Dir. David Fincher
(2010, PG-13, 121 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

I joined Facebook in 2004 or 2005, but strangely I don’t remember who introduced me to it. Back then, it was still trickling down through college campuses, starting in Harvard, where undergrad Mark Zuckerberg founded it, and expanding throughout the country and across the globe. It was before status updates, news feeds, and photo tagging. I’ve witnessed a dozen “Go Back to the Old Facebook” protest pages pop up every time they tweak the system, and when they tweak it again they ask to go back to the one they’d just been complaining about.

Andrew Garfield, as Eduardo Saverin

Today, Facebook is a part of my daily life; I’ll check it at least once while I write this review. But it is not a substitute for social interaction or even a reasonable facsimile. Its most useful application is keep-in-touch shorthand, a “How have you been?” phone call reduced to the click of a mouse and expanded to global scale. If you’ve seen Michael Apted’s Up documentaries, which revisit a group of Englanders every seven years, you know how remarkable the march of time can be. Facebook, in concert with the advances of digital photography, video, and blogging, is producing a generation who will document their lives with unprecedented detail — a time capsule that never stops being filled and never stops being unearthed.

The Social Network, a fascinating film from director David Fincher, chronicles the beginning of the phenomenon, starting from the first seed of its inspiration: the rejection of a girl. In a splendid opening scene, from a luxuriously intelligent screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War), Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) speaks a mile a minute to his then-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), unable to see, as anyone with a healthy self-awareness would, that what he considers casual conversation is hurtful and self-important. “You don’t need to study,” the Harvard student tells her, “you go to BU.”

Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, the film posits that Zuckerberg’s desire to be great stems from this one rejection by this one girl, and perhaps that supposition is a bit pat, even trite. Underneath, however, is a more complex observation of success driven by insecurity. The reason he insults Erica’s school is the same reason he turns up his nose to his classmates of privilege, his friends who succeed, even the lawyers who depose him: He’s the one they look down on, and it’s about time they started looking up.

Eisenberg’s performance is a revelation. He first came to my attention in the 2002 film Roger Dodger, where he played protégé to Campbell Scott’s self-deluded playboy. Since then he has stayed true to form, giving impressive performances as similarly awkward, unassuming types in films including The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland — which indicate, also, good taste in scripts. Here, he plays Zuckerberg like a man who has been awkward and unassuming and can’t take it anymore. He speaks with meticulous elocution, tight and coiled like a snake and wielding Sorkin’s elaborate dialogue like razor blades, cutting to ribbons his intellectual inferiors. He seldom raises his voice, but he resonates with bitter resentment.

Justin Timberlake, as Sean Parker

The fundamental irony of Sorkin’s story is that while Zuckerberg was creating a website based on “friends,” he couldn’t keep any of his own. The film intercuts the build-up of Facebook with the depositions that followed, highlighting the contrast between the bridges he built between people online and the ones he was burning down in life. “I was your only friend,” says estranged business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), but Zuckerberg is a man driven by alienation: his perceived rejection from the privileged elite, his break-up with Erica. Narcissism becomes his refuge, and narcissism is a lonely pursuit.

Director Fincher, sometimes self-conscious in his visual styling (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club), doesn’t find much of an outlet in Sorkin’s script, whose dialogue-driven narrative leaves little room for visual innovation, but that’s not a criticism. Fincher, instead of extravagant, is pared down, efficient, methodical — chilly to match his protagonist. In its depiction of an obsessive personality, it bears closest resemblance to Fincher’s best film, 2007’s Zodiac.

Perhaps the film’s greatest fascination is in its chronicling of a new business personality. Zuckerberg is an example of a new breed of punk-upstart tycoon. His role model is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster, whose flagrant hedonism has become, for some, the new American dream. In one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Parker discusses business while snorting coke off an intern’s stomach. This unchecked anarchist spirit seems diametrically opposed to the old establishment, represented by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), a pair of tall, blond, and athletic identical twins who row on the crew team and come from old money. After some hand-wringing about being civilized Harvard men, they sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea. Once upon a time, guys like that ruled the world. But the times, they are a-changin’.