So I finally got a chance to catch the late showing of THE SOCIAL NETWORK a couple of weeks ago and it was everything I hoped it would be but not anything more. Of course, it's the story of the founding and the founder of Facebook, and the legal battles that resulted from that. Of course, it's a time capsule for later generations to understand the early years of digital communication and ubiquitous connectivity and connectedness. Of course, it's a history movie about history so recent that the memory is still green, like WWII movies made in the 1940's. Of course, it's David Fincher's first directorial endevour since Benjamin Button and allows him to use what he learned by aging Brad Pitt from old-man infanthood to baby dotage in order to cast two people and one face as a set of twins. Of course, it's Aaron Sorkin's return to docudrama in his first screenplay since CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR as he continues to mine recent history for a chance to improve recent history in the retelling.
Of course, it's a damn good movie, as its 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes attests.
But is it a great movie? Does it make the transition to being art? Does it enlighten the human condition and make you think about the world and your place in it? Does it provoke discussion and provide insight into the vagaries of life?
Maybe a little. But honestly? Nah, not really.
It's just a damn good movie in a time when damn good movies are becoming more rare than untainted waters in the Gulf of Mexico. A damn fine movie In a time when most television has devolved into endless variations on watching the antics of indigenous troglodytes near the coast of New Jersey; watching people competing on endless game shows that involve either eating bugs or overcoming pointless challenges for the chance to stab each other in the back; watching endless crime procedurals where every room is lit like a disco and characters use fantasy science to arrive at unlikely solutions to unlikely crimes- all the while acting with the subtlety of a 19th century melodrama; or watching mindless sit-coms where various stereotypes are the basis for both the situation and the comedy (nerds are nerdy, bachelors are depraved, fat people are desperate, fathers are stupid, entertainers are neurotic, businessmen are dolts, and low level employees in telephone centers work in India). A damn original movie in a time when most movies have devolved into endless sequels, endless explosions, endless appeals to childhood nostalgia, endless stoner comedies about luckless losers, endless comic book adaptations (possibly an offshoot of the two former categories), and endless sit-coms made for the big screen with big names. Let’s face it. We live in a time when the original is so unusual that a one-off movie with no hope of a sequel or prequel, about something with even a passing resemblance to a reality bigger than what you could find by simply camping out in the parking lot of your local trailer park, winds up being both the most successful and most critically acclaimed movie of the year.
But credit where credit is due... Eighteen months ago, when the idea first was reviled on the internet that a movie about Facebook was going into production, the response was almost uniformly negative. "A movie about a web site?" "How can you make a movie about a web site?" "It's just Hollywood cashing-in on something it doesn't understand." And then Fincher and Sorkin remind us that it's execution and not subject that makes art. And that two talented men can tell a more interesting story about a web site than a horde of untalented ones can about the end of the world.
Of course, I have to start with Aaron Sorkin, the writer. With the disclaimer that I've been an unabashed fan for a long time. Sorkin writes of a fantasy world I wish I lived in. A Narnia where hella-smart people talk in rapid-fire repartee completely unafraid of being terribly clever or devilishly witty. It's a world where the smart-asses have taken over. Sorkin is fully aware of this as in the very first scene one of the characters says to the protagonist that talking to him is like being on a stair-master. Actually, it's more like the verbal equivalent of watching a ping pong match played with bazookas. IMDB reports that it took Jessie Eisenberg 99 takes to finish the scene. Such is the challenge for even excellent actors to reproduce Sorkin's dialogue, and they aren't even making it up as they go along.
And while on the subject of the actors, and the challenge of delivering Sorkin's machine gun words and ideas in a way that makes it seem they are your own, Jessie Eisenberg was an amazing piece of casting for the lead. With this role he cements his place as the thinking man's Micheal Cera- sensitive, dweeby, unlucky-at-love but a little (or a lot) smarter than the average bear. It's been fun to watch Eisenberg's ascension from the Could-have-easily-been-played-by-Cera character in ADVENTURELAND, to the Strangely-contemplative-and-empirical zombie-hunter in ZOMBIELAND, now to the Smartest-guy-in-any-room founder of facebook. However, unlike Cera, Eisenberg doesn’t play the same character in each role.
The other stand-out is, of course, David Fincher. Fincher has a real gift for telling complex stories in a way that is accessible to everyone, while at the same time adding those little visual surprises that remind you he used to make music videos. Scenes like the sculling race in London, that looks like a tilt-shift photograph, hearken back to Edward Norton’s Ikea catalog apartment in Fight Club. But as in Zodiac or Benjamin Button, Norton keeps enough of a lid on his penchant for visual fireworks that it doesn’t become a distraction. Which is a good thing since the multiple time frames and slight tinge of Roshomon-like storytelling might become confusing to audiences who didn’t already know the story.
And I have to take a moment to mention the supporting cast, who are each as perfect as the leads. Andrew Garfield as Edwardo Savarin, Mark Zuckerberg's co-founder, gives a pitch-perfect performance that somehow reminds one of a young Richard Benjamin. And Armie Hammer gets two roles which he pulls off so well that I didn't realize it was only one guy. (Trivia break: Armie Hammer is the great-grandson of Armond Hammer, famous for his baking soda fortune and having parents with a particularly silly sense of humor in naming their son. A sense of humor that seems to be genetic since Armie is also Armond.)
But, for all this talent and wizardry, somehow the end result is still just a very good and not a great movie. If there’s a moral it’s that if you are smart and lucky enough to create something original that might make you rich there will be plenty of people to try to take it away from you. (Just ask Preston Tucker and Leo Farnsworth). If there’s a philosophical question it’s how having an idea is different than actually creating something. (Just ask Jeremy, a character on Sorkin’s television series SPORTSNIGHT who once said “My grandfather invented the clipboard.” “Really,” someone asks. “Well,” Jeremy replies, “he did often complain that he didn’t have a portable writing surface.” If there’s a social more exposed it’s the idea that the rich have a casually nonchalant expectation that they should be the ones that profit from anything they are associated with without having to do any of the work and at the expense of their social inferiors. (Just ask, hell, anybody).
So, while THE SOCIAL NETWORK doesn’t really have anything profound to say, it says what it does have to say in such an entertaining way that it’s well worth a look.
And yah, my own fannish love for everyone associated with it aside, it's a great movie.