The 48th New York Film Festival opened last Friday night with the world premiere of David Fincher’s latest, and it couldn’t have gotten off to a stronger start. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the best flick I’ve seen all year, including everything I saw at Sundance, and maybe for longer than that.
By now everybody knows that it’s a partly fictional take on the Facebook origin story, done without Mark Zuckerberg’s cooperation. And you wouldn’t think college-age geeks typing on keyboards would be at all interesting: even with Ally Sheedy, Sandra Bullock, or bloody Angelina Jolie staring at the console, cinematic computer nerdage has always fallen wicked flat. But Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay just crackles: if a more Oscar-worthy job shows up by the end of the year, it’ll be a miracle, because most Oscar-winning scripts aren’t this good. The opening scene sets the pace, the motormouthed Zuckerberg facing off verbally with a date he’s desperately and clumsily trying to impress. Not only doesn’t he know what to do with her, but his knee-jerk smartest-guy-in-the-room retorts also dig him ever deeper into romantic purgatory, until you want to tump a pitcher of beer over his pitiful, arrogant head. But in Sorkin’s world, she’s his rhetorical equal, and Zuckerberg will acknowledge that by re-gifting one of her better smackdowns a little later.
You’d expect that kind of 21st-century chamber colloquy from Sorkin. The news flash is David Fincher. He has matured so gracefully that you rarely see a “Hi, Mom!” moment any more; he’s still way stylish, but confident enough to assume willful transparency, like Spielberg on his best behavior. Fincher’s storytelling sense has never been better demonstrated. This is potentially overwhelming stuff, but he and his screenwriter have dragged it onto the turf of Shakespearean heroes: love, devotion, envy, hubris, greed, betrayal, and most of all, our old pal obsession. (Countries aren’t at stake, but fortunes are, and that’s how we keep score today.) Nearly all of it emerges from the prosaic settings of a college campus and a nutso work-pad in Palo Alto, but against all odds, the film’s two hours fly by like something in your peripheral vision, until the haunting, powerful final moment.
All actors are superb, most of them flinging Sorkinisms at a rapid pace, especially Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg (his best performance ever), Justin Timberlake as Silicon Valley macher Sean Parker (ditto), and Armie Hammer (yes, a scion of the legendary Armand) as a pair of identical twins who claim that Zuckerberg stole Facebook from them – and thereby, dear viewer, hangs our tale. Rashida Jones has a nice latter-reel part as the one character who ushers “Mark Zuckerberg” into a place where the audience might find a scintilla of empathy. Don’t feel bad if you can’t.
Which leads to the meat. The movie stays frosty by switching from conference-room depositions in two separate lawsuits against Zuckerberg to flashbacks of the actual events being described; the editing is so sharp that sometimes this happens in the middle of a sentence. I don’t know how much is fact and how much fiction, but if the real Zuckerberg was betting on this one being a soon-forgotten turkey, he loses. He was evidently afraid he’d come across as an asshole. He had good reason. Facebook is busy denying everything it can, and Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey schools is, shall we say, interestingly timed.
Yet I feel for him – and it’s clear David Fincher, a former enfant terrible and smartest guy in the room himself, does too. For weal or woe, this movie will outlast all protestations, and millions of kids who don’t know any better will take it as the wide-eyed truth. Some may even recall it from the depths of their multitasked brains as a strange sort of documentary. In olden days, we understood perfectly well that Oliver Stone was tarting up JFK and Nixon, but many, if not most, Facebookers won’t have a similar perspective. Zuckerberg has a right to complain. How many of you would care to have your awkward college-age hijinks dramatized for the whole world to see? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were spared that indignity because the world granted them time to grow into their positions. Not Zuckerberg. It all became too big too fast. Still, many people would probably trade looking like an asshole forever – Mark could turn out to be the 21st century’s real-life Charles Foster Kane, after all – in exchange for several billion dollars, and that’s with a B, bitch. (Mark’s infamous business card – “I’m CEO, bitch!” wasn’t invented by Sorkin.) Then again, on the cab ride home, Linda uttered heresy by wondering aloud whether Facebook would still be king of the hill, or even around at all, in, say, ten years. Or, she got me to thinking, would it just twitter away in time, leaving nothing but, uh, lipstick traces, the wispy remains of once-mighty passing trends like CompuServe, MySpace, Blockbuster, or Barnes & Noble? All we know for sure is that things fall apart; the center cannot hold, not even by dint of Zuckerberg’s prodigious will. Simply surviving will require many more shrewd and lucky decisions, and the kid’s still looking up at thirty.
Meanwhile, this movie is marvelous; I attach my very highest recommendation. See it as soon as you can. Topping it this fall will require lots more than a period piece about a royal speech impediment. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is actually important, a hi-def snapshot of our moment, guaranteed to be a contender at Oscar time next year and revisited frequently thereafter, yet urgently appropriate right this second.
March 2011: Well, the royal speech impediment did rather well at the Academy Awards, didn’t it? But that still doesn’t make it the best picture of the year.