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The Social Network

Hell hath no far-reaching fury like a computer geek scorned.   This the theme of David Fincher's The Social Network,  if not necessarily that of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg's actual life.  

The Social Network begins way, way back in 2003, with a restaurant conversation between Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon to be former girlfriend Erica (Rooney Albright).   The contentious tone  and Zuckerberg's anxiety are immediately apparent.  What's not so obvious are the particular words being spoken.   These kids today...who can understand 'em....

But, actually, this is no dreary, "And I was like...and she was like...and he was like" presentspeak.   These are/were some of our country's brightest young minds, after all.   Points are made in complete sentences, if not paragraphs.  Amidst all the verbal heavy traffic of the conversation, Mark makes Erica aware (or perhaps reminds her; one gets the feeling the subject had come up before) that he scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT.   So, the words fly from both parties, in Eisenberg's case the verbiage presumably hurled into the  funnel of his adenoids and emerging in a series rapid, distressed vowel sounds, the occasional consonant jockeying for attention.    Ultimately, Erica gets the best of Mark, as she seems destined to do in any throwdown between the two.   She is breaking up with him, he's  like "dating a stairmaster," and women will eschew him not because he's a geek, they'll choose not  to be with him because he's an asshole.   Ouch.

Smarting, to say the least, young Zuckerberg returns to his dorm room, opens a beer and sets about getting a few things off his chest and onto the Internet.   He simultaneously blogs about Erica's shortcomings (bra size, family name), as he sees them, while hacking into databases all over campus, retrieving photos and creating a site called "FaceMash" on which viewers can decide who is hotter among pairs of Harvard female students produced on screen.  Take that, women of the world.  

FashMash is such a sensation that Harvard's entire network is compromised.    This brings Mr. Zuckerberg to the attention of the university authorities.  His exploits also earn him some celebrity among fellow students, as well as the notice of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who hire Mark to design a site they have in mind called Harvard Connection.  The brothers Winklevoss, or the "Winklevai" as Mark derisively refers to them, are the sort of athletic, old-money scions who belong to the exclusive "final clubs" at Harvard to which Zuckerberg desperately aspires.  

Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are actually played by one actor, Armie Hammer.  It's to his credit, and the skill of director Fincher that the trick is pulled off so seamlessly.   It's also explains that one of the film's funnier lines is probably an in-joke.    While Cameron, who fancies himself more the classic Harvard gentleman, is reluctant to exact legal or physical revenge on Zuckerberg, who supposedly took their idea and ran with it elsewhere, his brother Tyler is less a traditionalist in such matters, saying in a moment of ass-kicking anticipation, "I'm 6'5", 220 and there's two of me."      

That line and other, sharper bon mots come from the keyboard  of Aaron Sorkin, whose script is based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires. Sorkin, most famously the mastermind and writer for most of those snappy West Wing episodes on NBC, would seem to be the perfect man to distill all of the technical, cultural and emotional issues swirling around this story into something coherent and engrossing.   That he is, though the dialog of The Social Network is frequently a little too polished for its own good  at times, veering toward glibness.  Zuckerberg, the formidable Erica, even the Harvard president speak with cutting precision and wit.  At times it's like a spaghetti western, played not with guns but computer keyboards and well-turned phrases. 

The film is structured largely as flashback from two depositions.  Zuckerberg was sued by both the Winklevosses and by his former friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who put up the original seed money to get Facebook going and was its first CFO, before being squeezed out.   In the case of Zuckberg v. Winklevai, Mark's answer to the plantiff's attorney, wondering if he deserves the defendant's full attention, we get one of the Facebook mastermind's typical, though more lengthy ripostes:    "You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing." 
Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Game, the under-appreciated Zodiac), usually an adept guide down the darker corridors of our culture or consciousness, glides us pretty seamlessly through the 120 minutes, the multiple locations and lawsuits.   If anything, as is the case with Mr. Sorkin's script, there's perhaps a bit too much sheen here.   But as with most of his films, even the 166-minute "Benjamin Button," the pace rarely lags.   I'm not sure that the multiple shots of clouds sliding portentiously over a cityscape are worthy of him (or any director at this point), but beyond that and the inevitable sexing-up which happens to most stories blown up to the big screen, it's hard to find fault with Fincher's work here.  Along with Christopher Nolan's Inception, The Social Network is among the few films to make it to the multiplex this year that don't involve a walk of shame back out of the theater.   

One of Fincher's more showy bits of direction involve a 2003 race between Harvard and the Dutch national team at the Henley Royal Regatta.  We see the Harvard eight lose by a maddeningly close margin (so they are repeatedly reminded at a post-race party).   The scene has a hyper-real look about it, the faces of rowers from both sides in almost distorted close-up. The rowing scene occurs to the accompaniment of "In The Hall of the Mountain King." It might just be the thousandth time Grieg's famous composition has been used in a film - I happened to watch a film the very day after my screening of The Social Network, 2007's King of Kong:  A Fistful of Quarters; it was something of a weekend geek twofer - which utilized the famous piece as well.  But this synth version of the music, from the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, has an especially antic energy about it.   Altogether it creates a mood where everything in the world seems to be turned upside down for the handsome, destined for success twins.   They lose the race and then find out that The Facebook (the original name) has expanded not just to the west coast of American, but to Oxford and Cambridge as well.   

Mr. Eisenberg has said that he's never felt more comfortable in a role, and it shows.   He's just about perfect as the insecure Zuckerberg.   When his characters tend toward pensive moods, as they often do, Eisenberg's face takes on a mask-like appearance, a bit like a Modigliani portrait come to life.   The mouth shrinks, the eyes retract above the broad plates of his cheek bones.  There's little to see and yet that face is strangely expressive.
For what shall it profit a manchild, if he shall gain the whole world  and yet still be dissed by his old girlfriend? The Social Network's greatest moment of insight - whether or not it applies to the life of the world's youngest billionaire -  lies not with illuminating the accelerating speed of technological change or the way that technology is changing the way we relate to one another.   It's this:  open up any king, be his realm one of politics, commerce, or sport, and you are likely to find an aggrieved little boy with something to prove.



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