When the world started getting wind of David Fincher's The Social Network, the balking began immediately, and probably largely on Facebook, where silly news has become the currency of friendship. The site's ubiquity makes it a dicey topic for any film, let alone one intending to be taken seriously. Then details of The Social Network's actual focus proved more confounding: How do you tackle the ugly legal entanglements surrounding Facebook's 2004 creation without running afoul of the very same lawyers? And isn't the story of the world's youngest billionaire necessarily defined by the fact that it's just begun?
To the first point, it's important to stress that the Facebook movie (which is how anyone should suspect it will forever be referred to) is not a techie zeitgeist film, trying to carve out a point of view on what Facebook has become in the six years since its inception. The site now serves over 500 million people worldwide, but as The Social Network wraps up, a big-screen ticker in the company's Palo Alto headquarters has just rolled over to one million. It's a milestone and, at least according to Aaron Sorkin's here-and-there fictionalization, an otherwise momentous evening for the company. And the scene ends, as many do, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (a confident, revelatory Jesse Eisenberg) sitting in front of a computer.
That computer has surely changed since the beginning of the film, when Zuckerberg first retreats to his dorm room after being dumped in a brusque, rapid-fire exchange at a Harvard bar. But we wonder to what extent Zuckerberg has changed. This is the real challenge The Social Network faces; as interpreted by Eisenberg and Sorkin, at least, he's inscrutable, simmering with jealousies and aspirations that rarely breach his cocky lack of awareness. ("You'll go through life telling yourself girls don't like you because you're nerdy," predicts his newly minted ex. "But that's not true. It's because you're an asshole.") That Fincher's film somehow manages a captivating, mature character study is central to its accomplishment.
Back to the dormitory: Zuckerberg downs some beers, scorn-blogs, hacks into student directories across campus, and uses the photos to construct a misogynistic website. The resulting pre-dawn Harvard network crash lands Zuckerberg in the first of many disciplinary hotseats, but also catches the attention of the well-to-do Winklevoss twins (both played, with the help of some wonderfully low-key effects work, by Armie Hammer), who enlist his help in building a site called the Harvard Connection. Later that night Zuckerberg pulls his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) out of a party with a pitch for an "improved" version of the idea, and Facebook is born.
Fincher continues to show a mastery that makes him one of the most quietly exciting American filmmakers. The Social Network is split between the story of the site's rise and the pair of testy legal negotiations that serve as its spine, and the three are woven breathlessly together, drawing momentum from a device that might have hobbled a lesser film. Fincher even does offhand what most filmmakers have spent years failing to do: That initial night of drunken, vengeful coding (underlined by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' superb score) is slyly cross-cut with privileged debauchery across campus, and Fincher dares us to find the party more interesting than a guy sitting at a computer.
Sorkin's choice of the lawsuits as a frame for Zuckerberg's story is much more than just a gift to Fincher. There is first of all the suspense—the intellectual-property-theft suit brought by the "Winklevi," as Zuckerberg calls them, amounts to a fascinating red herring, but the circumstances surrounding the second lawsuit take the entirety of the film to unfold, and mean everything emotionally. The motivation of different people to treat different stories as fact also subtly and intentionally undermines The Social Network as strict biography. As Sorkin himself points out, Zuckerberg's first line in the legal proceedings is an objection to what we're offered as the pivotal breakup: "That's not how it happened."
More than anything, though, returning again and again to Mark Zuckerberg in the defendant's chair brings us as close to the man as seems possible. The what and the how of his alleged transgressions play out in flat, just-the-facts exchanges, leaving the audience to deal with whiffs of ethical negligence on our own and project our conclusions back onto the character. In this subjectivity The Social Network finds an admirable approach to deconstructing a figure still respected and in the prime of life, and at getting to the heart of a man whose emotional inaccessibility is the whole point. He's an asshole, sure, but whether he's a villain is up to us.