The Social Network – one of the first great movies about the internet era

14th October 2010

Facebook reigns as the world’s top social networking site despite only starting in 2004. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin upload a world before status updates.

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The Social Network has received rave reviews, and has already been hailed as one of the best films of the year. Certainly it’s one of the first great movies to be made about the internet era. As befits a high-stakes drama, it’s a tale of inspiration, intrigue and betrayal set in oak-panelled Ivy-League colleges and starkly-lit law firms. But it also relates a story of fragile friendships, petty squabbles and unthinking insults not a million miles away from the everyday postings on your average Facebook wall.

With over 500 million members, Facebook allows people to connect with friends, acquaintances and strangers, becoming virtual observers in the dramas of their lives. Based on Ben Mezrich's non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network tells the one big story that made all these little stories possible, and turned a brilliant student into a billionaire along the way.

Drunk and embittered after being ditched by his girlfriend (in what must be one of the most awkward dinner date conversations ever committed to celluloid), intense, ambitious Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) creates a website that allows students to rate female classmates by attractiveness. By morning his site has crashed the university’s servers, and Zuckerberg senses he could be onto something big.

Impressed, two members of Harvard’s rowing team, the wealthy Winklevoss twins (both played, convincingly, by Josh Pence), hire Zuckerberg to work on their social networking site, The Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg agrees, but pushes forward on his own project instead, turning to his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to supply the financing, pipping the twins to the post.

The story of Facebook’s rise and rise is told in flashback, as Zuckerberg fights two simultaneous lawsuits, from the Winklevosses on one hand, and Saverin (for reasons that will later become clear) on the other. Written by Aaron Sorkin - who also penned The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) - the film’s rapid-fire, highly-caffeinated dialogue conveys technical credibility as well as the focused mindset of the online entrepreneur.

Directed by David Fincher, The Social Network is a lean, taut drama which dispenses with the overt sentimentality of his recent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Like Zodiac (2007), and Benjamin Button also, The Social Network is impressively detailed period piece, and though it’s set in the not-too-distant past of 2004, it communicates a believable sense of time and place, giving an engrossing insight into a world that feels at once familiar and alien.

This sense of ‘otherness’ - accentuated by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ unnerving score - is the film’s weakness as well as its strength. The cast are universally excellent - with a scene-stealing turn from Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker - but Zuckerberg’s detachment feels slightly inhuman, and one starts to wonder whether we are watching a biopic, or a morality tale awaiting a denouement.

Facebook’s social impact - and recent headline-grabbing issues relating to privacy, security, bullying and child safety – aren’t directly explored. Instead, the film’s topic is the emotional detachment of the internet age itself, where friendships can be counted in clicks and social networks can be created on a computer screen. Cold and alone, Zuckerberg - at least, as he is depicted here - is as much a victim of this world as its instigator.