The Social Network – With Friends like these, who needs enemies

The Social Network - Jesse Eisenberg & Justin Timberlake

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin are not the most obvious of cinematic hook-ups.

Fincher’s the dazzling visual stylist; Sorkin’s the dazzling verbal wit. One’s renowned for dark thrillers; the other for snappy backstage dramas; one made Seven and Fight Club; the other The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

You wouldn’t think that their talents would gel, yet their collaboration on The Social Network is brilliant: the best movie to come out of Hollywood in the last 12 months – no wonder it’s been picking up awards at the rate Justin Bieber accumulates online fans.

In other hands, the story of the founding of Facebook might have made for a mildly engaging TV movie. The film could quite easily have been a straightforward celebratory account of how a genius-hacker-in-a-dorm-room became the youngest billionaire on the planet.

The Social Network - Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg

With Fincher and Sorkin at the helm, though, the story of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is a gripping tale of ambition and envy, betrayal and resentment.

At the heart of the movie, is a simple yet deeply ironic insight – it took someone socially dysfunctional to create the social-networking site that changed the world; the person who revolutionised the way in which people connect was – probably had to be – an emotionally withdrawn geek.

As portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, 19-year-old Zuckerberg may have been the smartest guy in the dorm room back in Harvard, circa 2003, but he was also the dorkiest guy too. He wasn’t one of the cool kids. And that hurt. So he turned this sense of social exclusion into the spur for creating the social network that all the cool kids would want to join.

The Social Network - Rooney Mara & Jesse Eisenberg

Sorkin and Fincher establish this in the film’s strikingly smart opening scene in which Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg gets dumped by his Boston University girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara, soon to be Fincher’s girl with the dragon tattoo).

Sorkin’s dialogue has the Gatling-gun speed of the rat-a-tat exchanges in The West Wing, but the scene isn’t about a couple so in synch with one another that their conversation becomes verbal tennis (as in His Girl Friday). Quite the reverse.  Zuckerberg’s rapid-fire speech is like someone hitting a ball against a wall. No wonder (fictional) girlfriend Erica gives him the following kiss-off:

“You’ll go through life thinking girls dislike you cos you’re a nerd. But it’s not true. They’ll dislike you cos you’re an asshole”.

Stung, Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and takes revenge online, blogging spitefully while spontaneously creating a site that turns out to be Facebook’s precursor.

The Social Network - Andrew Garfield, Joseph Mazzello, Jesse Eisenberg and Patrick Maple

It’s a remarkably short step from “Facemash” (Zuckerberg’s vengeful website for rating the attractiveness of campus girls) to Facebook, but after the social networking site becomes a huge success Zuckerberg gets entangled in two multi-million-dollar lawsuits.

One is with his former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, very good), who provides Facebook with its initial capital but gets squeezed out after the dangerously charismatic Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, inspired casting), co-founder of music website Napster, gets involved and helps the site take off.

The other is with the Winklevoss twins (played with digital assistance by the same actor, Armie Hammer), upper-class Harvard Wasps with a bred-in-the-bone sense of entitlement, who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea.

The Social Network tells the story of these legal wranglings Rashomon-style, cutting back and forth between the participants’ varying accounts of Facebook’s inception and its bitter aftermath.

This is a very shrewd narrative device – it stops the filmmakers from getting sued and it makes for a compelling story that’s psychologically revealing and as gripping as a thriller. Sorkin, an even bigger Oscar cert this year than Colin Firth, has rightly been showered with praise for his script, but Fincher’s masterly direction deserves equal credit, not least for eliciting such awesome performances from Eisenberg, Garfield and their co-stars.

Released on 2-disc collector’s edition on Blu-ray & DVD on 14th February.

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