Until someone takes the inevitable step of greenlighting the Twitter movie, nothing is likely to trend more than Facebook, that online resource we modern information junkies feel compelled to check once (if not more times) a day; as subject matter for what we might call brand cinema - the study of those trademarked phenomena that have come to shape our day-to-day lives - it makes the Transformers and The A-Team seem like the relics of a pre-digital age they always were. A film about the origins of social networking need not, then, have been about anything more than rubbish kids at keyboards: imagine Channing Tatum beating away at a Commodore with his ham fists, a spectacle for which a certain audience would still, I'd wager, have been willing to turn out. All the more reason, then, to admire the intelligence and integrity with which The Social Network has been assembled; after the drearily platitudinous The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - for which someone badly needed a poke, ideally in their mushy brain with a sharp stick - we can all, at last, refriend its director David Fincher.
Adapted by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich's non-fiction tome The Accidental Billionaires, the film envisions the birth of Facebook as an American dream countermyth; a kick-bollock scramble of cease-and-desist letters, hollered accusation and non-stop legal activity, resulting from an attempt to superimpose a business model upon the conventions of friendship. (In a typical Fincher spike, only after a certain while does it become apparent these still-recent events are being viewed in flashback, from the perspective of yet another deposition.) At the centre of this maelstrom sits Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the brilliant, borderline-autistic Harvard sophomore whose programming nous converted local dating site Facemash into Thefacebook.com, and eventually Facebook itself; identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, doubled up with computers), Olympic rowers and representatives of the Harvard elite, who claimed the idea as their own; and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's best - some might say only - friend, who stumped up the cash, and ended up purged from Facebook history.
Between them, there exists a dense, complex mesh of claims and betrayals, put across in this screenwriter's trademark zingy dialogue. Even Sorkin can't fully fathom out who was responsible for what in this matter of virtual paternity - much of the film takes place behind insistently closed doors, or firewalls - but it may just boil down to something like this: that where the alpha-male Winklevosses - or "Winklevi", as Zuckerberg dubbed them - gave the Facebook project its brash, toothy entrepreneurial veneer, its appealing facade, it was the just-dumped Zuckerberg whose code gave the site its inner workings, its heart; that only the latter truly understood what made its users tick, why we seek a closer connection to others, and why Facebook might be a success because of it. The beginnings of this argument are set out in the film's brilliant opening sequence, briskly and distinctively delineating Harvard's haves and have-nots: while the university elite bus girls in from neighboring colleges in customised "fuck trucks", Zuckerberg sits in his dorm lovelorn and drunk-blogging, and inadvertently changing the Face of the world as we know it.
Neither Fincher nor Sorkin has a Facebook page - no time for it, presumably - and The Social Network does rather propose the site in question as, in its own bright and user-friendly fashion, an alternative to or substitute for actual lived experience: it's one of the reasons why photos of parties posted on Facebook often seem more vivid than the parties themselves, where the camera-touting guests are too busy thinking of posterity (of presenting an image of themselves to the world) to live in the moment, to be in the room. (We are all control freaks now, even as we give up the details of our private lives to the gaze of strangers, colleagues and the vaguest of acquaintances.) The details of the case will be familiar to some, yet the film derives its knife-edge tensions, its dramatic ironies, from the ambiguous stance it adopts towards both its popular subject matter and a still-extant protagonist who, as The Social Network amply demonstrates, has amassed resources enough to fight several expensive legal actions simultaneously.
The real Zuckerberg reportedly saw Fincher's film upon its opening weekend, and commented he "liked the bits that were true" - a back-handed compliment perhaps even Sorkin himself would have struggled to come up with. In the role, Eisenberg - a performer who, like his close contemporary Michael Cera, looked to have settled into a rut of familiar, dweeby tics - is little short of a revelation. Cera, in the recent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, went overboard trying to get us to like a character whose head was similarly full of bitmaps, and failed miserably. Ditching his puppyish mannerisms, Eisenberg here goes to the exact opposite extreme, and it's by making Zuckerberg utterly uningratiating - pallid, snarky, passive-aggressive; distractible and calculating - that he somehow gets us to root for him, or at least his expertise, his tenacity, his vision. Like Josh Harris, the Web 2.0 pioneer deconstructed in Ondi Timoner's excellent documentary We Live in Public, Zuckerberg is a figure at once hopeless, hateful and heartbreaking; he is a funny little character, which doesn't preclude us taking to him as an underdog - particularly when set against the buff superiority of the Winklevi - and which is why the casting of a young actor previously known for his comic roles is as apt as it is.
More so than Fight Club or Zodiac, indeed, The Social Network is the film that reveals Fincher as a director turned on by concepts and actors alike: everybody raises their game in this company. The erratic Garfield - so promising on television (Kid A, Red Riding), so resistable on film (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) - brings appreciable warmth to a story otherwise told through the rather clinical prisms of bright young men and their modems: his Saverin, a Brazilian in snowy Massachusetts, is the real outsider here. (Away from the digitised Winklevosses, Fincher reserves his most prominent effect for the character's breath condensing in the cold wintry air.) And Justin Timberlake - as the sometime Napster boss Sean Parker, who gave Zuckerberg his final leg up the digital ladder - is note-perfect as the kind of slick superstar programmer a couple of terminal geeks might well be taken in by.
Fincher, for his part, is back on his favoured thematic stomping grounds, networks of information and communication - the nuts and bolts of human connectivity that so helped to dramatise the formation of an underground resistance movement in Fight Club, or highlighted where the pieces and players of the mystery in Zodiac both did, and didn't, come together. This, possibly, was one more reason why Benjamin Button felt so disappointingly flabby: it had nothing to say except the obvious, had nowhere to go save up and down the one linear timeline. Here, Sorkin's fluent script provides the vehicle for the director to further move between worlds: if the film is ultimately critical of the Winklevoss's privilege, it also can't fail to spot the incontrovertible lameness of a Jewish fraternity's Caribbean theme night. The new film is hungry, leaner, as whippet-thin and excitable as its characters: whenever Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's RAM-heavy score strikes up, it's as though a server (or some other mega-brain somewhere) has started processing data at top speed, and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall excel themselves, underlining the rhythms of Sorkin's dialogue while meeting the needs of its attention-deficient consumers. (I saw the film with a young, paying crowd who appeared genuinely gripped by the drama unfolding before them; enough, at least, not to feel obliged to renew their status updates every five minutes.)
In short, then, The Social Network is as plugged-in and switched-on as mainstream cinema gets in 2010; a rare instance of Hollywood chasing the zeitgeist and catching it. Indeed, what may be so satisfying about the Facebook story is that everybody does, sort of, get what they deserve. The Winklevi cash another large cheque, and bow (or row) gracefully out of history, like the gentlemen scholars they are; Savelin has his supporting credit restored to the Facebook masthead; we get to throw endless sheep at one another; Parker gets busted on a drugs charge, emptying his pockets at the scene to reveal an asthma inhaler and an epi pen. (At moments of stress, the nerd will always out.) As for Zuckerberg, we leave him caught in a loop of his own making, the youngest billionaire in history repeatedly hitting refresh on his ex-girlfriend's own profile page in the hope she might, belatedly, have friended him. At this moment, the creative impulse that lies behind this great technological leap forwards is revealed to be exactly that behind every other eureka moment since time immemorial; and we see that what began for Zuckerberg as a cutting-edge fuck-you, a way of getting even, has instead mutated into a platform for getting girls - in this instance, just one girl - to like him more.
The Social Network is on nationwide release.