Among the many ideas swirling around The Social Network is the quantification and commodification of social interaction. Everything is a number: User count, school count, net worth, investment funds, ownership percentages. Digits everywhere. A billion dollars, not a million. Hell, the crux of the incredible first-act “Facemash” montage is Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) teaching Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) how to use an Elo algorithm to turn women’s beauty into a numeric ranking.
And, of course, there are the big numbers framing the story: Two gargantuan lawsuits for damages, harbingers of everything destroyed and disrespected by the rise of big tech, for better and (mostly) worse.
This, to me, is why The Social Network is a capital-G Great film. It’s not simply a terrifically entertaining, perfectly constructed drama (though it certainly is), but that the story is a reflection of a fundamental shift of the way the humans communicate and relate with each other. We are more social, more networked, but less connected. Our lives are captured in ones and zeroes on social media, our existence distilled to uploads and likes.
Zuckerberg — at least the fictional version of him, as written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, and played by Eisenberg — makes a perfect vessel for the competing forces. He’s a college kid; a technical genius who can’t figure out how to process the world in a healthy way, so he disrupts it. When he’s dumped in the opening scene — an intro so perfect it was basically immediately added to filmmaking and scriptwriting textbooks — his response is to write some nasty blogs where he compares his ex to a farm animal. Plenty of heartbroken losers have said cruel things in the wake of a breakup; few have taken that act of dehumanization and turned it into a globally-spanning web platform. (I love the motif of farm animals, always used to humiliate: Saverin is later caught carrying around a chicken as a hazing ritual.)
Some of the rhetorical and narrative devices that The Social Network uses are the exact kind I complain about in other films. This is, essentially, a biopic, and I often find it hackneyed when biopics try to apply some hidden biographical explanation to future events. The way The Social Network ties the rise of Facebook to Zuckeberg’s desire for validation via joining a frat-like “finals club,” as well as his breakup with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), would be an eye-roller in most hands. But not here. It works largely because it’s tied so tightly with the broader, timely themes of disconnection.
Any time it seems like the movie is headed toward an easy answer or take-away, it gives us some other angle to think about. In fact, the plot about the Winklevoss twins (both Armie Hammer) is almost entirely to provide counterweight and contrast and mirrors to other threads: They are old-money, old-world operators, physically domineering in the way Zuckerberg is intellecutally. Their stake in the story is that, in most versions, they’d get the credit and the money. But Zuckeberg, for all his flaws, has succeeded democratically, by the vote of the users and the zeitgeist. “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”
Everything about The Social Network is tensely and grippingly told. Sorkin’s dialogue absolutely crackles, and his narrative is perfectly paced. Fincher’s direction is impeccable: Every scene is a marvel, and there are some truly great montages. His ability to frame the human face is bewildering: Mara, in particular, has one teary reaction shot that shatters my soul. Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth capture Boston and Silicon Valley in steely and acidic hues, with plenty of grain; never too inviting, but never too icy or inhuman.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a truly special soundtrack, busy and electronic. It adds to the film’s sense of motion and propulsion. There’s an ominous sense of looming destiny and danger to the score, as if we’re watching a thriller. Plenty of scores since have tried to sound like it, but none have nailed it to the same degree.
The acting, too, is exemplary and elevates the material. The trio of leads — Eisenberg, Garfield, and Justin Timberlake as startup brat Sean Parker — is pretty flawless, each giving electricity to a juicy character. Eisenberg in particular brings a performance I adore, nervy and just human enough to lend an air of tragedy to the affair, while also deeply funny in a million small ways.
The Social Network is one of the best films of the 2000s and one of my favorites ever. It’s so urgent and watchable, but also one of the defining texts of the information age revolution that we are still undergoing.