This might just be a signature film for the era – it touches on so many things that are relatively recent and yet have become part of the fabric of contemporary life (and not just in the omnipresence of social networks). Based on a non-fiction book about the beginnings – and troubled legal circumstances – of Facebook, it goes against several received wisdoms: and David Fincher manages to deliver a thoroughly cinematic experience with a film that boils down to a great many scenes of people typing code, talking rapidly in technical terms in a manner which recalls Altered States and having fractious confrontations in the sleek offices of expensive law firms. It takes a while to sink in, but this is also almost unique in recent cinema in that the lawyers come across as long-suffering, professional, well-intentioned people trying to cope with the fall-out from several forms of mad genius.
It opens in a pub with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) delivering a virtual monologue to his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) about the university societies he feels he needs to crash into – she finally gets a word in, telling him she’s missed a birthday during his speech, and breaks up with him not for being a nerd but for being an asshole. He goes back to his dorm, drunk, and rants about her on his blog – burying forever any chance of reconciliation – and impulsively sets up a inter-university site to rate who’s hottest among female undergrads, using an algorithm written on a window by his only actual friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). This catches on like wildfire, crashes the university servers, pisses off every woman on campus (surely, someone mus thave suggested the same cruel rating for guys?) and earns Zuckerberg an academic suspension. He also catches the eye of the Winkelvoss Twins (Armie Hammer, Josh Pence – and digital trickery), Olympian rowers and WASP insider royalty, who have an idea for an upscale Harvard dating site. But instead of working on that, he takes seed money from Eduardo and comes up with thefacebook.com– the first iteration of facebook, initially seeing it as simply a local site but egged on to take it to other universities. Intercut with all this flashback material are legal meetings as the self-involved-to-the-point-of-mania Zuckerberg has to go through these beginnings while resisting suits from Eduardo, who wound up pushed out of the company partially thanks to the involvement of flamboyant dot.com maniac Sean Harvey (Justin Timberlake), and ‘the Winkelvi’, who see Facebook as a ripoff of their idea.
Writer Aaron Sorkin – an inspired catch for the project – makes it all a study of a man who becomes a billionaire without being interested in money or even fun (his partners land the groupies), and loses his only friend in the process even as (it’s suggested) the whole thing is an attempt to get back the girl who dumped him in the first scene (the Rosebud-ish finish, after he’s been persuaded to settle by a lawyer who knows that whatever the legalities are a jury will hate him, has him sending an FB friend request to her, the reloading the page over and over to see if she’s responded). Eisenberg makes a thoroughly unnerving monster out of the main character, but we see some cracks as he enables a vast social communications system he is by nature unequipped to join in with and the film takes Kane-like care to award him points when they’re due. Because these people were students or slackers when they got rich, it’s full of absurd detail – a side-issue about a frat initiation involving a chicken which gets dragged up by humourless lawyers, Harvey’s personal agenda paranoia and spellbinding spiel, a groupie-turned-girlfriend who burns a present as Eduardo is getting a sense of how he’s being treated. It’s funny, scary and affecting in a chilly, against-the-odds manner.