When I first heard the comparisons between "The Social Network" and "Citizen Kane" floating around, I scoffed. Even with the combined forces of an Aaron Sorkin script and David Fincher's direction, how could the movie possible measure up to Orson Welles? Well, it doesn't, but that doesn't mean the comparisons aren't apt. "The Social Network" charts the rise of a young man to fortune and power, namely a Harvard undergraduate named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who created the ubiquitous social networking site Facebook in 2004, and may have stepped on and over a few people in order to do it, including his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
Sorkin's wonderfully dense, quip-laden script uses a series of legal depositions as a framing device, where Zuckerberg, Saverin, and others relate the events around the site's genesis through flashbacks for the benefit of each others' lawyers and the audience. Zuckerberg is charged with stealing the idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (Arnie Hammer), and Divya Narenda (Max Minghella), who hired Zuckerberg to work on their own, smaller scale social networking site. Just as Zuckerberg sought to capture the ins and outs of social interaction through his website, it's a nice parallel that the litigation aims to do much the same thing, sussing out the details of conversations and arrangements that mostly happened in dorm rooms and campus hallways.
There are a few caveats inserted into the dialogue to warn that "The Social Network" plays fast and loose with the facts, and Sorkin is not shy about creating a dramatic narrative that is almost mythic in nature. Zuckerberg makes for a good Greek hero with no shortage of tragic flaws. He's disdainful of the social elites who he perceives as responsible for his ostracism, and so doesn't hesitate to abandon the "Winklevi" and spark their ire. He shuns traditional business tactics and proves easily swayed by power, which leads to the rift with Saverin. We even have a Mephistophelean figure in Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who draws Zuckerberg away from Harvard to indulge in California hedonism, and becomes instrumental in driving the wedge between Zuckerberg and Saverin. I think the story got sexed up a little too much with its visions of Harvard elite living in some sort of frat boy paradise, but otherwise Sorkin does a fantastic job of turning Zuckerberg's ascendancy into a digital-age cautionary tale.
Director David Fincher exercises restraint with the visuals, eschewing flashy gimmicks in favor of taut editing, temporal gymnastics, and a mean soundtrack. Most of the film is simply people having conversations or sitting in front of computers for long stretches, and it's to Fincher's credit that he builds some really tense sequences around Sorkin's dialogue, and deftly accentuates the little moments of humor and absurdity. He's not above the occasional stylistic flourish, such as tossing in a college rowing race set to "Hall of the Mountain King" or a little slo-mo gyrating during a fraternity party, but this is much closer to Fincher's work on "Zodiac" than "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." "The Social Network" is an acting showcase and the performances are the set-pieces here. To that end, he assembled a very impressive cast of up-and-coming talents.
Eisenberg is a dark horse in the Oscar race this year, but Mark Zuckerberg is easily his most iconic role, a socially inept programming wizard whose insecurities about his place in the Harvard pecking order run deep. The onscreen Zuckerberg is incredibly quick and intelligent, capable of delivering devastating verbal takedowns of his enemies without batting an eye, and coldly ruthless enough to ignore propriety and press every advantage against his competitors. But at the same time, he's too insensitive and thoughtless to keep his ambitions from running roughshod over anyone unfortunate enough to get close to him. In the opening scene he offends and is subsequently dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) over the course of a single rapid-fire conversation, where he weilds his intellect like a battering ram. It's a nice encapsulation of the entire film and Zuckerberg's character.
Of the rest of the ensemble, the actor I was most impressed with was Andrew Garfield, who has the clearest and most complete character arc with Eduardo Saverin. Where Eisenberg's performance is often opaque and ambiguous, Garfield is an easy audience proxy who does a great job of drawing our sympathies. Likewise, Hammer and Timberlake put in memorable work as characters who are only slightly less callous than Zuckerberg. The film has been criticized for portraying women badly, but it's better to say that they're hardly portrayed at all. Erica makes two short appearances at important junctures, to help suggest that Zuckerberg's romantic troubles were the impetus for Facebook's creation. Saverin's unstable girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song) has a good scene, and Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a legal associate attending the deposition, gets the last word. However, these are minor, largely symbolic roles, that may be based on real people but are all firmly fictitious.
Ultimately, the film's biggest accomplishment is that it captures the zeitgeist of the emerging Internet generation in a way that no one else has, mostly I think by letting the major conflicts play out among the youthful characters on their own terms. Parents only exist on the periphery of the film's universe, and the Winklevoss twins are mocked for relying on their father's connections. Zuckerberg's family is never seen or referred to. He becomes the devil of Facebook's creation myth, as Delpy calls him, entirely by his own efforts. If the film is missing anything it's the devil's downfall, the tragic ending to capitalize on all those tragic flaws. Fincher and Sorkin still get us feel sorry for the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg in the end, though. He may have found ways to quantify and facilitate social interactions, but the irony is he never understood them.