It launches us headfirst into an intense exchange between two students, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), sitting in a Harvard bar, opposite each other, nursing beers. You can hardly call it a conversation. She speaks smartly and normally; he avoids eye- contact, talks through her, responds selectively and, when the chat doesn’t go his way, needily asks: ‘Is this real?’
It’s a brilliant scene: on its own because it says so much about the filmmakers’ spin on Facebook founder Zuckerberg and the limits of interaction that his invention seeks to plaster over, and in the context of the work as a whole because it tells us straightaway that this is a film about a creeping void between people, whether or not they’re lovers, enemies, business partners or Facebook friends. It’s a savvy prologue to a story of how a perfect storm of social inadequacy, Ivy League exclusivity and computing genius inspired a global phenomenon.
The film makes its case instantly that Zuckerberg is a social disaster and sticks to that line as it moves from the wood-pannelled college dorms and snowy cloisters of Massachusetts to the trendy bars and hip offices of Palo Alto, CA. We meet Zuckerberg as he develops various student sites until he hits on TheFacebook.com, which he runs with friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is more suave, less awkward and the bridge between Zuckerberg and Harvard’s exclusive student clubs – a world from which he feels bitterly excluded.
As Facebook grows, Zuckerberg moves to California, seduced by the real-world, nerd-made-good charms of Napster’s founder, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, smart casting), who offers Zuckerberg informal membership of another club, a world of investors by day and parties by night. Not that Zuckerberg is a party animal; he just likes to feel part of something, like Facebook users, browsing photos for vicarious pleasure.
Eisenberg gives a storming performance as Zuckerberg, complementing his geeky clothes (hoodies, flip-flops) with a perma-deadpan voice, wildly roving eyes and a jolty physical presence. He’s full of contradictions: socially awkward but confident; ignorant of commerce but ruthless in business.
Essentially, the film is a series of flashbacks built around more recent legal shenanigans: the two depositions that resulted from accusations that, firstly, Saverin was unfairly ousted from Facebook and, secondly, that Zuckerberg stole his idea from two Harvard contemporaries, the Vinklevoss twins (Armie Hammer eerily plays both). These meetings, and Zuckerberg’s unco-operative presence at them, give the film a sober framework, but otherwise it’s a chronological tale, fast, furious and funny.
There’s no escaping that ‘The Social Network’ sticks the knife into Zuckerberg and milks for all it’s worth the irony of a disconnected soul connecting the world. We should be cautious and remember this is Fincher and Sorkin’s spin on the truth, grounded in fact but stretched and moulded to suit their themes. But what makes the film more than a witty, well-performed hatchet job that’s plugged cynically into the technological zeitgeist is that, despite the fun of the parties, the intrigue of the legal wranglings and the humour of the dialogue, Fincher and Sorkin never let us forget that we’re complicit in their story (or at least 500 million of us are). If, as the film argues, Zuckerberg’s values are mirrored in Facebook, what does that say about us? If we jab our finger too wildly at Zuckerberg, all we’ll get is a very sore eye.