Not since last year's Inglourious Basterds have I left a movie theater so exhilarated; I couldn't wait to get home and type out my thoughts about David Fincher's latest The Social Network. But then a funny thing happened: I realized I was about a month late to the party, and, perhaps most pressing, what could I possibly add to the already invigorating and intellectually stimulating conversation that was taking place in the blogosphere. As you may recall this is exactly the same quandary I faced last year when talking about Tarantino's magnum opus, and it was at that time that I realized that the conventional review was not only less interesting to read, but, with a film as hyped and written about as The Social Network, even less interesting to write. Therefore, after the jump I'll simply present, for brevity's sake, eight bullet points on why The Social Network is a movie that I've seen multiple times: once in the theaters, and multiple times in my memory and in my dreams. That may sound strange, but I can't shake this film, and much like Inglourious Basterds last year it's a film that deserves more than a generic review about the film's narrative, how it is or isn't historically accurate, and whether or not Facebook changed the way we interact with the internet. No, I was more struck with what was on the screen, how it got there, and how those elements helped create one of the breeziest two hour films in recent memory.
The linked reviews above are a great place to start if you'd like to see better folk than I giving both a brief plot synopsis and conventional film review (the performances, the story, etc.) and brilliant critical points about some of elements I'll broach below. So please, check out Jason, Ed, Jim, and Jake's essays...there are many others that I linked to here.
Okay, now you're back...here are some things that make The Social Network the best movie I've seen in a year:
- Let's start with the most talked about scene in the film: the opening tête–à–tête. This cold open set to the wonderfully appropriate tune of "Ball and Biscuit" by The White Stripes (appropriate because of the nostalgia factor for someone like me who was in college when all of this Napster and Facebook stuff was going on, and I played the White Stripes album Elephant on my drive home from the movie theater) is a brilliant display of Aaron Sorkin's whiplash dialogue (perfectly handled by Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara) that made me think back to his "Sports Night" and "West Wing" days; the days when I compared him to Mamet without thinking it was crazy to do so ("Studio 60" soured me considerably on Sorkin). The brilliance of this opening is that not only are we being introduced to Mark Zuckerberg and his particular quirks (a crucial elements to any film's exposition), but we see how, to borrow a phrase from Jim Emerson, Zuckerberg -- a geek of the highest order -- speaks in code. Code is of course crucial in a film about coding, and as Emerson points out in the linked entries above, it's a code that's been around for years (the code of how to look, how to behave, how to act, how we size people up, etc.). Zuckerberg is obsessed with the social aspects of college life; he brusquely responds to his date, Erica, and her questions about why he so passionately seeks acceptance in campus clubs. His terse responses, not to mention cold and ambivalent (which is how Fincher and Sorkin view Zickerberg), a perfect bits of foreshadowing into the 100-word-limit responses we get today in Facebook posts and on Twitter accounts. It's perfect because when Zuckerberg insults his girlfriend without realizing it he has to ask, "wait...is this for real?" What a perfect line to start the film: "Is this for real?" Of course Zuckerberg has to ask this question, he only can think and act and respond to life in code. He only knows 0's and 1's, so it's wholly appropriate that when he realizes that he's insulted Erica in the bar he doesn't even flinch until she has to tell him, quite literally, that it's over. He can only respond in something as absolute as binary code, and he can only understand something so absolute, too. Here I invoke Tarantino's film again: the opening to The Social Network is about the most perfect, exhilarating, and intense (I was hanging on every word) I've seen since last year's Inglourious Basterds.
- The opening credit sequence is another virtuoso scene. I loved the juxtaposition of the digital Zickerberg walking through the very real campus of Harvard as if he is oblivious to what's around him (the weather, a violinist on the corner, other students) as he makes a bee-line for his dorm room so he can make sense of his recent breakup the only way he knows how: by manipulating and orchestrating the 0's and 1's as a means of revenge that manifests itself in a site called Facemash -- which gave birth to TheFacebook. Going back and reading thoughts about the film I was elated to see that I wasn't the only one who noticed the opening credits (and I'm not assuming I was), and what amounts to Zuckerberg's interaction, or lack thereof, with what Jim Emerson calls "the analog world". I love that phrase, and it's incredibly apt for the brilliant opening as the sparse music plays over Zuckerberg's trek through campus. It's also quite appropriate that Fincher, a filmmaker obsessed with digitization (he even has the same actor play brothers in this movie, a brilliant and seemless piece of editing that I didn't even catch until I read about it after the fact, but more on that later), has digital weather penetrating this "analog" world. Once again, it's something that seems so simple, and yet it's so very effective.
- The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is at times appropriately sparse when it needs to be, and bombastic and obvious when it needs to be. It ushers the viewer through a lot of the action (yes, The Social Network felt like an action movie to me with its smooth, but unrelenting back-and-forth pacing) until we realize a scene or two later that the music has been hanging around in the background almost the entire film -- as if we were in Zuckerberg's head listening to whatever is on his headphones. I also liked the constant music because a) it was good, and b) it's appropriate of the time Fincher is explicating (a history that seems odd to call history considering it was a mere seven years ago; although, the culture of our modern times -- a culture that forgets things three days later -- seven years does seem like quite the history lesson, I'm sure) because it seems like music accompanies everything we do these days: whether we have headphones on as we walk or run somewhere, go to the gym, work on something at home, drive home, and whatever other activity we may do it does indeed seem that music is a major part of our everyday life with how portable (read: digital) it has become. So I was glad to see that music was such a major part of the film.
- Speaking of digital music, Justin Timberlake as Sean "Napster" Parker is a brilliant piece of acting as well as casting. I don't think it was intended to be amusing, but I just loved seeing a musician who has sold millions and millions of albums playing the man who "brought down the music industry" as he so proudly boasts in the film. Timberlake is perfect as the better looking, more confident, west coast version of Zuckerberg, and we all know Fincher's affinity for doppelgängers, so it's no surprise that Parker is a prominent part of the film and that Zuckerberg takes to him so quickly despite his friend, and business partner, Eduardo's (Andrew Garfield) hesitance with letting Parker "in."
- Allow me to use this bullet for the purpose of praising the "analog" elements of the film: the actors. The aforementioned Andrew Garfield is outstanding, and nearly steals the film from the likes of Timeberlake, Arnnie Hammer (playing two roles), and Eisenberg; however, it is Eisenberg that this film belongs to. He plays Zuckerberg with the kind of brusqueness appropriate for someone who obviously doesn't enjoy wasting their time with people dumber than he. When he answers the questions during the two depositions he is flighty -- he has no time for lawyers or people who claim that he stole their idea -- because they're keeping him from Facebook, the one thing that makes him feel connected. Eisenberg delivers smart-ass zingers throughout the film, and it's to his credit that the zingers come off as both funny and sad. It's a perfect balancing act, and Eisenberg seems to have fully shed his Cera-skin and seems to be evolving into a multidimensional actor.
- The cinematography, much like Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac, is brilliant in how unassuming the digital aspects of it are. Jeff Cronenweth's digital cinematography is appropriately limited in its scope because we see the film mostly from Zuckerberg's perspective. He not only has tunnel vision when it comes to the project of Facebook, but he spends most of that time in the confines of his dorm room; a place where there really isn't any kind of depth to the setting, so the depth-of-field (images appear shadow-like and murky in the backgrounds, and this on purpose...again I point you to the Emerson link above as he explains, in great detail, the cameras used on the film, and why they were used) isn't as important because they aren't important to Zuckerberg. When the film gets into open spaces (like the crew race) the film's setting is more obviously digitized. It seems off-putting at first, but when Cronenweth's camera sweeps through the open spaces of the crew race, we get a sense that a clear dichotomy is being set up between the characters: Zuckerberg, so desperate to be a part of something, has always been confined; while the Winklevoss brothers have always had the world open to them...they can do whatever they want because of who they know -- the world is their oyster, for lack of a better cliche, and the fact that they aren't as confined as Zuckerberg is a great commentary on the opportunities afforded to the characters, and just why Zuckerberg tries so hard to put the social experience of college online (odd to think that Facebook began as an exclusive club where one had to have a prestigious .edu address to even be invited). It's nice when a filmmaker allows us to draw these connections through the craft of filmmaking instead of through needless exposition.
- Let's talk some superficial elements: The Social Network is a great, tense action film; in fact, some even attribute its ability to linger in our minds to the fact that it's a horror film. I really like that, actually. Read that review from Matt Zoller Seitz (one of the very best of the online film critics) and look at how he describes the film, a film that is essentially about someone being "crushed." He also quotes other critics and how they view the film (like Seitz, I too liked Ebert's comparison to the film as a "digital chessboard"), and I have to say that I agree with all of them. The film is a number of things: it's interesting because of Sorkin's script which uses coding lingo that may have gone over my head, but I never felt that I was lost; it's also an action movie that moves quickly and even though there is nothing in the film that suggests, even remotely, that this is an action movie (or a thriller) it is as intense and action-packed as any generic action movie released in some time; it's also a great legal thriller, or a more generic term, biopic. It's all of these things, and it's a great fete that Fincher and his crew can create a film that represents whatever genre of film you want it to represent.
- How good is The Social Network? Well, it caused me to put an end to the moratorium of lengthy posting on this blog by motivating me to finish some projects for school and work early so that I could have time today on my day off to write this piece; a piece that is much longer than I had anticipated it to be. Again, a film hasn't stirred this kind of enthusiasm inside of me since Inglourious Basterds, a film that I found to be the best of the 2000's. I'm not saying that The Social Network is the best film of the new decade (although, that kind of hyperbole seems somewhat appropriate for a film about Facebook and the hyperbolic statements people make with ease on such sites), but it's something special, and that a film so hyped, and so showered with so much praise can not only live up to it all, but can deliver beyond the hype. There was never a moment in this film where I didn't have a smile on face because I knew I was watching greatness unfold in front of me. There's something so wonderful and exhilarating about having that kind of experience in the theater.