The Social Network

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.

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10 responses to “The Social Network

  1. Brilliant review, Brett.

    I saw the film yesterday and loved it, even as some parts of it disturbed me. I’m with you that the script and direction of the entire film is flawless and the actors (Einsenberg, in particular) ought to receive recognition for their parts.

    I always appreciate your ability to think well about a film. I am usually too swept up inside a story to think objectively about it, but I do have thoughts and impressions that crave articulation. With this film, you articulated what swirled in me as I watched the story unfold. Thank you for that.

  2. Wow! Brett, I just returned home from watching The Social Network, and I decided to see what was being said on Twitter about it. I am sooo glad I did SEARCH Twitter, because I found your amazingly intelligent review of the movie. I used to like to go to live theater plays with friends and go out for desert and coffee afterward (now it would be red wine) to discuss the play. After reading your perceptive and insightful review, I may go to your blog after a movie to see if you have a review. Now that you have pointed out the elements of the film, I find that I agree with all–but you were watching more critically than I was. Thanks for reinforcing the lessons while they were fresh. Like the old guard dismayed by the upstarts. To me the most important theme (besides the incredible power of the internet) was the sacrifice of relationships for ambition.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, on every point man! Glad to some else appreciated Trent Reznor. This fact alone was the tipping point for me to watch it in theaters.

  4. Christopher Benson

    I was waiting to hear if you’ve weigh in on “The Social Network.” Because you’re a freelance movie reviewer, I’m curious to hear (A) if you read other movie reviews and (B) when you read them – before or after you have seen the film. Also, do you have any favorite movie critics?

    For this movie, I encourage you to read the following reviews if you have not done so already. They epitomize the well-crafted and perceptive review.

    David Denby, The New Yorker
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/10/04/101004crat_atlarge_denby?currentPage=all

    Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
    http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/movies/24nyffsocial.html?pagewanted=all

    Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704483004575523822326312414.html

    Indulge me long enough to quote this delicious excerpt from Denby’s review:

    “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, rushes through a coruscating series of exhilarations and desolations, triumphs and betrayals, and ends with what feels like darkness closing in on an isolated soul. This brilliantly entertaining and emotionally wrenching movie is built around a melancholy paradox: in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, invents Facebook and eventually creates a five-hundred strong network of “friends,” but Zuckerberg is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can’t stay close to anyone; he blows off his only real pal, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a fellow Jewish student at Harvard, who helps him launch the site. The movie is not a conventionally priggish tale of youthful innocence corrupted by riches; nor is it merely a sarcastic arrow shot into the heart of a poor little rich boy. Both themes are there, but the dramatic development of the material pushes beyond simplicities, and the portrait of Zuckerberg is many-sided and ambiguous; no two viewers will see him in quite the same way. . . . In this extraordinary collaboration, the portrait of Zuckerberg, I would guess, was produced by a happy tension, even an opposition, between the two men – a tug-of-war between Fincher’s gleeful appreciation of an outsider who overturns the social order and Sorkin’s old-fashioned, humanist distaste for electronic friend-making and a world of virtual emotions. The result is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place. “The Social Network” is shrewdly perceptive about such things as class, manners, ethics, and the emptying out of self that accompanies a genius’s absorption in his work. It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake

  5. Searcher,

    You would do good to learn the word “meritocracy” in conjunction with American upper-tier university education. The Harvard of this movie is fanciful fairytale of the 1950s and gives no foundation for observations relevant to the way things are today. The old money, WASP establishment is a relic of the past. There was a marked shift in the way Harvard and many other institutions functioned, both after the 50s and especially after the GI bill. For more on this trend you can read Ross Douthat’s book “Privilege” or a testimony from another recent alum here: http://www.slate.com/id/2269308/

    I believe you’re right about the element of irony present, but I would instead say that Zuckerberg’s creation falls less in the vein of haughty ethnic outsiderism (though historically that does sell tickets: cf. The Merchant of Venice), and more in the vein of someone taking risks in the pursuit of financial and social success. The problem with the class analysis of this movie, and the factual basis of the movie itself, which to your credit really only invites this kind of analysis, is that it does nothing to glorify the open platform that enabled him to do what he did. He’s a total beneficiary of an unacknowledged “neutral network” that enabled him to launch something fairly inexpensively (under a grand), without regulation, that could be picked up in six or so years by 500 million people. No amount of genius can enable that condition, and that both came together for him is remarkable. The key is that they both came together. (http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/78081/sorkin-zuckerberg-the-social-network?page=0,1)

  6. The good information. Thanks, I shall take to myself on a note
    I shall necessarily pass to friends… The link

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  9. I watched The Social Network lastnight and the first thing I really have to say about this movie is that I don’t believe that there has ever been a movie that has been more over hyped than The Social Network has been. Read More: http://www.shawnmichaeladamsonline.com/2011/03/social-network-apache-servers-and-my.html

  10. Pingback: The Social Network » Pierced to the Heart

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