“This is our time!,” Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker exults to Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg by way of welcoming the Harvard Facebook creator to Silicon Valley, and the same thing can be said by everyone who had anything to do with “The Social Network;” David Fincher can make five more masterpieces, Aaron Sorkin can win an Oscar, Tony and 20 more Emmys; Timberlake, Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer and Mara Rooney can all be big stars for the next half-century, but it will rarely be as sweet as this, a film where not only does everything come together in a way that the whole is even bigger than the sum of its brilliant parts, but where the result so resonantly reflects the time in which it was made.
The story of the virtually accidental birth of Facebook and the subsequent (and continuing) squabbling over the identity of its actual parents, “The Social Network” is a knock-out-- on a first viewing, it seems almost indecently smart, funny and sexy. The second time around, with the witty intelligence of Aaron Sorkin's script and the electrifying verve of David Fincher's direction no longer a surprise, half the time I sat there marveling at the similarities of the story, themes and structure to “Citizen Kane.”
I advance this idea reluctantly, as nothing will cause a film appear overrated like comparing it in any way to the perennial greatest movie ever made in Hollywood. But after getting home from my second look at “The Social Network,” I noticed an interview in which Fincher himself describes it as “the 'Citizen Kane' of John Hughes movies,” which jokily undercuts his own film's importance in an appealing way.
Stylistically and in feel, the films have nothing in common; whereas “Kane” is grandiose, the most filling six-course cinematic meal you could want, “Network” is fleet, like great tapas. Also making an enormous difference is the fact that the arc of “Kane” encompasses a man's entire life, while the new film is the story of the start of something. And, of course, Orson Welles was not only obliged to fictionalize the name of his leading character but also to deny it was based on William Randolph Hearst, whereas it never occurred to Sorkin and Fincher to call Mark Zuckerberg anything other than Mark Zuckerberg, even though their portrait of their subject is no more friendly than is Welles's and Herman Mankiewicz's of Hearst...err, Kane.
Some of the places where “Kane” and “Network” intersect: Both are about titans of a communications empire and both are told in part through the remembrances of those who knew them, “Kane” through direct old-age interviews with old cronies, “Network” through legal hearings triggered by multiple lawsuits by alienated former associates. The subjects of the two films become insanely rich at a very young age, get into trouble at elite schools and never graduate, spurn the establishment and the ordinary rules of the game, and can't hold a woman (although this seems not to be the case with the real Zuckerberg as, on the evidence of a current New Yorker profile, he's now living with a woman he became involved with while still at Harvard). However, this construct by Sorkin enables the writer to create a Rosebud ending for “Network.” And, fundamentally, both Kane and Zuckerberg are men (or characters) with whom friendship may be a one-way street, as Jed Leland and now Eduardo Saverin discover to their peril.
Fundamentally, then, both films center on difficult, unruly men whose lives fascinate because of the extraordinary things they did but also because of the callous ways they treated those closest to them. They are monsters, after a fashion, but always compelling.
But enough of “Kane” and on to the rare pleasures afforded by “The Social Network,” key elements of which lie in the unlikely pairing of Sorkin and Fincher. An avowed internet hater and Facebook know-nothing coming into the project, Sorkin immersed himself in the personalities and background and came up with a “Rashomon”-style approach to tell the story in which no particular person, or version, is right or wrong. He also wrote a script so long (more than 160 pages) and dialogue-heavy that, using the normal estimate of one page per minute of screen time, would have resulted in a movie of over two-and-a-half hours.
As always a master of visual precision, of controlling precisely what he wants to show in a given shot and scene, Fincher must have had all his actors mainlining caffeine, so quickly (and naturally) do they rattle off their dialogue at a pace Howard Hawks would have admired; he gets the whole story told in precisely two hours.
Rarely has a movie provided such a strong hook as the opening scene here, a barroom date in which a lovely young student (played by Mara, who has the lead in Fincher's version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) upbraids the insulting Zuckerberg thusly: “You're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. That's not true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” Well, he'll show her, which he does in a marathon session in which he hacks into the sites of all the Harvard houses to collect student pictures, the result of which is Facemash, in which girls are rated for their hotness.
Harvard doesn't care for this too much but others do, notably the Winklevoss twins (Hammer, doing remarkable double-duty), WASP gods who recruit the genius Jew to build a networking site they've conceived, The Harvard Connection. But while he's supposedly working on this, Zuckerberg, with the help of $1000 invested by his similarly geeky but better looking friend Eduardo (Garfield), develops the “friends” site he calls thefacebook, which becomes an instant hit in 2004 and soon spreads to other college campuses. Then in blasts Sean Parker (Timberlake), the ex-Napster whiz, to entice Zuckerberg to Palo Alto and inspire him to think really, really big.
The intermittent legal scenes, which are impeccably directed and not overplayed for seething resentment and condescension on both sides, place the moments of youthful invention in the shadow of subsequent fallings-out and recrimination. Every success has its price—in Zuckerberg's case, it's being considered an idea thief and scoundrel—but the failure of vision and tenacity on the part of the “losers” (each of whom collected into the tens of millions in settlements) looms just as large.
“The Social Network” is about so many things--the primacy of an idea, the things that define a generation, ambition and drive fomented by rejection and anger, the limitations of orthodoxy versus unbridled imagination, simultaneous creative and destructive impulses, the fluidity of what's considered an outsider and insider, rebel and establishment—that it provides almost an unlimited number of things to think about, while also providing a viewing experience of continual stimulation. Everything about it is rich.