Facebook is leaping from your browser to the big screen with the release of The Social Network, the much-hyped tale of the controversial early days of the site, directed by Seven's David Fincher and written by the West Wing's Aaron Sorkin.
It's 2003. Harvard student and computer geek Mark Zuckerberg is dumped by his girlfriend for being too much like hard work. He drunkenly blogs a rant about her while building Facemash, a kind of generalised revenge on the college girls who have no time for him. His potential is spotted by the barrel-chested, all-American Winklevoss twins, who want him to build their exclusive social network, but Zuckerberg is more interested in building his own site: Facebook.
Jesse Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as a near-autistic idiot savant. The fictional Zuckerberg is a sulky computer geek with an inability to relate to others in person and a paradoxically shrewd understanding of what people want from the Internet. His only friend is Andrew Garfield's business-minded Eduardo Saverin, a sharp-suited but vulnerable fellow student with a genuine warmth for Zuckerberg -- the Tom Cruise to Zuckerberg's Rain Man.
A Few Good Rain Men
It unexpectedly plays out as a legal drama, weaving together two lawsuits and played out in flashback from conflicting depositions. If that sounds heavy going, it's really not: Sorkin peppers the fast-talking script with one-liners, deftly finding the humour in his portraits of the obstinate Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses, who provide the film's biggest laugh.
Fight Club director Fincher reigns in his visual flair to focus on character (apart from an odd interlude that feels exactly like an ad break -- when you see a Union flag, you can go to the loo, unless you're a fan of tilt-shift photography or rowing). The film is drenched in a deep-shadowed austerity, from the wood-panelled libraries of Harvard to the glass-walled law offices.
The biggest visual trick is so seamless you barely notice it: the casting of Armie Hammer and his unfeasibly deep voice as both Winklevoss twins. They're scions of privilege, Olympian rowers poised to become the ruling elite, now comically gobsmacked by the geeks taking over the world.
Nobody knows anything
Although it's about the early days of Facebook, The Social Network is about the evolution of the Web as a whole. When Zuckerberg repeatedly protests that the site is a work in progress, that even he doesn't know what it is or what it can be -- only that it's cool -- he's talking about the Internet too.
In the conflict between Saverin and Justin Timberlake's loose-cannon entrepreneur Sean Parker, we see the angel and devil on the Internet's shoulders. Saverin wants to build something financially sustainable, while Parker wants to give the established order the finger -- while spending the old guard's money.
According to Sorkin, the Internet is driven by a collection of super-smart but lonely geeks getting revenge on girlfriends, empowered by the Web to leapfrog the scions of privilege and take their place as the new masters of the universe -- while still pining for the girl, of course.
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In the story of an innocent beset by corrupting forces, The Social Network is a refreshing and insightful Sullivan's Travels, Barton Fink or Wall Street for the Internet age. Largely free of hacker cliche, it's a slow-burning and multi-layered portrait of the geek who inherited the Earth.
Ultimately, the fictional Zuckerberg comes out surprisingly well. The film tiptoes around the issue of whether Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook, hinting instead that when everybody has the same idea it's all about the execution. At the start, Zuckerberg's sharp-tongued obstinacy puts a wall between us and him, but as conflicting forces pull him in all directions, we start to realise we wouldn't want him any other way.
The Social Network is released in the UK on 15 October.