When The Social Network was first making it’s way to the major media outlets, I was fairly cynical about the potential of the film because the premise seemed flimsy and nowhere near compelling. What could be more tedious than a handful of Harvard students bickering about which one of them was responsible for a multi-billion dollar idea? As it turns out, about three quarters of the movies released this year. The combined weight of Jesse Eisenberg, David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, and Trent Reznor assured that I’d give it a look but even when I poked at the idea of the implied origins of Facebook and how that ties into the toxic peer environment of social networking, I wasn’t expecting or even really holding out hope for The Social Network being not just beautifully crafted, but incisive, gripping, and possibly the most important film of the year.

To say that I was hooked in from the first second is probably a little unfair because the film starts with the lead in to one of my favourite White Stripes songs, but immediately following that is one of the most telling and best executed bits of dialogue in the whole film in which Zuckerberg prattles on about how his sizable (male) privilege just isn’t enough and brutally insults his girlfriend (played by Rooeny Mara, soon to be stepping into Noomi Rapace’s shoes as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and her lack of privilege until she snaps and breaks up with him. This was probably the moment in the film I was anticipating the most because of the conversation that Sorkin had with Stephen Colbert about it and how his script portrayed the women involved:

COLBERT: Can I ask you something about the ladies in it?
SORKIN: Sure, yeah.
COLBERT: Okay you’ve got the opening scene which a lot of people have heard about, it’s got […] Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, the one who broke his heart…
SORKIN: The girl who would start Facebook.
COLBERT: Exactly. She is super smart and definitely gets the best of him.
SORKIN: Right.
COLBERT: The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high, or drunk, or [blowing] guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?
SORKIN: That’s a fair question. There’s one other woman, Rashida Jones […] who is a stand in for the audience. […] The other women are prizes.

After a lengthy tangent, Sorkin is able to elaborate that they aren’t meant to characterize the female students of Harvard, that they are only the characters that populate that story. I’ve heard a bit of angry criticism about the film based on that line of criticism and of course my antennae stood at attention when I ran across it prior to seeing the movie. The problem of course is that an interview, especially one conducted on an entertainment show and not a news program completely removes that fact from the wider context of the film and puts it in a much worse light than I think is warranted.

Immediately after being dumped, Zuckerberg retreats to his dorm room and begins slandering his now ex-girlfriend, which quickly snowballs into hacking into the various dorms around campus to build up a library of images of the female students with the intention of having their male classmates vote on their relative hotness. This scheme kicks off a brilliant sequence cross cutting Zuckerberg and his roommates stealing the images and compiling the code with the Phoenix Club busing in many of the same girls for a wild party until the two events merge as male students across the campus huddle around computers, rating their classmates until one of the girls at the party walks in on one such group and recognizes her roommate with palpable horror. It has to be seen to be truly appreciated, but the net effect is to paint a brutal and crystal clear portrait of the unapologetic and insatiable misogyny present in college life.

Not entirely a difficult feat to accomplish, but Fincher packs an incredible amount of visual information into the first ten minutes and one of the clearest and most refreshing things I took away from the sequence was that it quickly and mercilessly tore down the imaginary barrier between jocks and geeks, especially as far as pack mentality and disrespect for women go. I’m not going to disagree with Colbert or Sorkin about the depth or complexity of the female characters in the film, but I certainly don’t think that it tells the whole story. From my perspective, it seemed like the portrayal of women in the film had a lot more to do with Zuckerberg’s horrible attitudes about and actions towards them. There was no time or space within his world to treat the women orbiting around him as anything other than prizes. More a portrait of a misogynist than a misogynist portrait, if you will.

Fincher seems to throw out his entire playbook for The Social Network. Instead of his trademark probing camera zooming through keyholes and out of noses, we get a far more passive, relaxed camera that doesn’t seek out a life of it’s own. In it’s place however, is brilliant editing that pushes a furious pace and transforms what could have been a tedious and banal story of privileged brats sniping at each other into a breathless tour de force, helped in no small part by the relentlessly crackling yet carefully realistic dialogue. There’s never a guarantee that independently brilliant people like David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, or Trent Reznor will create something equal to or more than the sum of their parts, but they certainly make it seem like there is.

Of course, central to the film’s success is the performance by it’s star Jesse Eisenberg who is largely untested as a dramatic actor and frequently written off as a poor man’s Michael Cera. Going in, I was expecting big things from Eisenberg based on not much more than a gut feeling and what he had to say about preparing for the role in interviews. On the surface, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem like much of a departure from the stock Eisenberg character seen in those two movies whose titles end in land, but he disappears into the role to deliver a powerful and nuanced performance that is a far cry from the flat but entertaining social misfit he usually embodies. Of course I haven’t seen The Education of Charlie Banks, so by some bizarre twist it could be that Fred Durst first showed us the depths that lurk within Jesse Eisenberg, but it’s going to be his captivating turn in The Social Network that will put to death any lingering questions about his abilities, especially as a leading man.

One point, however pedantic, that I will disagree with Sorkin on is his statement that he wrote it in the Rashomon style. While there are multiple perspectives on what happened and the truth is relatively murky, The Social Network lacks multiple accounts, which to me is the key factor in the style. In more orthodox versions, like J.S.A., Surveillance, or Hero, multiple versions of the same event are portrayed towards uncovering some truth hidden in the subjectivity of each account. There’s only really one account in The Social Network, which is supplemented rather than contradicted by the short asides into the supporting characters’ lives. It’s more about stitching together Zuckerberg’s various bullshit routines to show how he tried to play everyone against each other than it is of solving the mystery of who deserves the credit for inventing Facebook, which is shown to be clearly moot by the end of the first act.

Which is fine. The Social Network succeeds most as a window into the mind of Facebook’s creator and what insight that provides into the circumstances of it’s creation. A friend of mine tweeted shortly after seeing it that his entrepreneurial drive was kicked into high gear, which kind of horrifies me and feels like the equivalent of saying that watching The Doors made you want to start a rock band or that watching The Shield made you want to be a cop. Like I said elsewhere on this blog, I feel like this movie should be scaring the shit out of people because this thing that connects half a billion people to each other daily was started up by a guy who initially wanted to start a website to judge the attractiveness of his female classmates against farm animals. The guy who oversees the private information of those half a billion people started out by severely compromising the security of Harvard’s servers to gregariously violate the privacy of it’s female student body with the sole aim of humiliating them for his own amusement. This is perhaps, at the end of the day why bullying has only become more relentless and seemingly severe in the information age. That the creator of the world’s largest social network set out to do it not to break down barriers between people or to dismantle rigid social hierarchies, but to usher them into a new venue and reinforce them in a bid to gain the validation he so desperately sought to the point of near self destruction.

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