The Social Network

 

Directed by David Fincher. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Brenda Song, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer 15A cert, gen release, 120 min

This surprisingly gripping and psychologically astute drama is less about Facebook and more about the site’s famously, er, eccentric founder, writes DONALD CLARKE

IT TOOK Hollywood about 60 years to get round to its biopic of Alexander Graham Bell. In 1939, when Dom Ameche played the inventor, the fashions and mores depicted in the film seemed ancient, but the telephone, Bell’s great creation, was still something of a luxury item.

With that in mind, one might accuse director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin of getting a little ahead of themselves here. It is barely six years since Facebook – the subject of this gripping, suffocating, slightly overlong film – was devised in a Harvard dorm room. Surely another decade or so should pass before we stop to consider the website’s origins.

Are you crazy? This is internet time. In those few years, Facebook has risen to the status of phenomenon, been dismissed as

old hat and come back to establish something close to a secure foothold in cyberspace. Viewed through the web’s dilating lens, the characters in The Social Networkseem to be living in an impossibly distant era. Why, they might as well be wearing ruffs and codpieces.

In a performance of palm- dampening creepiness, Jesse Eisenberg turns up as Facebook’s notoriously eccentric founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Can we say “eccentric”? When writing about a living person, journalists are cautioned to measure every word. The film is, however,

so savage in its depiction of the Facebook fraternity that, short of dreaming up some murder, it’s hard to imagine how one might libel this unlovely gang. They lie. They cheat. They take cocaine. Sony Pictures’ lawyers must have run up a great deal of overtime.

The first scene finds Zuckerberg, an undergraduate at Harvard, getting unceremoniously dumped by Erica Albright, his current girlfriend. “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek,” she says in a resonant phrase. “That won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Fuelled by solipsistic rage, Zuckerberg flies into a fit of keyboard thumping. He writes various nasty things about Erica on his blog and hammers out a website that invites Harvard students to compare the looks of matched female students. The system crashes almost immediately and, infuriated by his hacking prowess (the women’s photos were lifted from college records), the authorities severely discipline Zuckerberg.

Shortly thereafter, Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss, absurdly blue-blooded identical twins, invite the young man to their quarters and propose that he help them out with developing (as such things still weren’t called) a social networking site. Zuckerberg agrees, but, working with his pal Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), ends up devoting all his energies to the beast that would become Facebook. Some years later, both the Winklevosses and Saverin end up suing the now unimaginably wealthy Zuckerberg.

Sorkin and Fincher have had the good sense to avoid making a film about Facebook itself. After all, the viewer will either already be all too aware of how the site functions or will not care one way or the other. Nobody wants to spend two hours watching nerds squint at keyboards. The film is, rather, to do with the ordinary spitefulness of young people and the impossibility of remaining sane when bombarded with unexpected riches.

Never a director at ease with emotion (recall the inertness of the supposedly romantic Curious Case of Benjamin Button), David Fincher is well suited to examining a character as psychologically shut off as Zuckerberg. Inviting Jeff Cronenweth, his cinematographer on Fight Club, to layer the entire film in sepulchral darkness, Fincher creates a universe fashioned from worrying shadows and insinuating flutters. This is ordinary neurosis made visible.

Following the appalling flamboyance of Benjamin Button, The Social Networkdoes seem like an unusually restrained Fincher project. Yes, the director manages a few showy flourishes: the twins are played by one actor (Armie Hammer); a sequence at Henley Regatta strives unsuccessfully for set-piece status. But the film, for all the hugeness of Facebook, remains a small story about petty rivalries and largely imagined slights.

Anybody who’s been to university (or school or Cub Scouts) will appreciate its horrid dynamics.