New York Film Festival impressions by
Before seeing “The Social Network” I avoided early reviews like the plague. And there were plenty! I saw it on Friday, the day of the world premiere at the New York Film Festival and had still somehow managed to come to the party days, maybe even weeks late. It hasn’t been easy staying away, even on this very website. When I woke up this morning to a poster of “Citizen Kane” next to “The Social Network” poster it took quite the willpower not to read the article. But I really wanted to come to the table with a fresh point of view. So…it’s Sunday…two days later. What has taken me so long? To be honest, I just wasn’t ready to get into what I assume has already become a discussion of potential backlash and upswing. Not about a film I loved as much as this one. Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t actually make a complete living as a writer because I was able to experience the luxury of letting the film: the performances, the screenplay and the direction all settle in my mind.
Now that my two day honeymoon phase with “The Social Network” is over I can start to put my opinion into words. Yes, it is masterful, obviously timely…all things I am sure have been said. (OK…I do know some of what has been said…at least in 140 characters or less.) But as of last night I still wasn’t sure how to really expand on that. Then two things happened. First, I read something on Twitter (oh the social network irony) that I really disagreed with concerning the film. Basically, the tweet suggested that the lack of relationship development between Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) was not only a flaw, but a fatal one that was being ignored by critics. (OH…I guess it’s safe to assume that the readers here on AD already know the story well enough by now that I don’t really need to tell you who these people are, right?) And then this morning, a friend of mine really slapped me out of my Sorkin/Fincher mental love fest by asking me a simple question. Why did I like the film so much? OK…time to start answering.
It is quite clear from the opening scene of the film (9 pages worth of conversation) between Rooney Mara’s Erica and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark that a very conscious decision was made by Sorkin and continued by Fincher to let us know that we are entering lives and a story already in progress. Screw exposition, they seem to be saying. We are going to do all our homework off screen (a 3 week rehearsal period that consisted, according to Fincher, mostly of table discussions about the script, characters and relationships) and give you the meat of the story. It’s not that the Saverin and Zuckerberg relationship wasn’t developed. We just didn’t see it develop on screen. Instead of making us wait for the “good stuff” while we suffer through unnecessary exposition, we get thrown right into the action, beginning the film with the inciting incident.
It is no secret that Fincher is known as a “technical” filmmaker, a subject which was even brought up at the NYFF press conference. Fincher laughed it off a bit and so do I. Have you seen Pitt’s and Spacey’s performances in “Se7en?” I think that film would also make him an actor’s director. He is also a director with restraint. Remember that moment in “Zodiac” when the killer approaches the couple in the park in bright light with no score? In most “horror” movies that scene would be covered in shadow and scary music, perhaps even at night, despite the fact that the real event actually happened in broad daylight. But not in Fincher’s horror movie. I guess what I am trying to say is that yes…he is a technical director. But that doesn’t need to sound like an insult. As cliche as it might sound, a true technician knows when to be brassy and showy but also when to be quiet. He knows how to work with actors. And most importantly he knows how to tell a story. With “The Social Network” Fincher scores an “all of the above.”
What makes “The Social Network” particularly resonate with me is the characterizations by incredibly gifted actors. Justin Timberlake is quite remarkable as Napster founder Sean Parker. I don’t know what I really expected going in, but it wasn’t what I saw. You read a lot of criticism of actors “just playing themselves.” Well, the root of contemporary acting (at least in terms of “the method”) is finding the part of the character that exists within you, and expanding upon it. It is a really difficult thing to analyze, but Timberlake does it remarkably. The brilliance in his characterization lies within his physical adjustments, attitude, and most importantly his eyes. (Yes, I know how cheesy all that sounds. You will see for yourself, trust!)
As great as Timberlake is, Eisenberg is truly the heart of this film. One miscalculation by Eisenberg in terms of character and this could have been quite a different experience. The Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” begins as an incredibly awkward person, who seems to simply say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Does he really mean to hurt Saverin the way he does in those first days when they appear to be best of friends? Maybe, maybe not. Yes, the things he writes on his blog after the initial conversation with Erica Albright (Mara), (which leads to the equally abhorrent and sexist Face Mash) are incredibly hurtful, leading you to believe he isn’t the nicest of people. But how many of us have sent that passionate love-scorned text message and really regretted it the next morning. It is the uncertainty whether or not there is true regret in Zuckerberg that keeps him likable throughout the film. It is also quite fun watching Zuckerberg “grow.” Once we get to the successful/lawsuit ridden Zuckerberg, he has transformed into a master of the witty insult, using his subordinates’ own words against them. Talk about a diva. Anna Wintour could take lessons from Jesse Eisenberg on snark.
I think a lot of what really makes this film work boils down to something that Timberlake said Friday in the press conference. After one of his friends saw the film, they said that they didn’t really agree with anyone in particular in terms of the lawsuits, but they didn’t disagree with them either. It’s not indifference…but instead Fincher and Sorkin have made is possible for us not to have to choose sides. Somehow every one of these characters is infused with empathy. Miraculously, no one is a villain. Least of all Zuckerberg. He is the new anti-anti hero for (universe help me!) the Facebook generation.
Brian Whisenant covers Tribeca and the NYFF for Awards Daily, and runs Awards Wiz year round.