Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the world's youngest billionaire, continued in the philanthropic footsteps of Bill Gates by pledging money to the Newark school system. Even though he's got wealth and success beyond anyone's wildest dreams, David Fincher's excellent new movie The Social Network — a colourful account of the history of Facebook from Harvard dorm distraction to mega-bucks corporation — makes it hard not feel just a little bit sorry for him.
You probably don't need a primer on the success Facebook. There's a good chance you're on it: as of August this year the UK has 24.2 million active users, more than double all the other major social networking sites combined. But like many business triumphs, it didn't come about without considerable personal cost to the guy who set it up. As the neat tag-line for the film — an adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires — puts it, "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies."
The enemies in this case are Zuckerberg's former business partner, founding CFO of Facebook (or "The Facebook" as it was then known) Eduardo Saverin, and three more fellow Harvard students, Divya Narendra and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, with whom Zuckerberg discussed working on a slightly different social network idea, before going off and creating his own. In the film's "present", all four young men are facing Zuckerberg across boardroom tables, negotiating law suits for a bigger slice of the Facebook pie. It's pretty evident from this that the back-story — told through flashbacks — is going to get messy.
From the very outset, there are signs. Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale), is portrayed here as a singular genius whose brilliance at programming is matched only by his almost autistic inability to read the reactions of other human beings. This plays out rather bluntly in the opening scene, in which Mark's foot-in-mouth blunders and maddening conversational detours over a beer with his girlfriend mean that, before he's even drained his glass, he's been dumped.
Nevertheless some friends are prepared to put up with his "quirks", notably Saverin, played with real empathy by British actor Andrew Garfield (soon to take on the role of Spidey), a Brazilian economics student who stumps up the funds as the Facebook plan starts to take shape. Saverin's dream, aside being a successful entrepreneur, is to be permitted into one of Harvard's elitist "final clubs", The Phoenix. Membership to these clubs tends to be dominated by privileged young men who come from certain families and go to certain schools — typified by the Winklevoss twins, two strapping blonde rowers to whom the word "no" is as alien as "Medicaid".
The Winklevosses (or "Winklevii", as Mark refers to them), hear about some of Zuckerberg's early internet experiments and call him in to discuss a project they're cooking up. After tentatively agreeing to do business with them, Mark stops taking their calls and they start to fear the worst — that the nerd they deigned to permit into their realm has double-crossed them. This makes the Winklevosses angry, and you don't want to see them when they're angry. Well actually you do, because Cameron and Tyler, played by a single actor, Armie Hammer, are hilarious. Whether it's delivering some of Sorkin's best lines ("I'm 6'5", I weight 220lb, and there are two of me") or just wearing ridiculous jock-ware (like those awful headbands with earflaps), the Winklevosses are the fantastic comedy stooges (and definitely not afraid to accessorise in real life either).
The real emotional conflict — at least as far Zuckerberg is capable of it — begins to show when Mark invites Napster co-founder Sean Parker into the Facebook fold. Played by a pleasingly smarmy Justin Timberlake, Parker spots the huge potential of the site and becomes a kind of mentor to Mark — taking him to clubs, introducing him to investors and warning him of potential pitfalls. Parker begins to question out loud whether Saverin, enthusiastic though he may be, has the experience to roll with the big boys. A Facebook face-off begins to seem inevitable.
Unlike some of his previous films (Fight Club, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), here Fincher avoids barraging the senses with elaborate stylistic flourishes. Instead, and rightly, he lets Sorkin's script — as fast-moving, clever and punchy as anything he ever wrote for The West Wing — do the dazzling. At times the conversations are so snappy you feel like you could do with some extra RAM just to process them fast enough.
What is perhaps most impressive about The Social Network is how even-handedly the characters' moral fluxes are portrayed. OK, the facts are probably fiddled for the sake of cinematic entertainment, but not in such a way that we end up with a clear hero or villain (even the Winklevosses, clownish though they may be, are at times sympathetic). Each character is constructed so that their motives appear, if not good, at least completely justified from where they're standing. It leads up to an intricate and subtle clash of wills, and a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema
The Social Network is out on 15 October