Monday, 18 October 2010

'The Social Network' review:

This year few films have intrigued me more than David Fincher's 'The Social Network': a film about the founding fathers of the hugely successful Facebook website based on the book 'The Accidental Billionaires' by Ben Mezrich. The film focuses on the lawsuits filed against Mark Zuckerberg and ever since I read that 'West Wing' creator Aaron Sorkin had penned the screenplay, and that 'Squid and the Whale' star Jesse Eisenberg had been cast as Zuckerberg, I have been excited to see the finished film. Then, at the end of last month, the positive reviews began to come in and are yet to stop. It seemed as though everyone was calling it a masterpiece and awarding it "film of the year" status.

I worried that all this praise, coupled with my own longstanding interest in the film, might raise my level of expectation unrealistically high. After all, earlier this year my headlong descent into a world of hype left me a little underwhelmed by Christopher Nolan's 'Inception' and earlier this month a great weight of expectation probably played its part in my less than enthusiastic response to Palm d'Or winning 'Uncle Boonmee'. I needn't have worried, however, as it turned out that 'The Social Network' was actually better than I had ever anticipated. In fact I saw it for a second time within twenty-four hours.

Aaron Sorkin's reputation as a screenwriter has taken a few knocks in recent years as his TV follow up to 'The West Wing', 'Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip', was cancelled after one season and is generally disliked (though I was in the minority who enjoyed it), whilst he also scripted Mike Nichols' horrible 2007 film 'Charlie Wilson's War'. However his status as one of the best contemporary writers of dialogue has been completely restored as 'The Social Network' is, to my mind, his best work to date by some distance. I have always enjoyed the self-consciously clever and fast-paced style of his character's speech, but if I had one problem with his other work (even the best of it) it was that often it was all too clear who the "good guys" were.

'The West Wing' casts his White House staffers as shining white knights battling the forces of evil - Republicans (until the post-Sorkin addition of Alan Alda) always portrayed as though they are the snarling agents of Satan. Politically I was never upset by this representation, but however much it preached to this particular choir I tend to prefer more nuanced and humanistic depictions of people. In 'The Social Network' all of Sorkin's best qualities as a writer are evident whilst all the principle characters are fully formed and multi-dimensional. Much has been made of Zuckerberg having been portrayed unfavourably by the film - that it is a smear campaign against him - but I disagree with this.

As someone who has never met Zuckerberg (in fact I've never heard him speak) I can't vouch for how accurate the film is. I expect, like the film itself says, 85% of testimony is exaggerated (with the remaining 15% being fabricated altogether). Sorkin has said that his main duty is to storytelling and not to "truth". But regardless of what the truth of this story might be, within the world of the film all of the characters are pleasingly well rounded out. Zuckerberg is not portrayed altogether negatively, in fact I sympathised with him and even at times respected him (for his intelligence, self-belief and single mindedness). In fact the film questions its own validity at several points: set during two lawsuits the film positions all the actual founding of Facebook stuff as coming to us via each plaintiff's skewed testimony and referred to by Zuckerberg, more than once, as "lies".

Even Zuckerberg's best friend Eduardo (played by the new 'Spiderman' actor Andrew Garfield), who is perhaps the most obviously likable and sympathetic character, is not perfect: he is a rubbish businessman when it comes to understanding what Facebook can become and seeks to gain instant, easy profit from it in a way which may have damaged the site. As a counterpoint, Justin Timberlake's character, Napster co-founder Sean Parker, is probably the most obvious "villain" of the piece - threatening to throw Zuckerberg's empire into hedonistic chaos and freezing out Eduardo - yet he is also the one who sees the site's potential and helps to catapult it into the big time.

Then we have Armie Hammer skillfully portraying both of the rich, athletic and popular Winklevoss twins: Cameron and Tyler . Depending on your viewpoint they can stand as the instantly hateful examples of social inequality and of arrogant fraternity boys raised in privilege, but they are also shown to be fairly reasonable and decent people who have a real case against Zuckerberg - who they claim stole the Facebook idea from them. And we can also see why Zuckerberg might honestly believe he owes them nothing: "someone who makes a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever made a chair". Every character has an angle and nobody is cast as a hero or a villain. This well balanced script is also full of truly brilliant one-liners and more than one self-righteous and indignant tirade from Zuckerberg, delivered with intensity, and with a delicious air of spite and malice, by the ever-excellent Eisenberg.

Another great strength of Sorkin's screenplay is that it never makes any obvious comment about Facebook as a social phenomenon and its impact on our lives - save for one girl's throwaway remark that it's addictive - but plenty of allusions to its perceived evils are made in subtle ways. For example, Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend played by the up-and-coming Rooney Mara (now confirmed as the star of Fincher's 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' remake) lambasts the Facebook founder for writing trash about her on his blog commenting on his need to write everything he feels: "as if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared."

As well as the great cast and the gripping, intelligent script, which doesn't shy away from technical detail and fizzes by at a rate of knots (evaporating the films 125 minute running time), there is also the direction of Fincher to admire. He is able to shoot this film, essentially about nerds arguing, in such a way that it plays as an effective thriller. This is aided in no small part by the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score which lends an air of foreboding to everything that takes place. The film's colour palette is reminiscent of Fincher's 'Fight Club' (also shot by Jeff Cronenweth) and helps to make every aspect of Harvard campus life seem seedy and undesirable thus enabling the film establish a tone which differentiates it from anything else about American college campus life.

'The Social Network' is a staggering film and an instant classic. It is often very funny and always very clever, with a script that doesn't infantilize its audience. It is also thrilling and exciting... and dark too. As with Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' I am moved to say that this film is quite simply perfect. Historians and technology experts may disagree with the film's take on real events and I have some sympathy with business writer Andrew Clark at The Guardian when he asks: "does a 26-year-old businessman really deserve to have his name dragged through the mud in a murky mixture of fact and imagination for the general entertainment of the movie-viewing public?" Probably not. But whatever the "truth", and whatever the moral implications of this type of dramatised treatment of very recent history, 'The Social Network' is a quite brilliant piece of entertainment and a wonderful example of American cinema at its very best.

'The Social Network' is out now in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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