The Social Network opens with a woman telling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) that he’s an asshole, and it ends with another woman telling him he’s not; in between, the movie makes a much stronger case for the former than the latter, but it’s not just a portrait of a jerk who ended up becoming a billionaire. David Fincher’s film about the contentious early days of Facebook and the former collaborators who sued Zuckerberg for a portion of his company’s fortune is about the human costs of doing business, about the lightning speed of success in the internet age, and about how much damage and glory can be wrought from one guy’s desperate need for acceptance.
That one guy is Zuckerberg, an awkward Harvard sophomore obsessed with getting into one of the school’s exclusive final clubs. Scorned by the woman who declares him an asshole, Zuckerberg vindictively creates a website that involves rating the relative hotness of female Harvard students. He’s then recruited to work on a new Harvard-based social-networking site, but instead teams up with his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and builds a site of his own, which would eventually become Facebook.
Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, working from a book by Ben Mezrich, aren’t so much concerned with the cultural ramifications of social networking as they are with Zuckerberg and his immediate circle, and how his desire for “cool” (a word that Zuckerberg evokes multiple times to describe the website) leads him to cut out anyone who isn’t perfectly in line with his vision. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as someone whose meanness comes paradoxically out of a deep loneliness, who’s quick to toss over former best friend Saverin when a new, flashier model comes along in the form of hard-partying Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Like 2007’s Zodiac, the Fincher film it most closely resembles, The Social Network is interested in processes and procedures, from legal wrangling to contracts to pieces of code. We see how this behemoth is built, piece by piece, but not how it might go on to change the world.
That narrow focus, though, is what gives the movie its power. Petty squabbles and immature decisions are as important as grand visions in the creation of something significant, and Fincher, in his typically meticulous way, shows every step along that path. There’s little flashiness or noise to The Social Network, but in its quiet way it’s every bit as fascinating as Fincher’s more self-consciously meaningful films.