If the word "breathless" were still available, maybe David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin could have chosen it as the title of The Social Network, their lightning-quick zigzag through the rise of Facebook and the demise of all the nonvirtual relationships from which it sprang. Reviving the old Warner Bros. tradition of ripping films from today’s headlines—or, rather, carrying back into a big-studio production the headline-tearing methods that remain common in television, where Sorkin is their master—The Social Network makes crackling, often hilarious drama out of events that began in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room a mere seven years ago, reached a (very temporary) legal stopping point in 2008 and were put into book form (as Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, credited as the screenplay’s source) only in 2009.
You’d better not get self-indulgent if you want to toss off a film this fast; and indeed, Fincher has directed The Social Network head-on, without fudging a single camera setup or wasting a single shot (except for putting in one too many images of a caged hen—and that doesn’t matter, since the chicken is funny). You may judge the efficiency of Fincher’s methods by that zigzag effect I mentioned. Although The Social Network is structured as a double flashback—scenes of two different legal depositions in 2008 call up memories of 2003–04—the to-and-fro seems only to make the action accelerate.
The result is not a work of reliable reportage (something that only a mug would have expected it to be); nor is it, as some commentators are claiming, the story of a generation. (If the latter film is what you want, don’t go looking for it in the portrait of an exemplary billionaire. Wait for the movie about the 20-year-olds who were shipping out to Iraq and Afghanistan when Zuckerberg had his brainstorm, or who can’t find jobs today.) In fact, The Social Network doesn’t even tell you that much about social networks. What it does go into, fictionally but with strong critical intelligence, is the presumed difference between Zuckerberg’s attitudes and expectations and those of other people, members of his own generation included, whose thinking was about five minutes behind his. I take this difference to be the real subject of the movie. If the word had not already been taken, maybe Fincher and Sorkin could have called it Contempt.
This is a story that begins with a callous put-down, immediately escalates to public slurs (against one young woman at Boston University and every female undergrad at Harvard) and reaches its thematic high point when a character proudly remarks that one of his actions had not been a smart business move but was a great way of saying "Fuck you." Formally, The Social Network makes its strongest statement through a densely layered soundtrack in which the voices are often thoroughly blended into the ambient noise: an environment of omnidirectional chatter and continual buzz where you lean in to catch one line of dialogue while the speakers are already racing into the next. Dramatically, though, the most lasting impression The Social Network might leave is the image of its fastest thinker and talker as he rouses himself from a seeming torpor to tongue-lash an attorney three times his age. In return for a perceived condescension, Zuckerberg returns the real thing, red-hot and self-righteous, while scarcely looking at the object of his scorn.
This act of self-revelation is all the more striking for its rarity. Zuckerberg allows himself only a couple of others throughout the course of the film, and one of those hardly counts, given that he delivers it as a drunken blog post, written after his girlfriend walks out on him. The wonder of The Social Network is that Jesse Eisenberg, with his smooth and melancholy Jewish face, gets you precisely halfway onto Zuckerberg’s side. A specialist in bright, vulnerable brooders with a bit of a mean streak (see The Squid and the Whale or Adventureland), Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as a genius-level wolf-boy: someone who is so smart that he feels entitled to say whatever’s on his mind, however brutal, and resents other people for resenting him for it. Abrasive in voice and manner, arrhythmic in gesture, humorless (though he doesn’t think so), the character doesn’t bother to talk about his feelings because nobody’s worthy to hear about them, and besides, he’s really interested only in behaviors. Meanwhile, behind the actor’s deep-shadowed eyes, you sense an almost desperate sweetness. It’s Zuckerberg’s fatal flaw that he would never let anyone see that part of himself, and Eisenberg’s triumph that he gets through the entire movie without once begging you to notice it.