Movies: The Social Network *****
(15A, GENERAL RELEASE)
From the very first scene of David Fincher's The Social Network, you get the sense that this is a mainstream film with ambitions beyond the size of its box office. In a crowded college bar a geeky and entirely self-absorbed student called Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) is bombarding his unfortunate girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) with endless speculation about which of the exclusive Harvard 'Final Clubs' he should join.
His patter is barbed with jibes and insults, and Erica eventually decides she's had enough and dumps him, a decision she will soon have cause to regret.
It's 2003, and the geeky student is Mark Zuckerberg, the callow youth from White Plains, New York, who will become a billionaire six times over after inventing a natty little social network by the name of Facebook.
Zuckerberg, and the drama and controversy that have surrounded him and his creation, are the subject of this dense but beautifully made drama that flits between the inevitable legal battles that erupted after Facebook's huge success, and the heady days of its founding.
As played by Jesse Eisenberg (and brilliantly written by Aaron Sorkin), Zuckerberg is a charmless and possibly mildly sociopathic individual with absolutely no gift for human communication and an unhealthy tendency to gather grudges and plot grandiose schemes of revenge. After Erica dumps him, for instance, Mark marches back to his Harvard dorm and begins posting very nasty remarks about her on the internet.
He enjoys this so much that he then decides to create a web page called 'Face Mash', which uses student website photos to assess the attractiveness of female students in crude comparisons. This repellent scheme goes down a treat with the male students, so much so that within an hour of going live the Face Mash site has crashed all the Harvard servers.
Naturally, all of this earns Mark the enduring contempt of Harvard's female population, and he's put on academic probation. But Face Mash also makes him something of a campus celebrity, and brings him to the attention of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, two WASP-ish silver-spoon college athletes who are members of the exclusive Porcellian Club. Dangling the possibility of club membership, they ask Mark to help them develop the programming side of a new website they were planning that would make it easier for students from different colleges to make virtual meetings and chat.
Mark agrees, but some months later the Winklevosses are horrified to discover that Zuckerberg has been playing them along while secretly designing and launching his own social networking site, 'The Facebook'. The Winklevoss brothers will eventually sue Mark for intellectual property theft, but they won't be alone as during Facebook's creation Zuckerberg ends up alienating a long line of early collaborators, including his best and only friend, Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield).
Scripted with exceptional flair and elegance by Sorkin, The Social Network acts as both geeky, hi-tech thriller and timeless morality tale. It also sparkles with Sorkin's trademark wit and verbal jousts that ping about like exchanges of gunfire. Behind the jokes, though, is a daring, complex drama that insists you pay attention, and Sorkin and director David Fincher have taken the considerable risk of creating a central character with scarcely a redeeming feature.
Mark Zuckerberg (at least the one here fictionalised) is a self-absorbed and charmless pill and, excellently played by Jesse Eisenberg, he remains a kind of brooding, sulky enigma who feigns ignorance of the intrigue and unhappiness that unfolds around him. Justin Timberlake delivers a fine performance as Sean Parker, the slick founder of Napster who brings out the worst in Zuckerberg when he becomes embroiled in the Facebook project.
Although the sense of dread common to all David Fincher films is evident, the director has toned down his visual style and tells his story in a muted, appropriately half-lit atmosphere that reminded me in ways of All the President's Men. If that film encapsulated the paranoia of the early 70s, this one casts a cold eye on the commercial hysteria of the past decade or so and posits the depressing thesis that, while technologies and markets might change, human greed and mean-spiritedness are stubbornly immutable.