How do you make a movie about people sitting around using computers interesting to a wide audience? How do you build tension, add pace and make it engrossing? How do you make an audience care about unlikeable people? David Fincher (‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, ‘Se7en’, ‘Zodiac’) knows the answer to these questions and many more, having picked up the best director award at the recent BAFTAs for ‘The Social Network’. By now, most people will know that this is the story of the rocket fuelled growth of Facebook, the titular social network.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to its creator Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg (‘Adventureland’) as he talks like a daisy wheel printer (remember them?) to his girlfriend in a noisy crowded bar. He’s like a robot with black and white logic and his mind doesn’t appear to have any room for the feelings of others as he says outrageous things with no consideration for the consequences. We’ve all met someone in our lives like this and those who have worked in the IT industry may well have encountered many who exhibit the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome or another shade of the autistic spectrum. They can be scary creatures and this guy’s human interface protocol isn’t even in beta testing yet.
As his girlfriend splits with him, his childishly spiteful mind seeks revenge by coming up with a system that is calculated to inflict hurt not only on her, but also on every girl in Harvard University, by comparing one girl against another in a ‘who’s hotter than who?’ side by side comparison. His IT skills allow him to hack in to the various separate databases in the University to add ‘contestants’ to his ‘Facemash’. When pulled up before the University board he justifies his efforts by pointing out that he’s highlighted weaknesses in their on line security. Ah, that old chestnut! His notoriety then brings him to the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer with some CGI help) who have an idea for a University based social networking site. The twins are incensed when instead of working on their site, he releases his own which spreads like a bush fire at the peak of Summer, not just within the confines of the university but worldwide. He forms a partnership with his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who becomes the Chief Financial Officer due to his input of $1000 start up capital. Along the way they meet the arrogant Sean Parker of Napster fame who becomes almost a mentor to Zuckerberg, who is impressed by his selling skills. Mark’s coldly logical brain sees a use for Sean but not for Eduardo, so Eduardo is sidelined. Mark is then facing a Law suit not only from the Winklevoss twins but also from his former best friend. The movie is propelled along by the hearings, which allow the story to be told in flashback.
At the very outset, although I knew that Fincher had picked up the best director BAFTA, I doubted if I would find ‘The Social Network’ interesting as it centred around people whose behaviour I struggle to like. I also could not believe that a movie about a website would be entertaining enough to hold my interest for its 120 minute duration and I find court room dramas somewhat yawn inducing, into the bargain. Despite those odds, I became involved in the movie probably because of Zuckerberg’s sheer audacity at apparently pinching someone else’s idea, shafting his best friend and making a fortune – in much the same way as I’d watch in horror as someone deliberately parked their car on a level crossing. There’s always something going on and the movie builds its momentum towards the climax. By the end, of course, Zuckerberg is starting to count the personal cost of his actions as he may well have lots of money – but no friends.
Jesse Eisenberg, turns in a first rate performance as the coldly remote young ‘entrepreneur’. He captures perfectly the look of a person whose mind is working on something other than the matter being discussed in the current conversation. There appears to be no real malevolence in his actions, what he does is to simply make logical decisions and if someone is hurt along the way then, in his mind, it is unavoidable.
Andrew Garfield as sharply dressed Eduardo portrays a go getter on a small scale who gives it all his best shot, while picking up a few girls along the way. His outrage at being ousted by the obnoxious Parker is almost crackling with electricity. Of all the characters, his is the most human.
Justin Timberlake is superb as the conniving Parker, who has the business acumen to recognise a good thing and the native cunning to know how best he can benefit from it. It’s fascinating to watch his character put a spin on situations such as when he claims to have brought the music industry down and justifying it by asking if anyone wants to buy Tower Records. Conceit beyond belief and the ability to logically explain away situations strikes a chord with Zuckerberg’s mind set. He sees Parker as a great success with the confidence to shore up his own insecurities.
Before watching the movie, I had absolutely no idea that the Winklevoss twins were both played by Armie Hammer, with CGI being used to stick his face on a body double. It is so seamless. I was fooled as it wasn’t until watching the ‘making of’ featurette that it became apparent. Effects have achieved the ultimate when you don’t see a ‘suss job’.
Another impressive aspect of the production is the fact that it was shot digitally using the Red One camera system. The end result totally lacks the clinical look of High Def video and instead has a very natural filmic look with quite stunning use of depth of field and directional lighting. The only thing that could possibly distinguish it from film would perhaps be its lack of grain.
Apart from having a very smart, intelligent script by Aaron Sorkin – which provides a clear framework for the movie - it’s very obvious that in the hands of a lesser director who did not possess such a precise focus on what makes things work, the movie could well have been a leaden affair that would have lost its audience after the first twenty minutes. As it stands, it’s a great tribute to not only the director and writer but also to some very credible performances from the mostly young cast. It was overshadowed at the BAFTAs by ‘The King’s Speech’ but it will be interesting to see how well it fares on home turf at the 2011 Oscars. Even if you don’t use Facebook, this movie is well worth a watch.
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