A very modern story inspires a classic study in ego, greed and the slippery nature of American enterprise in "The Social Network," David Fincher's penetrating account of the accidental founding of Facebook. Moving like a speedboat across two hours of near-nonstop talk, scribe Aaron Sorkin's blow-by-blow deconstruction of how Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (and friends) stumbled on a multibillion-dollar phenomenon continues Fincher's fascinating transition from genre filmmaker extraordinaire to indelible chronicler of our times. Savvy moviegoers will need no persuading, but critical enthusiasm and sustained media attention should upgrade "Network" to major-player status among the year's fall releases.
To those who initially scoffed at the notion of anyone, much less the director of "Seven" and "Fight Club," making an interesting film about the Internet's most ubiquitous social-networking site, Fincher has delivered a terrifically entertaining rejoinder; Sony can rely on strong word of mouth to stimulate general interest in what will likely be referred to, for better or worse, as "the Facebook movie." After "Zodiac" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," two big-canvas pictures with unusually cerebral themes for mainstream studio fare, it's great to see the director engaging the zeitgeist in a film that offers the old-school satisfactions of whip-smart dialogue, meaty characterizations and an unflagging sense of momentum.
Fincher's style here is not far from the procedural rigor of "Zodiac," yet the film's cynical sensibility and mile-a-minute line delivery also recall the verbally dexterous comedies of Howard Hawks and Paddy Chayefsky. Ben Mezrich's source text, "The Accidental Billionaires," offered a loosely reported version of the events that commenced at Harvard in fall 2003, and Sorkin adapts it with a similarly free hand, streamlining the material for clarity and effect while penning most of the dialogue from scratch.
Sorkin's most significant adjustment is to provide Zuckerberg with a fictional girlfriend and, thus, a very human motive for the actions that eventually spawned Facebook. The five-minute opening sequence, a brilliantly sustained volley of insults between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Elaine (Rooney Mara) that ends with the former getting dumped, establishes the film's style. It also introduces Mark -- an awkward, borderline-antisocial genius, unable to keep a lid on his every petty insecurity and scathing insight -- and places him at the center of a drama that slyly shifts perspectives and sympathies as it progresses.
Lashing out at his ex, Mark hacks into Harvard's photo archives and pulls a server-crashing stunt that lands him in hot water with university administrators. It also captures the attention of twin jocks Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer, with a body-double assist by Josh Pence) and their friend Divya (Max Minghella), who ask Mark to program the student-networking site they're developing.
But Mark has another idea -- or, perhaps, an improvement on their idea. He secretly turns around and launches a conceptually similar site, initially known as "the Facebook," partnering with best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a popular, good-looking business student with all the financial and social capital Mark lacks. The site becomes a Harvard sensation and turns Mark and Eduardo into overnight celebrities; just as quickly, it catches the eye of slick Web entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).
In no time, an up-to-the-minute success story has morphed into an all-too-familiar saga of mistrust, betrayal, retaliation and litigation. Sorkin uses the legal proceedings to frame the action, filling the viewer in on the two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg in the wake of Facebook's stratospheric impact (more than 500 million users worldwide). As the film moves between these taut court scenes and the events described in testimony (editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter's cross-cutting here is super-sharp), it etches a riveting portrait of the forces at work -- outsider vs. establishment, content vs. advertising, the desire to create vs. the urge to sabotage, to name a few.
Fincher's direction is a model of coherence and discipline, relying on the traditional virtues of camera placement and editing to tell the story, and never resorting to any of the stylistic gimmicks the subject matter would seem to invite; Facebook itself is shown fleetingly, a decision consistent with the film's suspicious attitude toward the whole enterprise. Helmer proves more attentive to nuances of Ivy League culture, in which students must reconcile the pressure to fit in with the drive to get ahead, as well as the irony of the socially inept Mark ("This guy doesn't have three friends to rub together," someone notes) somehow masterminding the world's biggest online gathering.
More than anything else, "The Social Network" is a feast of great talk -- scintillating propositions, withering put-downs, improbably witty comebacks -- and as such, it doesn't always know when to quit. The script can feel overdetermined at times, with a tendency to put too fine a point on its ideas; even the bit players are fluent in the hyper-articulate syntax and rippling cadences of Sorkin-speak. But the film is rescued from archness by the humanity of its principals, whom Fincher refuses to exalt or demonize.
Timberlake makes Sean every inch the brazen opportunist, but his ne'er-do-well grin is positively infectious; Garfield movingly lends the film a strong moral counterweight as the sensible superego to Mark's raging id. As the Winklevoss brothers, Hammer projects rich-boy entitlement without resorting to preening caricature.
Still, it's Eisenberg's picture. The young actor's nebbishy persona found a consummate vessel in the role of Mark, and his bone-dry sarcasm lends almost every moment a tetchy, unpredictable comic energy. A shifty-eyed creep whose motives can't be reduced to a simple yearning for fame and fortune, Mark may be an "asshole," as he's called throughout, but as Eisenberg beautifully displays in his rare tongue-tied moments, he's not entirely without conscience.
While Mara more than holds her own opposite Eisenberg, the female roles are essentially supportive; Rashida Jones is fine as a member of Mark's legal team, while Brenda Song brings sex appeal but little plausibility to the part of Eduardo's unstable groupie-turned-girlfriend.
Action moves from the dorm rooms, lecture halls and exclusive clubs of Harvard to the corporate offices of Palo Alto, Calif., and d.p. Jeff Cronenweth (using the Red camera) lenses the often drab settings in dim, autumnal tones. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' music often feels imperceptibly linked to ambient noises on the soundtrack; elsewhere, it seems to race along as though on a current of pure electricity. Sound mix is superb, especially in a key nightclub scene in which Timberlake's and Eisenberg's voices can be clearly heard over the throbbing din as young coeds dance behind them.