Here's a poke to users and nonusers of Facebook: The Social Network isn't some yawny visual aid on how the website grew from a few hundred users at Harvard in 2004 to a 2010 global reach of half a billion. The Social Network is a hard-charging beast of a movie with a full tank of creative gas that keeps it humming from start to finish (hell of a middle, too). Sure, it gives you the facts about how then-Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (a never-better Jesse Eisenberg) made billions by helping technology win the battle against actual human contact. But it's also about the nation of narcissists we've become, reshaping who we are on Facebook in the hope of being friended by other users who may or may not be lying their asses off. Bracingly smart, brutally funny and acted to perfection without exception, The Social Network lights up a dim movie sky with flares of startling brilliance. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, Zodiac) puts his visual mastery to work on the verbal pyrotechnics in the dynamite, dick-swinging script by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), and they both do the best and ballsiest work of their careers. The Social Network gets you drunk on movies again. It deserves to go viral.
In the film's wow of an opener, set in 2003, Sorkin speculatively places Mark at a campus bar, where he is driving his girlfriend nuts by avoiding eye contact, juggling a dozen topics at once and ignoring her reaction to virtually everything. She is Erica, and as played like a gathering storm by Rooney Mara, winner of the coveted title role in Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she is steaming. It's a setup for disaster: tech nerd versus the real live girl from Boston University he uses to unload on. Fed up with his condescension and his obsession with getting into one of Harvard's elite "final clubs," Erica calls him an asshole and splits. A shattered Mark returns to the dorm he shares with Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel), and, beer in hand, blogs out his festering rage, attacking Erica as a flat-chested bitch, hacking into photo files of female Harvard undergrads and ranking them on a hotness scale. Out of anger over being socially rejected, a social network is born.
Who gets the credit/blame? There's no doubt Mark is the CEO of a Facebook complex currently valued at $25 billion. But don't forget his BFF, Brazilian student Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who provided the business plan and early financing. And then there's the memorable Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer, with Josh Pence doing duty as a body double). The Winklevi, as Mark calls them, are blond vikings on the Harvard rowing crew and, in their eyes, the originators of Facebook. They were the ones who asked Mark to help them build a Harvard computer-dating service. They all successfully sued for a piece of the pie they claim that Mark the Judas screwed them out of when he took his idea to Silicon Valley and global dominance. Not a drop of blood is spilled in The Social Network, but you can't miss the scar tissue.
As advertised, it's a tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal. But can a script based on what Zuckerberg calls "fiction" dig out the truth? The film's maverick producer, Scott Rudin, paraphrasing a line from Sorkin's A Few Good Men, argues that "there is no such thing as the truth." He has a point. That's why Sorkin, using research compiled by journalist Ben Mezrich for his book The Accidental Billionaires, written concurrently with the script, went to court depositions of Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevi and created a fact-based structure that gives the movie multiple points of view. The Rashomon idea is inspired, and Fincher directs it with thrilling cinematic fervor. How? By effectively giving each character his own Facebook page. Watch the movie and decide who you want to add as a friend.
It won't be easy. Sorkin and Fincher come down hard on these characters, without skimping on complexity and sympathy. Eisenberg delivers a tour de force, nimbly negotiating Sorkin's rat-a-tat dialogue and revealing how alienation and loneliness actually fuel Mark's ambition. More crucially, Eisenberg lets us see the chinks in Mark's armor, unearthing long-buried feelings when Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) enters the scene, ready to take Facebook to the next level even if it means leaving Eduardo behind as roadkill. Timberlake is phenomenal, a revelation, even. You expect him to nail Sean's charming hustle, and he does, working a restaurant meeting with Mark and Eduardo like a twentysomething Dr. Evil. "A million dollars isn't cool," he says. "You know what's cool? A billion dollars." Sean, with a rep for drugs and very young women, sinks his hooks in. He's a seductive Iago to Mark's ego-bruised Othello. It's a role to die for, and Timberlake the mesmerizer just crushes it.
Note to Oscar: You need to step up big time for Garfield, who plays Eduardo with a vulnerability that raises the emotional stakes in a movie that is built on ice cool, a fact reflected in the haunting visuals achieved digitally by gifted cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and the hypnotic musical road map laid out by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Was Mark jealous that the Harvard final club that rejected him accepted Eduardo? Keep your eyes on Garfield — he's shatteringly good, the soul of a film that might otherwise be without one. The Social Network is the movie of the year. But Fincher and Sorkin triumph by taking it further. Lacing their scathing wit with an aching sadness, they define the dark irony of the past decade. The final image of solitary Mark at his computer has to resonate for a generation of users (the drug term seems apt) sitting in front of a glowing screen pretending not to be alone.