David Fincher | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13
Fresh from winning three BAFTAs (out of six nominations), the Aaron Sorkin-written David Fincher-directed telling of the birth of Facebook arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today. Notice that Sorkin and Fincher have equal-sized billing on the cover — I can’t think of many other screenwriters who’d manage such a thing. Charlie Kaufman, maybe? Any others?
Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, The Social Network sounds like it should be awful — Facebook: The Movie? What?! — but it’s actually brilliant.
Despite the subject matter, it doesn’t matter what you think of Facebook. You could switch the company the characters are founding for any other idea that turns out successful and the plot could work just as well. That said, that the company is founding a website concerned with social interaction is thematically appropriate.
What else makes the film work? Well, let’s begin with the BAFTAs it won (and then the ones it didn’t). Arguably the biggest is Best Director, and it is indeed marvellously directed. As ever, Fincher knows when to keep it simple and when to jazz it up. Witness the incredible visuals in the Henley Regatta boat race, for instance — not brand-new techniques, but the combination of them with the editing and music makes for an outstanding sequence, 90 seconds of pure cinematic perfection.
Conversely, look at all the film’s conversations. Let’s draw on one that’s discussed in the making-of material, the scene between Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker in the club: as Fincher says, he could’ve had a Steadicam endlessly circling them or something similar to make it seem Fast and Hip, but in reality you need to see the conversation, and especially Mark’s reactions, so instead it’s just a good old fashioned shot-reverse-shot. For all his visual prowess, it’s understanding this need for simplicity and (g)old standard techniques when appropriate that Fincher has had a handle on throughout his career.
Next is Best Adapted Screenplay. Sorkin’s script is as outstanding as you might expect; and if you’ve seen The West Wing, you have an idea what to expect. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly: Mark sits in a pub with girlfriend Erica. They talk. They talk very, very fast, and almost exclusively in idiosyncratic Harvard language. The attentive viewer can keep up, just about. What the scene says, boldly and immediately, is: you do need to pay attention here, this is going to be complicated and you have to keep up. Also, that it’s going to be funny and exciting. That style colours the film: fast talk, complex talk, but funny. As people admit in the special features, this is a very dialogue-driven film. Don’t misunderstand me, though: the dialogue scenes are not one-note by any means — there are slow scenes, and even scenes without any dialogue — but anyone anticipating the full implications of “Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin” will not be disappointed.
The other BAFTA the film took home was for editing. I have nothing specific to say about that — it’s not as obviously fundamental as in Inception, nor as vital to keeping the audience’s interest in 127 Hours (so I imagine / have heard Danny Boyle say, quite reasonably, considering how much it’s about one man in a hole) — but it was all well and good. To counteract the apparent dismissiveness of that sentence, there are some sequences which do specifically show off editing: the night Mark spends coding FaceMash in a couple of hours straight, for instance, which is crosscut with some kind of frat party and zings with speed and efficiency. Also the Henley Regatta sequence or the title sequence (these will come up again) — all are a marriage of visuals and music that could eclipse the rest of the film, were the rest not their equal in one respect or another. Including the editing.
Nominated but unvictorious were stars Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively. They’re not the only ones deserving praise though, because every performance is bang on. Eisenberg manages the enviable feat of making Mark a plausible genius, an entertaining friend and an absolute bastard, not in different scenes but, often, all within the same line of dialogue. There are lines that made me laugh out loud while at the same time thinking “what a [four-letter name of choice]”. That’s Sorkin’s writing too, of course, but Eisenberg nails it.
The best character — certainly the most likeable — is Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder of Facebook. I can see why people were so miffed at him missing out on a Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. He is the film’s heart, the one truly decent person in the whole thing. He wants to be Mark’s friend, he wants to support and help him; he’s no selfless saint — he wants to monetize Facebook, he wants to see a return on his investment — but what’s wrong with that? That’s how life, and especially business, works. And despite that he’s understanding, helpful, bites his tongue when no one would blame him for mouthing off… and gets screwed for his troubles. Garfield moves through every beat flawlessly.
Then there’s Justin Timberlake. I can understand why people would be wary of such casting, and playing the bad boy/playboy part of Napster creator — and destructor — Sean Parker might not seem too much of a stretch. Actually, there are moments that require a little more than that, and Timberlake’s up to the task. Armie Hammer tackles the dual role of the Winklevoss twins. You can’t tell which is which, beyond that in any given scene one will be hotheaded and one calmer. I expect it’s always the same one that’s whichever, but as they both look exactly the same…
Finally, the sixth BAFTA nom was for Best Picture. Unsurprisingly, The King’s Speech took that one. I’ve not seen it, I can’t comment.
Not nominated at the BAFTAs — perhaps too modern for our British tastes — was the score, by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I’m sure at least a couple of the actual nominations could be deservingly kicked out to make way for this, a striking and stunning effort from the first-time soundtrackists (soundtrackers?). The title sequence is a case in point, and if you have a look around the web you can find fan-created versions — particularly, one that’s scored to the pop song originally mentioned in Sorkin’s screenplay — that demonstrate clearly the effect Reznor and Ross’ music has. The sparse, unsettling title track sets the mood for the characters and story to come in a way a “campus comedy”-type track would spectacularly fail at. Another favourite is, again, the Henley Regatta boat race: it’s set to an addictive electronic rendition of In the Hall of the Mountain King, and though the whole sequence is a showpiece, that’s as much thanks to the music as the visuals. These are just two specific examples — throughout, the music excels.
Reviews have been stuffed with superlatives — again, just look at the DVD cover — and while I agree with the counterpoint that it’s too soon to tell if it’s a classic or generation-defining (it’s about a generation-defining phenomenon, that doesn’t inherently make it a generation-defining film), there’s every chance it will indeed turn out to be both. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still an incredible piece of filmmaking.
The Social Network placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.