Friday, January 14, 2011

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

There are many people in the film press, and who fancy themselves cinematic snobs who have taken their fare share of swipes at David Fincher. His detractors have basically suggested (repeatedly) that his directing is all style and no substance.

Strangely enough, The Social Network is the film that should put this argument to rest. A film about Facebook, of all things, has more substance and depth than the majority of films I saw in 2010, and probably more than the majority of films released in 2010. 

Fincher takes a story that in many ways is as old as either celebrity or wealth, and creates a spellbinding narrative. Considering the subject matter, Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of what is probably the most visited website on the planet, and which has truly brought the digital age into it's next era, it could have easily been a film specifically about a very dynamic visual style. But it's not. This isn't to say it's not beautifully shot, because it is, but that's not the central aspect of the film, by any means. It is to say that it's not attempting to simply impress you with it's visual style. It's attempting to impress you by being a damned good, possibly great film.

The central aspect of this film is character. Two characters specifically, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin, who cofound Facebook. It's really about these two very different people, who begin as friends, and the journey that friendship takes during the founding and initial success of Facebook. That probably doesn't sound like a very compelling narrative, but it's absolutely spellbinding. I do want to say that the veracity of the story of the film has always been in question. It's based on a book called The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrick. Mark Zuckerberg gave no cooperation to the author in writing the book and has suggested a good deal of it is exaggerated, and some of it is completely false. Because of the way the events are portrayed, at least in the film, it would be easy to see why Mr. Zuckerberg might not want the world to think this is how the founding of Facebook actually happened. The character portrayed in the film would probably say exactly the same thing, which is interesting, because the question the film essentially leaves you with is, "what do you think about this guy?" And Fincher does this in such a way that I don't really care whether or not it's a true story, because it's a great story, and as far as this film is concerned, that's really all I care about. I'm considering it fiction, and that still doesn't change that it's a great story, told with the utmost skill.

The film doesn't fully come down on either side of what kind of guy we should think Zuckerberg is. There are a number of decisions made and actions taken which could very easily make Zuckerberg seem like a cold hearted, mean spirited jerk. At the same time, when you take into account the fact that he did start the most successful website in the internet's short history, and you consider that he may possibly have at least believed, if not been extremely sure that it was going to be exactly that, then he may have just been making very shrewd, but very good business decisions. It doesn't portray Zuckerberg as an innocent, but it does leave room for the  fact that he may just have been intellectually gifted enough to have created this cultural and social phenomenon, but socially and emotionally immature enough to not fully understand the degree to which his actions were effecting other people. He seems very much like a truly gifted, but almost tragically arrogant and insecure kid who created something as large as his gifts possibly could, and did so with exactly the degree of maturity appropriate for someone barely twenty. The particular problem for this twenty year old with a lack of social skills is that he's often the smartest person in the room, and knows it.

The story isn't something I'm going to recount here. Many of us already know it, and if not it's easy enough to find out what it is. That's actually one of the reasons this was a somewhat risky film to make. For the audience the film would seem to be intended for, those with some interest in the evolution of the internet and it's advances that have most effected us culturally, there's nothing at all new here. But Fincher finds a way to tell the story which focuses so much more on the characters, and the emotional reality that it doesn't exactly seem new, but it completely sucks the audience in within the first few minutes.

This is a very talky film. There really isn't a whole lot of dazzling visual spectacle to distract from that either, and I have to say that as much as I was excited about Aaron Sorkin having written the script, I was a little worried that I was going to be sitting down for a two hour episode of The West Wing only set in Harvard and the offices of Facebook. That isn't at all what I got. There are a few flourishes of the kind of dialogue one would expect from an Aaron Sorkin script, but in the context, given who the characters are, it makes perfect sense and is never a distraction from the focus on character. There are two particular characters in the film, Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, who ultimately seem like they really couldn't have been written by anyone but Sorkin. His gift for dialogue that snaps and snarls helps to make both of those characters extremely interesting to watch and compelling to listen to. There are a few scenes centering around Zuckerberg's impatience and Parker's huckster temptations that make the characters iconic, and also demonstrate why there is no one better to have written this script.

The performances in the film are all dead on. There is real subtlety to every one of the major characters, and lesser actors would have made much of this into an overblown soap opera. Jesse Eisenberg has played geeky in basically every single film he's been in. But I've never seen him play this particular kind of role. The Zuckerberg of this film has an axe to grind, and it's not very funny. There's a sharp edge to this character that none of the characters he's played before have gotten anywhere near. This isn't a different ballgame for Eisenberg, this is a completely different sport, and it may be that this is the best role he's had the chance to play so far, but it's definitely his best performance. There's a lot to his performance, and much of it is very small, but very, very savory. Andrew Garfield gives a heart rending performance as Severin. He's Zuckerberg's only friend, and to him, that friendship is the center of everything else. He doesn't portray the character as being naive to Zuckerberg's faults, at all. There are moments when you can literally see on his face that he recognizes that something questionable has just happened, and then you can see the kind of reserved forgiveness that happens between friends who understand and have lived with each others faults. After having seen Garfield at work here, I completely understand why he was cast as Peter Parker in the Spider-man reboot, and I might honestly be looking forward to that now. Armie Hammer plays twins, convincingly. The digital effects do a great job because you actually do believe there are two people existing in that space, but it's Hammer who really makes you believe they are two people. Twins on screen, portrayed by the same actor is in many ways the kind of thing which has been beaten to death, but here it's not played for laughs and it's not played for show, and Hammer does a really great job of not getting into that kind of side show aspect, but just presenting these two characters who are very similar in many ways, but also very different in others. 

Then there are the shockers in the film. Justin Timberlake. I've seen a few of his other roles, and he has always been at least passable, though never really more than above average. Maybe some of it is the character (though I'm sure some of it is the writing), but he is electric as the founder of Napster, Sean Parker, who becomes a part of the Facebook story halfway through the film. Granted, he's got a few of the most actor friendly scenes, but even when he's not ripping through Sorkin's superb dialogue, he still seems to be crackling with energy and the kind of charisma that can convince people of just about anything. I'm honestly shocked at just how well he carries this role off. I was working in record stores when Nsync hit, and for that I thought I would never forgive the likes of Justin Timberlake, but if he keeps choosing projects as good as this one, and turning in performances as good as this one, I just might. Let's just say that after seeing him in this, I'm willing to give him a chance. And Rooney Mara, who has the least amount of screen time in comparison to the rest of the people who are essential to the story, but makes quite an impact with that short time. She's the only person in the film who's entire life is not consumed by either the internet or the events surrounding Facebook, and she's also the character in the film who is most honest in her dealings with the others. She is absolutely real as Erica Albright, in every sense of the word. She brings reality to the character and her character is very real in her interactions. I'm not familiar with her other work, but she is someone I'll be looking forward to seeing in the future. She's been cast in Fincher's next film, as the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and as a fan of the the original novel, it's going to be exciting to see her bring the character to life. 

The score for this film is oddly perfect. I say oddly perfect, instead of perfect, because it's not the kind of wispy, weepy orchestral score you'd expect from a character drama. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame, paired again with frequent collaborator Atticus Ross, creates an ambiance with the kind of textured mix of electronic and traditional instruments which has been so much a part of Reznor's catalog. It has the kind of haunting, isolated quality that has made so much of Reznor's lesser known work brilliant, effective and heartbreaking. Zuckerberg is in many ways a very isolated and haunted character in the film, and as such, the score they have developed works perfectly. It also never overwhelms the film. I always find it distracting and somewhat annoying when the score for a film not only overwhelms the action onscreen, but also seems to be screaming at me to get across exactly how I should feel. Swelling strings tend to just piss me off. Here, it's percolating under the surface of the film, and never seems to be telling the audience how they should feel, but is an added expression of what the characters are feeling or thinking in that particular scene. It's Trent's first score, and because so much of his work has been very grand in scale, even as a loyal fan, I was worried that he might not be able to really nail the subtlety of creating a good score. That worry was completely unnecessary, and I'll be downloading the score from iTunes as soon as I'm done writing this review.

All in all, I understand exactly why this film is making so many of the "ten best" lists for last year. It really shouldn't work, at all. It doesn't just work, it manages to make it's characters intriguing and human and it's narrative spellbinding. David Fincher has done the nearly impossible both by creating such an entertaining and engrossing narrative out of a story many of us already know well, and by proving that his detractors have been dead wrong. My only complaint about this film is the number of people I know who have had no interest in it specifically because it is, "that Facebook movie." Even some of my more cinematically inclined friends have had no real interest in it, and that's extremely unfortunate, because this film is not really about Facebook. It's about a few very young, incredibly intelligent people who are essentially trying to navigate the kinds of relationships which force us to grow up. The only difference is that these relationships happen to be tied to the founding of Facebook and it's phenomenal success.

As of 1/14/11, Amazon was still offering The Social Network on Blu Ray for $16.99, and on DVD for $12.99.

Update: I just got free shipping on the Blu Ray, so you might too.

Update II: The Blu Ray arrived yesterday. The packaging and extras are equivalent with that of a Criterion Blu Ray release. There are two commentaries, one being David Fincher, the other being Aaron Sorkin and a number of cast members including Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberland. I'm listening to the Fincher commentary right now, and so far it's as good as the previous commentaries he's done.

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