For going on twenty years now—my how time flies—David Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem. Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, and—most important of all—highly entertaining. Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever. On this episode: maybe emotional murder? technological mayhem? Well, we like it anyway.
Spoiler alert: I describe the climactic scene, where the Facebook litigants all duel to the death with maces, but I do not say who wins
The Social Network is one of the big reasons this retrospective began in February and didn't pick up again till March. I'd seen the beloved child of 2010 before, of course (albeit somewhat later than 2010, for law school is especially hard and time-consuming when you're dumb). I've written about it in passing: "an Oscar-nominated, exactly-par biopic." Moved to question my initial opinion by four years' worth of superlative praise from everyone else—and with my own memory of my only screening fading—I reckoned it disingenuous to go by that initial impression. But I really didn't want to watch Social Network again—there was always the chance it could be worse the second time around, and the rotting stench of Benjamin Button was still fresh in my sinuses. In between the first installment of this series and the second, I watched around thirty other films. Including Need For Speed. That's how much I wanted to avoid this.
How different would this retrospective have been without a rewatch? Unless you pay attention to grades, and you should, not so much. I'd have written the boilerplate introduction with less dipshit smuggery. But Social Network previously held the position of my sixth favorite Fincher joint and this, at least, has not changed. What did change was that while it previously worked for me—when it did work for me—at the level of craft and craft alone, I now recognize it as essentially perfect in its deformed heart, too.
Of course, the craft cannot be dismissed—absolutely could not, since Social Network is open in its intention to stylize, to the best of its artists' substantial abilities, what ought to be a real motionless picture. On the level of plot, it's a two-hour exercise in people talking about Apache servers, intellectual property infringement, and stock dilution scams. Let's leave aside (for now) the awe-inspiring performances and the vicious Aaron Sorkin script that, together, still would have made this a good movie, had it been crewed by trained monkeys with little initiation into the cinematic arts instead. It wasn't: on every technical level Social Network is immaculate, possibly Fincher's single most-controlled and pristine motion picture to date.
Production design is, of course, by Donald Graham Burt, recreating Harvard (played by Johns Hopkins) as a succession of crumbling brick stacks that, despite its archaic decrepitude and all of the wacky privilege-driven sex parties imagined by Mark, seems as sterile as an operating room, albeit more dimly lit. Cinematography is courtesy Jeff Cronenweth, returning from Fight Club, and it's as handsome as anything he's done, in his signature combination of gorgeously diffuse lighting, that makes the air look smoky and the surfaces damp, and a strong, guiding focal discipline that rarely surrenders the crystalline sharpness of the human objects in the frame.
Then there's editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, returning as a team from Button (along with other endeavors with Fincher separately), and, Christ, do they do a better job. Their editing rhythm won them an Oscar and it's easy to see why—literally. Rather than seamless and staid, their editing is visible and flamboyant, bouncing back and forth between two timeframes, two separate legal proceedings, and three different perspectives in a manner that seems shockingly coherent when you consider how easily it could've been a mess. Their insistent montage is probably the single most important technical achievement of Social Network, whittling the film into the pointy shape of a thriller, despite there being very little in the actual content to justify that impression.
Plus, while it's not the first time Fincher showed off his NIN fandom, it is the first time Trent Reznor (and Atticus Ross!) worked with Fincher directly, here offering a truly neat and offbeat score that sounds like the music of the Krells, brilliantly representing the logic gates opening and closing in Mark's head as he tries to live like the hu-man. (This duo, however, did not deserve their Academy Award—if Inception didn't, then How to Train Your Dragon did. You'd think, to hear people talk about it, that sitting through this Oscarbait was the first time Academy voters had ever heard electronic music. And maybe that's the case: John Carpenter and Alan Howarth never won a Goddamned Oscar, even though they earned it about eight times in a row. Meanwhile, TRON: Legacy was not even nominated. Do you think these people have souls?)
It's worth stopping for a moment to note that Social Network is special in one very important sense: it represents what seems to be the ideal configuration of Fincher's working team, and with the exception of one of the editors (Wall), they served as his department heads for both of his next two films. A more talented group of collaborators is hard to imagine—if one denies auteurism in its stronger forms, as I do, one suspects that the same team could make a movie as suitably "Fincheresque" as any of their last three, were they deployed to Steven Spielberg instead. (Costume designer Jaqueline West wouldn't return, but her work is more on the "just fine" side of unexceptional anyway, though Mark looks suitably ridiculous in those flip flops.)
All the disciplines come together in one showstopper of a rowing scene, featuring Olympian-calibre rowing twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (co-plaintiffs in one of the Facebook lawsuits), and existing primarily because it's the closest thing Social Network has to any action—unless you count the part where Spider-Man threatens to punch the guy from *NSYNC, but doesn't.
And that brings us back to the performances, and by necessity the script delivered by those performances: pitch-perfect from beginning to end in its determined fictionalization of a boring real-life event. Social Network has something of a Rashomon to it, in addition to the obvious influence of Citizen Kane. Mark's story is delivered through flashbacks during depositions, and we see the absolute worst of Jesse Eisenberg's fanciful version of the Facebook founder. Egomaniacal from the very beginning, we wonder if the wounded narcissist that is so clearly on display in the present has colored the memories of his opponents—though, admittedly, we only wonder this a little. The film opens in a two-hander between Mark and his then-girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it's the film in less than ten minutes, a condensation of everything Social Network will be about—namely, that if he'd known Mark, it would have made John Doe rethink his plans for how to deal with Envy.
Barely paying attention to her as a woman, a human being, or even an object he's having sex with and should at least marginally placate, Mark fucks up his relationship in the space of just a few words that define everything that's terrible about him, from his despicable classism to his self-absorption to his inferiority complex to a misogyny so clueless it's almost devoid of real malice. Eisenberg is perfect, rendering Mark not quite the irredeemable asshole Erica describes him as—rather, he is at least as pathetically confused as he is spiteful and arrogant, so believably inept that Eisenberg's performance is one of our more genuine portrayals of high-functioning autism in film.
Mark is only lucky that his autism is so highly-functioning that he doesn't need to learn how to deal with cognitive normalcy—instead, he takes his data-driven approach to human interaction and, with the outsider insight of a robot sociologist, creates a platform upon which the rest of us will be forced to meet him on his level. Actually, the first thing he does is hack the Harvard facebooks and make a juvenile website called Facemash, because he doesn't understand that comparing the appearances of people's bodies is offensive. It's only later, after stealing an idea for a social media website from three "gentlemen of Harvard," Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the aforementioned Winklevosses (Armie Hammer and Armie Hammer, feat. Josh Pence), that Mark seizes upon a more holistic notion. People are more than just their bodies—they're their economic class and social status, too. With the (almost exclusively) financial assistance of Eduardo Saverein (Andrew Garfield), the original social networking site for rich Ivy League cunts, The Facebook, is born. And it hits hard, spreading soon to other places where enemies of the People exist.
Where there's the Internet, there are fools willing to part with their money in order to secure a favorable return on investment in a stagnating economy; and where there's money, there is invariably betrayal. Mark's exploitation of the Winklevosses and Divya is altogether premeditated; but the knife he puts in Eduardo is instinctive. Enter the fictionalized version of Sean "Napster" Parker (Justin Timberlake, fooling you into thinking he's a talented dramatic actor). Sean arrives as a seducer, and there's an even more highly fictionalized version of this story where they fuck.
Sean promises billions, but more importantly, Sean is what Mark longs to be, the ascended geek whom the Internet made cool. Meanwhile, Eduardo is everything he hates, effortlessly possessed of the real world status he craves. (And one of the more interesting aspects of Social Network is that Mark never really internalizes how coextensive they've become, in large part as a result of his very own invention.) Thus does the film arrive at a twisted version of that college movie standby, with Nerds set against Preps and Jocks, except now all three castes are enormously unpleasant. Eduardo is the only one who comes off remotely palatable, and this is principally because he was dumb enough to be bilked by Mark and Sean, and was also saintly enough to be friends with Mark in the first place.
I presume this lets on why I found Social Network less-than-enjoyable the first time around. It was impossible, of course, not to recognize the merits of each and every performance. This is particularly the case with Eisenberg's, but also Mara's (whose impact upon the film is just as outsized as Erica Albright's upon Mark) and Hammer's/Pence's (it's Hammer's face and voice, but Pence served as Tyler's body, giving a different spin to his physicality and making it very easy to distinguish the two temperaments of the identical twins, even when Hammer isn't speaking). Sure, everybody is great, but they are great in service to playing the worst people you'll never meet, because they're too busy being rich and awesome in ways you or I would have a difficult time imagining. The second time around, this is still the case, but the commentary behind the ugly entitlement was clearer. Or perhaps I've mellowed myself, and become less of a Zuckerberg full of jealousy toward my betters. Or maybe it's just that in a rewatch, I was more attuned to the grace notes, particularly in Eisenberg's performance, that lead to the ending that I thought wasn't totally earned the first time I saw it: a conscious Rosebud moment that says everything there is to say about the sad man hitting F5 on Facebook.
In any event, the bitter taste of The Social Network is one I finally acquired, and it makes me happier than anything to find out that I love a movie that, before, I thought I only respected.
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)