The Social Network, Fincher’s fleet chronicle of Facebook’s founding, captures the zeitgeist insofar as it catches a cultural change, when not only the nerds but the kids starting minding the stores. Aaron Sorkin’s witheringly sarcastic but too-neat screenplay finds Shakespearean tragedy among these machinating whiz kids, manipulating different clichés to tell the story of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the smartest prick in the room, hurt and pissed off a lot of people to become the world’s youngest billionaire; his relationship with Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), which deteriorates through the movie from biffles to opposing litigants, recalls two more embattled titans of a media empire—no less than Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.
Sorkin’s pretentious source-list doesn’t stop there: the film points at Milton (when one character notes that “creation myths need a devil”), and at a Q&A he cited Aeschylus and Rashomon. (Just because people disagree about events in your movie doesn’t make it Rashomon.) Two lawsuits frame the story: Zuckerberg was sued simultaneously by Saverin, co-founder and “CFO” (the economics major with access to his parents’ money), as well as a few upper crust Harvard classmates who claim he stole their idea. Deposition testimony gives the drama relentless commentary, multiple points of view, and a tricky editing structure that Fincher handles deftly.
It’s the director throughout who makes The Social Network so absorbing: Sorkin’s script describes the paradigm shift, but it’s Fincher who expresses it in light, contrasting Harvard’s stately amber hue—its old-world Benjamin Button-ness—with the fluorescent glow of the company’s eventual offices. And it’s Fincher who maintains the His Girl Friday pacing—in the opening scene, Eisenberg speaks so quickly he seems coked-up—backing every scene (whether theme-bearing dialogue, algorithm discovery or coding work) with pulsating house music from Trent Reznor. If The Social Network is a little intoxicating, it’s because it sounds like a nightclub. Even Justin Timberlake is there! (Charismatically playing Napster founder Sean Parker, the movie’s femme fatale).
Sorkin, then, plays the buzz kill, insisting on exploring Important Themes: how technology facilitates if not congratulates the narcissism of youth, or how small men in life are made virtually large by the web. Zuckerberg’s technological coup is presented as a gimmick to attract women—with celebrity come blowjobs—turning the analog college social experience electronic and, in the process, restructuring it. Early on, we see Cool Kids play strip poker and force girls to make out while Zuckerberg stays at home programming code. But with dot coms, once the technology has finally caught up to the ambitions of those manipulating it, the excluded nerds become the excluders. (The movie reminds us of Facebook’s founding principle of exclusivity; it was open only to students of certain colleges.) It makes for a new world, in which jocks aren’t the only ones to get the girls. And with the girls comes the power. (And, it doesn't need to be said, the Oscar-contending biopic.)
Of course, with the power inevitably comes some kind of downfall—knowing Sorkin, that must be a part of Aristotle’s Poetics—and the film doubles as a predictable cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of decadent California. (Near the end, cops break up a party and one actually announces, “the party is over”.) It leads to a sad and romantic final image—is it of Zuckerberg, alone in his mansion? Admiring a painting of his lost love? In a robe? Sipping dark liquor? No, of course not: it's of him alone in a conference room, endlessly clicking refresh, awaiting the outcome of a friend request. It at once encapsulates the best and worst of the movie; that is, it’s a smart, loaded, beautiful image, but one that reductively, and stupidly, suggests Zuckerberg did it all for just one special girl—his Rosebud.