by Raj Ranade
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David Fincher, to put it mildly, has something to say. Before the opening Columbia logo of his new film The Social Network has even begun to fade to black, the dialogue begins – jokes, barbs, rejoinders, declarations, rushing forth in double time through theatre speakers, accompanied by tennis-match back-and-forth visual editing. Fans of the film’s writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) will be familiar with the preternatural wit and snap of the scene’s conversationalists, a college couple chatting in a Harvard bar, but the speed is faster and the material funnier, like the 1930s screwball comedies of Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch. The scene keeps moving – she’s trying to get through to him, he’s obsessed with ambitions of social climbing and tech stardom, she breaks up with him, he viciously blogs about her at home, his best friend sees the news and comes to console him. And the realization sets in – Fincher is using this antiquated joke-a-second pace to represent the blistering speed with which Generation Y processes, circulates, and publicizes their feelings, their lives, their information as a whole. Cinematic history repeats itself and the medium becomes the message, all by the ten-minute mark.
It’s an insightful and ferociously entertaining stroke of filmmaking, the kind that Fincher has become widely respected for, but it’s certainly far from effortless – Fincher made his actors do no less than 99 takes of the break-up scene. Indeed, Fincher is notorious for his fixation on the smallest details of every shot, his aversion to social niceties when dealing with studios (not to mention the occasional act of violence), and his rough treatment of actors (Jake Gyllenhaal on Fincher: “He paints with people – it’s tough to be a color”). Fincher’s attraction to the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the socially-maladjusted control freak who started Facebook and was subsequently sued for millions by his co-founder and best friend, is therefore understandable. And this inspired match of filmmaker and subject matter has resulted in a fantastic film, one that explores the social disconnection and unprecedentedly public lives of modern generations as effectively as it portrays a timeless story of ambition, greed, class conflict, and betrayal.
Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is the acid-witted jerk in the opening scene’s bar, and the breakup spurs him to create a cruel joke site called Facemash, which allows users to compare the attractiveness of female Harvard undergrads. The scenes of Zuckerberg and his roommates frantically coding are cross-cut with the exclusive parties of social circles they’ve been blocked from – a “Revenge of the Nerds” scenario if there ever was one, but it’s hard to align your sympathies with the nerds this time. The stunt gains him the ire of the entire female campus community and the Harvard IT staff, but also the attention of twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Olympic rowers, old money, and aspiring founders of an exclusive new type of social website (and as played by Armie Hammer, doubled with the use of seamless special effects, blue-eyed muscle-bound WASP gods compared to Zuckerberg’s nebbish).
The twins want Zuckerberg’s help in coding the website, but he has his own (mostly unethical) ideas borne of pride, jealousy, and wanton ambition. And it’s at this point that chronology splinters, with Fincher and Sorkin gracefully interweaving Facebook’s origin story and tumultuous beginnings with the heated lawsuit testimonies that would come years later. Viewers need to remain on their toes, but there’s an immense delight in sinking to the rhythms creating by editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. An earnest 2003 query from Zuckerberg to his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) gets a bitter 2008 reply with Saverin, now flanked by lawyers staring Zuckerberg down. And again, this brain-tickling structure is not only a joy in and of itself; it also gets to the uncertain, shifting nature of truth when only divergent testimonies are available.
Anyone familiar with Fincher’s vastly underrated 2007 film Zodiac, which starts as the story of the to-date un-captured Zodiac Killer but spirals into a tale of police obsession over an unsolvable case, will be aware that Fincher scoffs at the idea of providing pat answers to disputed history. Instead, he simply piles up evidence, even when it’s contradictory. And that attention to detail results in a wealth of fascinating observations even as the central question remains unresolved – how the world’s most successful social website was built by a social misfit, how lingering petty emotions can have colossal repercussions, how immutable class status can be.
Fincher’s design is luckily served by a cast of actors in uncommon form. There’s been a lot of talk about Justin Timberlake’s performance as Sean Parker, the flashy Napster inventor who corrodes Zuckerberg’s already-tarnished soul with his own paranoid bravado. This is because a) the performance is certainly good, and b) the performance is by Justin Timberlake. Eisenberg’s performance, though, is a case of an actor being reborn before our eyes, renewed after years playing the lovelorn nerd in what seemed like Michael Cera’s discarded roles. Eisenberg’s clipped speech patterns and intense stare almost have an extra-terrestrial vibe to them (aided by Trent Reznor’s future-synth score and Fincher’s dystopian lighting of even mundane scenes), but between viciously funny one-liners, in the off-kilter gaps between his words and the slight winces on his face, Eisenberg reveals a man with a profoundly damaged soul.
If there are a few moments in The Social Network that feel off (mainly the Fatal Attraction characterization of Saverin’s girlfriend), they’re quickly eclipsed by the overwhelming assurance of the direction and the mesmerizing performances. More than a few comparisons have been made to Citizen Kane (Sorkin gives this story of a self-made, self-corrupted tycoon its own “Rosebud” in the form of a curse word), but The Social Network never announces itself as important in the way of most masterpieces. The film is thoroughly witty and satisfying as you watch it, but it’s only later that the ingenuity of its construction and the heft of its emotions become clear, along with the fact that it’s the best movie of the year so far.
The secret word is Winklevoss
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