Movie Review: 'The Social Network'

Near the end of David Fincher's movie about Facebook, a young attorney tells CEO Mark Zuckerberg: "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be one." It's something of an apology for a movie that makes Zuckerberg appear every bit the asshole.

Early in the movie, Zuckerberg's girlfriend dumps him, saying: "You're going to be successful and rich. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole." Her comment and the one later bookends the movie. But there's something about the early asshole characterization that doesn't fit. The movie opens with Zuckerberg talking to the girlfriend (Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara), and he comes off every bit the stereotypical over-intellectual, socially inept geek. He speaks his mind, to a fault.

The couple's conversation, which takes place in Boston late 2003, is one of the best opening sequences I've seen in film for years. The clipped dialogue, how Zuckerberg multitasks between topics, is mesmerizing. Albright is talking topic B, while Zuckerberg is answering topic A. He meanders lots. The scene also sets the tone for actor Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Facebook's cofounder. It's a simply, brilliant Academy Award-worthy performance.

Same can be said for the movie, which absolutely deserves some Oscar consideration. "The Social Network" isn't just a film of the moment -- that is cinema du jour -- but a tight, riveting drama that makes two hours blip by, kind of like the time spent on Facebook. I say that knowing the basic plot beforehand. I'm a long-time technology journalist after all. I'm familiar with the backstory about Facebook's founding, the intellectual property disputes and lawsuit settlements -- and still the movie captured my attention. Director Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tell a good story. The dialogue is so exceptional, I now regret having never watched an episode of the TV show "The West Wing," on which Sorkin worked.

I pined for my college days watching Zuckerberg run across Harvard's campus from the restaurant where Albright dumps him. The lighting (East Coast scenes are all fairly dark) and cinematography are evocative. By the way, the soundtrack sets a surprisingly modern tone. I now regret not grabbing it on Sept. 28, when AmazonMP3 discounted to $2.99.

Albright's breakup, which I understand is fictionalized, sets forth the entire chain of events leading to Facebook's creation. Distraught, Zuckerberg seethes about Albright in a LiveJournal blog post and the same night creates a coed-comparison Website that crashes Harvard's network. All other events follow because of the breakup. "The Social Network" presents a simple motivation for Facebook's founding: It's all about a girl.

The other driving force behind Facebook is male, Napster creator Sean Parker who is surprisingly well-portrayed by Justin Timberlake. Parker enthralls Zuckerberg, guiding him to California and infecting him with the idea Facebook can be not a million-dollar company but a billion-dollar one. I can't attest to the accuracy of Timberlake's Parker characterization, but I enjoyed it.

"The Social Network" is a morality tale about ambiguous morals. Zuckerberg either has none or operates by a different set of morals than his protagonists. Hint to the latter: Something Parker says about the rules being different on the Internet that resonates with Zuckerberg. All the characters gain depth by being shades of gray. No one is purely anything, like real people are supposed to be.

But Zuckerberg's character is the most perplexing. There's something Shakespearean about Zuckerberg in an Asperger's syndrome kind of way. For someone creating a service for defining and maintaining relationships, Zuckerberg strangely and methodically destroys every possibly meaningful relationship around him.

I carefully watched the computers and other devices to see if the filmmaker authentically portrayed the era -- granted, even if only six to seven years past. I noticed at least one faux pas: What looked like a modern MacBook Pro used by a DJ in a 2003 party sequence.

Otherwise, "The Social Network" is riveting and will appeal to anyone using Facebook -- and even those not. I saw an early morning show today, and, to my surprise, most of the audience was over 60 years old. I expect that younger viewers will pack evening shows. Certain movies capture the spirit, the essence of its generation, such as "The Graduate" did for late-1960s Baby Boomers (I compiled but decided not to post a list for other decades). "The Social Network" may be the movie for the Net Generation.

I give "The Social Network" five stars. Do see it.

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