What elevates a film?
What takes it from “good” to “pretty good”, or from that to “best of the year” status?
Does it start with having an interesting idea and resonate simply from that? Does it take the mere humble execution of excellent script? Is it how you imbue the most simplistic of scenes with tone and mood? Is it hanging your hat on a great performer? Is it maybe is simply having an engaging score? Is it…
Okay you get it.
Filmmaking is a lot of things coming together and somehow working in harmony. Those who doubt how difficult it is, should really try it one day. You’d be shocked by just how much is out of your control. You’d be shocked by how hard it is to see what a movie is going to be until your done editing it. Things you worried about actually flourish and things you thought you nailed can easily fall flat. Filmmaking is alchemy. It’s instinctual. You just hope for some good aspects to carry the piece through….
Luckily, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a near-flawless amalgamation of many excellent aspects:
1. The idea – The founding of Facebook is a great story and not because there’s anything particular “movie-like” about it. In fact, the movie engages the kinds of things we rarely see represented in culture these days: the base forms of genesis, inspiration, evolution of ideas, and even the surprising nature of our recent history. It is largely a story about ego and how ego combines with the fear of rejection to invigorate change (both personal and cultural).
2. Aaron Sorkin – I give the man a lot of crap. He’s obviously all sorts of brilliant, but his delight with himself often just seeps off the screen. This is not the ravings of someone who says things like that. That usually my least favorite comment in the world. The problem is in Sorkin’s case it’s just so obvious (he even admits it) that the man’s just typing with one hand. Worse, the way his characters converse as if they know what the next line is going to be sometimes means intelligence can come off *gulp* as twee(*). That’s not a good thing. It can so easily scream “manufactured!” But when he’s on point, he can soar. What works in this film is wonderfully he’s able to get into the mind of a character who is similarly solipsistic to himself: Sorkin’s found the perfect vehicle in Mark Zuckerberg. The young man is brilliant person who is more interested in being right, than being good. And Sorkin can write the shit out of righteousness. Better yet he shows that he not only understands Zuckerberg, but every character in this movie (more on that later). Sorkin beautifully uses the dialogue to excel every single character motive and never launches an off-topic diatribe. Now there are diatribes of course but they are all so inherently focused on the story/action at hand that really there was no better person to write this script. It’s the most focused work we’ve seen from him.
3. Naturally, David Fincher helps with all of that. The man is yet another absurdly talented figure in this production. I tend to waffle around on my feelings with Fincher and readily admit that FIGHT CLUB is his most definitive work. It tapped into the zeitgeist in a way many thought impossible at the time. Heck you could argue that movie went on to define the zeitgiest. My only problem with it is that even with its mature “grow the fuck” endgame, the majority of the hardcore fanbase didn’t’ get the movie whatsover. It was stunningly counterproductive and I can outright blame it on Fincher’s romanticizing of nihilism. But nowadays I think my favorite work of Fincher is ZODIAC. The movie is such a careful examination of journalism and the nature of truth. I love it wholly. Everything else he did? Technically audacious but they all have major, major problems at script level. Well, we already talked about THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s script from Sorkin and I can think of no one more suited for executing it. The tweeness gives way to Fincher’s unblinking, dour reality. His dark atmospheres. His sense of irony. A line that may be just” smart,” comes off as brutal in his hands. He raises the stakes. He makes Sorkin’s work cut to the bone. I walked out of the film still having a litany of perfect lines rattling around my brain: “If you want to stand on my shoulders…”
4. Then there is the matter of the score. There was a lot of curiosity regarding the hire of Trent Reznor, meaning there was also a lot of suspicion too. I imagine that many of these doubters were worried about it sounding like Reznor’s more popular industrial Nine Inch Nails tracks. I doubt that many of them had heard his work from “Still,” which features haunting, ethereal tones mixed with piano, classical instrumentation and subtle percussive rhythm. “Still” is actually one of my favorite albums, period. As such, I have been aching for Reznor to get a real shot at a film score. And his work in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is absolute homerun. While perhaps being rather overt in some sections, it knows exactly how to walk up to the line of not-overwhelming-the-narrative without actually going over. I think everyone can point to the first “facemash” sequence as the part that stands out.
5. But even with all these stalwart aspects, the weight of the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg. In some ways he’s the perfect mouthpiece for Sorkin: dry, matter of fact, fast-tongued. But what makes it him so much better than that is that Eisenberg has this wonderful ability to take Zuckerberg’s deeply introverted nature and make it appropriately ranged and functional. The Zuckerberg of the film is a terse young man, someone who constantly just have to frustratingly explain his own (and far more advanced) thought process. The frustration of being that bright makes him an inherently solitary creature. Eisenberg conveys it beautifully. He’s someone who barely wants to waste his words on things that aren’t worthy or interesting. Yes, he sympathizes and emotes with others, but often he’s speaking another language. What is amazing is how Eisenberg imbues that static detachment with a subtle emotional range. He uses the slightest change in inflection to show guilt (think of his hollow first attempt at apology to Erika in the opening scene), or to show enamor (his quiet delight when cool kid Sean Parker seconds his opinions). It is not only a joy to watch, but I can’t wait to watch the performance a second time. It’s the work of the year so far.
6. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that every other actor in the film is a delight. Andrew Garfield plays his partner Eduardo as that guy who is at once the voice of reason and yet out of his league. It’s heartbreaking and the emotional arc of the movie depends on his ability to be wounded and weary. Thankfully he nails it. Joseph Mazello continues his foray into older roles (check out his work in The Pacific) and he is a subtle joy in this film as the “I’m lucky to be here” guy. The biggest surprise is undoubtedly Justin Timberlake. What at first seems like obtuse casting is ultimately perfect; Sean Parker is the celebrity of their programming world and their revering of him completely works with Timberlake’s celebrity status. Beyond that, Timberlake really does play the role with such a great mix of nerdy-but-earned bravado, fear, and deeply rooted insecurity. I loved him and honestly believe this will change his career. I also think it’s safe to say that the Winklevoss Twins are going to be a lot of people’s favorite part of the movie. They are hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally. As for the interest in the actors who play them, I won’t necessarily spoil it, but let’s just say that Armie Hammer has big things in his future. Lastly, I have to mention Rooney Mara’s brief portrayal of Erika, which works as a convincing lynch pin of the film.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is not a flawless film. It runs out of steam before sweeping in with a poignant stopping point, but it never outright collapses either.
What really is important about the film is how it really manages to define a decade that has seen it’s society flock to the internet and recreate an idealized social representation of their own life. It never goes into any of this as outright discussion of course. But it’s all there. It’s in details and moments that we extrapolate into a bigger meaning about why people drive to go on the internet. We look at Zuckerberg’s long, lonesome walks on the wintery campus. His dissatisfied contempt of social structures and people who “have it easy.” His belief in his own ability. His concern for what is right over what is kind (Okay, fuck being kind, he’s more concerned with being right than not being a total asshole). His jealousy of friends. His secrecy and duplicity. His desire to show who are and what we want right on our sleeves. To penetrate the difficulties of real society. These are all things we all deal with, but admittedly it is the plight of some more than others. The internet makes it easier to both engage and retreat. For the tepid person in all of us it is a revelation. One that will inexorably change us forever. But we can never forget that it has also made even the nicest of us be callous jerks (ahem.. i may have once right a feature about 5 people I’d like to punch). We iunwittingly become like Zuckerman just as he has unwittingly became the voice of the internet.
We are all Zuckerman.
And we are legion.
* Old timey movies are written like this, but I tend to be more accepting. In fact I often love sharp, unrealistic dialogue. The key is just to have characters who don’t seem to be aware they’re engaging in witty reparte. It’s what makes the first Ocean’s movie work. It’s what makes Sorkin’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR work. And it’s what makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK work.