening shots of Harvard in winter at night, with sodium lamp yellows against stunning centuries-old school buildings as a jilted Zuckerberg runs home through the snow set the tone for a realistic portrayal of a different world, here on earth. Cronenweth uses the tools at his disposal and plays with the final image to give us something unique. His tiltshifts of the rowing meet are lovely, and it's cool to see that effect used outside of a commercial for HP or Kodak. Fincher's re-teamed with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails for the soundtrack, and Reznor delivers a score I immediately downloaded when I got home. It's a mix of quiet organic moments and very synthy beats that express the emotion of each scene beautifully, hauntingly or aggressively. The second track, In Motion, a heavy, thudding kind of retro sounding beat that runs over Zuckerberg's frenzied, emotional creation of Facemash as Fincher cuts back to one of Harvard's elite clubs getting its freak on was memorable.
Concept art, courtesy
Jesse Eisenberg has helmed a great rising-star career. He's done it right, and this is his crowning achievement. I loved him in Adventureland, and though his mumbly style may have been suspected of aping Michael Cera, he demonstrated early on in his indie selections that he could indeed act, that there were raw and challenging emotions beneath his awkward, nerdy performances. Those complexities are thrown into sharp relief in The Social Network, as Eisenberg gives us glimpses into an angry, possibly Asberger's-ridden nerd who really, really wants to be cool, but whose faint misanthropy and the massive chip on his shoulder creates something worse.  Combine these traits with becoming a billionaire and being hailed a genius and Eisenberg's Zuckerberg demonstrates a three dimensional person, someone conflicted, someone you can't call a monster or evil, because he's really just a jerk or an arsehole at his worst - but real, someone you've met. Sometimes he's loyal, apologetic or friendly, but there's always that smug, indignant anger in Zuckerberg's eyes. It's a great performance of one of the most deep and realised characters on the screen this year.

The rest of the cast are stellar - there's a reason they use the term ensemble cast. When everyone else is a top performer, you can't just call them the supporting cast. Justin Timberlake in particular stands out as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and a future vision or dark shadow of the young internet entrepreneur that Zuckerberg is captivated by. The Winklevoss brothers, two Harvard seniors and identical twins who get mixed up in lawsuits against Zuckerberg, are played by two different actors, which blew me away when I looked it up just now for this review. Armie Hammer and Josh Pence don't look like bros, yet are fairly similar. Apparently, they were trained to mimic each other's subtle actions, then Pence's face was morphed to look like Hammer's. In certain scenes, it's Hammer talking to himself, but with clever but rather standard editing tricks. I had no idea. Very authentic work, and surely some of the best special effects I've ever seen, because I didn't see them!

One of the biggest joys was Aaron Sorkin's screenplay. Any West Wing fan knows why, and the dialogue in The Social Network is as acidic, fork-tongued, snappy and quick as anything Sorkin has written. He's really wrapped his chubby hands around this source material and bled out some terrific scenes. There's never a wasted moment, never an unnecessary scene, always characters that resonate and have depth. Characters who in other films may come off are throwaway are instead empowered and just as smart as the main characters. All second tier of characters who are only in one or two scenes bring their own decades long histories with them, and challenge Mark Zuckerberg in some way, bringing out the various, toe-curling facets of this fascinating man and the behemoth he built to ride to the land of cool.

Zuckerberg strode into a world of business, dominated by men in their late forties wearing suits and ties, and with a gang of youth-fuelled, anger-driven egotists, smashed the conventions of how a billionaire looks and acts. His posse of coolly yet affectedly casual staff and management wear thongs and hoodies like a uniform, build themselves a legend as giant killers and godmakers. While their thought processes may at times be repugnant, there is still a genuine awe in their achievements at such a young age. When he was about 24 years old, Zuckerberg's Facebook was worth 25 billion dollars, and it's because he capitalised on what my generation finds cool.
At first, everyone seemed to think this film was unnecessary. "We don't need a Facebook movie!" thousands of critics sneered on their blogs or sites, the updates of which were most likely fed to their thousands of Facebook pages or status feeds and liked by millions of friends. Like it or not, Sean Parker is right when he says in the film, "We used to live in farms, and then in cities. And now we're gonna live on the Internet." He's right. Of course he's right. Through what medium did I post this review? Through what medium are you reading it right now? Businesses are now completely dependent on it. Social networks are formed and maintained through it. Nothing exemplifies that more than Facebook, the site that was founded 6 years ago but is still used by a huge majority of the modern world today to stay connected to friends, family and strangers. Sorkin is wise to have crafted this tale, and he also lends it credibility by delivering the most authentic dialogue from people my age talking about the internet. There's no irony or pained humour - the internet is a part of these people's lives. It is Now, and Sorkin writes it so. We're all a part of this story, because we all helped build Facebook and the internet into the monster and overarching social necessity it is today.

I left Facebook a few months ago, and when my sister sits in front of me at a cafe and tells me she I should go back on Facebook so she can show me the photos from her trip, or catch me up on her last few weeks, despite being right in front of me in real life, I can see how important Facebook is and how necessary this film was. The Social Network is first class.
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