The Social Network is a film that fires on every cinematic cylinder in an age when we’re lucky if a film fires on just one or two. From the opening scene to the closing shot, this is a film that packs so much into every moment. It has a razor-sharp script by the ever clever/chatty Aaron Sorkin, a stellar ensemble of young actors who are destined for Awards season accolades, a gorgeously dark score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and all sorts of other goods that make it, in my view, the best film of the year so far.
The Social Network is first and foremost a David Fincher film. His distinctive mark is on every meticulously detailed, stylish frame. On the heels of the elegant/genteel/literary Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the obsessive/creepy/methodical Zodiac, Fincher’s latest reflects the worlds and styles of both of those films, as well as their thematic concerns: obsession, ambition, the tension between human intimacy and time/efficiency/work.
But The Social Network is more than just a Fincher film. It’s a time-capsule for our time–a document of a curious revolution in social communication, economics, and the shifting notion of “status” in a world where roots, tradition, and familial privilege are less important than the ability to navigate media and manipulate tech-enabled perceptions of one’s digital self.
It’s also a frenetic, words-as-action thriller that underscores just how much language and communication are changing in the age of texting and Twitterspeak.
Take the opening scene in the bar between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and his date (Rooney Mara). It’s as fast-paced and all-over-the-map as any dialogue scene you’ve ever seen. Within the first minute, the discussion covers everything from SAT scores, a Capella groups, rowing crew, final clubs, Teddy Roosevelt, oil futures, and yet it’s all really just a discussion about status and how one is set apart or above from the pack (It’s not money, Mark points out. It’s about exclusivity). This scene sets the discursive tone and pace for the rest of the film, which is back-and-forth chatty and very much devoid of long soliloquies or introspective monologues. This is not a film about the private, inner worlds of America’s young people. It’s about the ping-pong chatter of steady-stream public posturing, in the vein of, well, Facebook.
It’s also a film about power, and the changing of the guard from old notions of power/distinction to newer, upstart conceptions of it. This is, of course, best seen in the characters of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), Ivy League aristocrats and trophy-winning crew stars, ambitious entrepreneurs in the manner they were brought up to be. They are comfortable in the accoutrements of wealth, and confident that they’ll attain it. They also value hard work, loyalty (it’s the “Harvard way”), and the ethos of well-heeled inner circles.
For the Winkelvosses, Mark Zuckerberg represents the upstart, punk, two-timing cheater who comes from the relative outside and redefines the terms of “in vs. out.” He’s new money. But worse, he’s the prophet of a new system in which money is no longer king. In perhaps the film’s best sequence–and indeed, one of the best scenes of any movie this year–we see the Winkelvoss boys in a rowing competition, desperately trying to catch up with the leader and finish the crossing line first, as they are so accustomed to doing in life. But it’s not to be. This is a new age. And it’s less elegant, less honorable, and much more unpredictable than they’re used to.
In this new age, punk geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg come out on top because they’ve learned how to use technology to break down the previously impenetrable boundaries of class and power. They’ve learned how to take the aristocrat’s most prized possession–networking, exclusive connections–and make it an accessible, populist pastime for the masses. Facebook is a revolution because it harnesses the universal human longing to know and be known, while slowly eroding the old guard’s stratified systems of cultural hierarchy and power. Facebook is about leveling. Ironically, anyone can be a part of it, even while it feeds on our desire for exclusive membership and the performance/proclamation of unique identity. The paradox of this is why 600 million people are on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire.
And it’s one of the reasons why The Social Network is such a fascinating, important document of our time.