David Fincher's growth as a filmmaker has been both nuanced and startling. His initial pictures are confrontational, reliant upon his experience as a music video director that make pictures like Se7en and Fight Club draining exercises in style. Far from a nihilist, Fincher crafted himself into a deep pessimist who nevertheless fought to find the good in life. He brought an old detective out of despair by ironically plunging him into the heart of darkness. He ruthlessly mocked the fascistic conformity of the emasculated male even as they supposedly rebelled against a false image, but Fincher managed to spare some sympathy for those who felt a sense of cultural disconnect.
In recent years, Fincher has not drastically altered his course so much as punched through to the other side of his bleakness. His stories are no longer stomach-churning but atmospheric and chilling, but the hearts of Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are essentially no different than that of Se7en: they are stories about people who are ultimately doomed but soldier on, because the alternative is even more terrifying. With The Social Network, "Fincher 2.0" develops this thread even further, and the greatest kick of the film comes from watching the preconceived notions of its two auteurs -- Fincher and West Wing maestro Aaron Sorkin -- completely invert. Here, Fincher is, for the first time, nakedly sympathetic to the ambition of a morally dubious man (though he's as critical as ever of Mark's actions), while the ever-optimistic Sorkin pens a critique of the entire idea of social networking. In fact, were a director without Fincher's confidence and commitment to his own vision attached to the project, The Social Network likely would have ended up as nothing more than the ramblings of a curmudgeon woefully behind the times.
The contrast brings out the best in both the script and the direction. Sorkin's pessimism checks Fincher's willingness to excuse some of Mark Zuckerberg's behavior, while Fincher's atmospheric direction adds layers of complexity to Sorkin's style, which relies upon people who speak like playwrights to make characters who are both abhorrently unrealistic yet bizarrely plausible and believable. His overly verbose style lends itself well to the Harvard boys who invent and squabble over Facebook: all of them put on airs, exploit family connections and ready themselves for lucrative futures that they pretend to work hard for so it doesn't look embarrassing when their trust funds mature. They believe themselves to already be the superior of everyone their age, yet they behave like the frat boys they are.
Fincher and Sorkin even manage to trace Facebook back to a childish, misogynistic stunt. We meet Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a date with a young woman named Erica from Boston University. Mark monopolizes the conversation, fixating on the reputable clubs that he wants to get into because the most powerful people in the world joined them in their college days. He talks so much and speaks so condescendingly to Erica that she finally calls him an asshole and leaves. In a huff, Mark returns home, drunkenly blogs about the breakup and subsequently hacks into the photo databases of Harvard's various dorms and creates a site where male students vote on the hotness of Harvard women. At four in the morning, the site gets so many hits that the university's servers crash.
The Social Network is structured around two separate lawsuits over the ownership of Facebook. One pits Mark against Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both Armie Hammer), wealthy, Olympic-level rowers who came to Zuckerberg after his stunt with an idea to create a social networking site for Harvard students. They intended it as a casual dating site, but Mark went home and set about making not "Match.com for Harvard" but a place that allows him to take all of collegiate socializing and place it on the Internet. A month later, Mark tells the Winklevoss brothers he cannot complete the assignment, shortly before he launches The Facebook in its infancy.
The other lawsuit finds Mark being sued by his best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, looking uncannily like a young Jean-Pierre Léaud), who alleges that Mark cut him out of the profits even though he provided 100% of the start-up capital. The Winklevoss lawsuit pits two forces of equal arrogance against each other, but Eduardo's indignation during deposition meetings comes from a sense of personal harm.
Even so, none of these young men is any moral example. The Winklevoss twins come off as the sort of smug rich boys who will get cushy jobs in their father's law firm. When Mark launches Facebook, they pull strings to get an audience with the Harvard president to demand that the school shut down the site and expel Zuckerberg. When the president calls them out on their absurd sense of entitlement, the brothers looked shocked, as if anyone can bring a petty squabble to the head of the university. Saverin never shuts up about his own well-connected father, and his lawsuit for a portion of Facebook's profits seem less a matter of money than an attempt to win back his dad's approval. Saverin gets edged out of the picture by Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), whose smooth-talking victim complex suggests the late stages of a cocaine-induced breakdown.
Then, there's Mark. Fincher always keeps Eisenberg separate from others, and the actor never looks comfortable when forced to deal with people. His site opens up socializing, to the point that anyone has access to everyone, and young men and women begin behaving irrationally over the transparency of their lives. The irony of his own ability to connect with anyone should be lost on no one.
In telling Mark's story, Fincher clearly draws from Orson Welles' great Citizen Kane, the story of a young media mogul who grows old and dies alone. Like Charles Foster Kane, Zuckerberg is indisputably a prodigy, a man of ambition and focus who builds upon the suggestions of his guides until he no longer has to stand on their shoulders. And like Kane, he cannot find true happiness in his work. Eisenberg occasionally breaks off all attention from the world to stare into space, and his utter lack of social skills hint that Mark may have Asperger's. But social discomfort does not fully explain the open arrogance in Mark's dark smirk. When a lawyer suggests that Mark's behavior toward the wronged parties stems from his resentment of never being invited to join one of the big-time Harvard clubs, Mark snidely replies that he currently has enough money to buy them and make them into game rooms.
The empire Mark builds doesn't have the grandeur of Kane's newspaper supremacy, but its influence runs far deeper. Groupies line up to sleep with the founder of Facebook, and we see how quickly Facebook becomes a part of people's lives. Within weeks, "Facebook me" has entered into Harvard's lexicon, and couples devolve into major, terrifying arguments over how often a page is updated to match a relationship status. Fincher seems to draw from his own Fight Club at times, portraying Facebook as something that sets off a cultural revolution that cannot be contained. Not even Project Mayhem is as widespread as the site where everyone -- including yours truly -- goes to post menial BS that can be taken for so much more. With businesses willing to terminate or not hire someone based on photos posted online, the issues of privacy that Zuckerberg casually steamrolls over to be popular carry a weight he does not or cannot contemplate.
The more social networking links people, the bigger the barriers, physical and mental, are formed in the real world. When Mark moves out to Palo Alto on Parker's advice, Eduardo heads to New York to work as a finance intern and seek advertisers from traditional routes. The 3,000 miles between them enhances the schism between them, with Saverin pursuing a business model that's proven but won't maximize profits for this kind of venture and Zuckerberg falling further and further into Parker's clutches. The two friends share an awkward exchange when Saverin finally comes out to California, and though the subject is not directly broached at the time, they both know that Eduardo is out, and the fleeting moment of friendship between them won't reverse what's coming. The irony of Mark's disconnect is compounded by the workers he hires when Facebook grows rapidly: anyone updating the site for better usability and interaction is described as being "wired in" and cannot be spoken to as if in stasis. The levels of impersonality between people mere feet away is bewildering even though we're living in this changed world now.
Fincher and Sorkin make tension out of the ostensibly banal subject of website programming by depicting how empty it all is. Mark, Saverin, the Winklevosses, not one of them has enough personality to hang a hat on. These are the people who created a way for all of us to fit our background, current statuses and interests onto a single page, as if Facebook was just a way for everyone to look as dull as them. The twins host raunchy parties while Mark decides to find an intern by holding an elaborate drinking game where the player who codes properly while hammered gets the job. These are just boys, yet they play with levels of money most of us cannot fathom. Couched in the vicious fights for intellectual supremacy is the suggestion that these are the sort of people who control all the money, spoiled kids and broadly unethical wunderkinds who receive respect for breaking numerous laws simply because they look cool in the process. When Saverin jealously prods Parker for losing to the courts on Napster, Parker still claims victory. "You wanna buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?" implying that he unleashed peer-to-peer file sharing to destroy the industry that would not work with him and recognize his talents.
Yellow-green dominates the color palette, as if someone finally got so sick with envy at the accomplishments of another that he finally vomited. The electronic/industrial score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross throbs and hums like a migraine headache, occasionally fading but never disappearing. Ominous without being ornate, the score captures the emotion of the film perfectly: cold but searching. It keeps looking for an outlet and finds none, always trapped by the insular attitudes of the characters, who only become lonelier as the film wears on. Its vaguely 8-bit sound deepens into more expressive tones, returning to motifs that suggest not just a thematic continuity but a personal stagnation on the part of young men who refuse to start acting like adults. Paranoia flecks their isolation, from Parker's obsessiveness over those who shut him down to the rumors that flame through instant Internet contact. It's almost funny how a student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, is seen as a deadlier social weapon than any of the national papers Kane's empire ran.
Much of the substance of David Fincher's films can be gleaned from his opening credits, something the great video essayist Matthew Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas are currently demonstrating with their pieces for the Museum of the Moving Image (part one found here). As ever, the atmosphere and character of The Social Network can be seen in its own opening. Rejected by Erica, Mark marches home as the camera glides over Harvard (or at least the shooting locations standing in for Harvard), showing all the interesting sights and people Mark could be interacting with instead of running home to blog. The score bristles with dark tones, and for all the camera's grace, you begin to fear that he might be planning something to hurt the girl. And, in a way, he does, insulting her online and subjecting her to verbal abuse from other misogynistic guys. It establishes Mark as a man who cannot let things go, and Erica manages to float around the back of his mind the entire film, as if he made Facebook solely to prove himself not an asshole rather than simply apologizing and acting more nicely.
Still, you never fully hate anyone in this movie, even if you want to give them all a good slap. Mark becomes the youngest billionaire in the world, but he has no one to enjoy it with, and his incessant invasions of privacy ensure that even the public that uses his site like a drug does not admire him. Like Facebook itself, The Social Network stays constant just long enough for you to get used to it before something changes, not in the narrative so much as the mood. Arrogance gives way to the insecurity motivating it, which in turn morphs into loneliness. When Mark sits by himself at the end, surfing his own website in that bizarrely fixated way of his, the chasm of darkness around him and the implication of his lawsuit with Eduardo make him resemble less Charles Kane than Michael Corleone. He's the most powerful man in the world -- just read any ranking of the most influential people -- and he has nothing to show for it and no amount of clicking 'refresh' will change that.