It's a Facebook world, we just live in it
I admit to being somewhat skeptical about The Social Network (A-) before I saw it. The movie had garnered positive review after positive review, and yet I kept thinking, really? I was worried, mostly, that it would be one of those based-on-a-true-story pieces that was more devoted to being based on a true story than to being, like, good. And in this case, we already know the bulk of the story: Young Harvard genius creates website in his dorm room. Website turns out to be Facebook (maybe you've heard of it?). Friend requests and likes multiply like bunnies. Genius becomes billionaire. Some people sue him, but no one can stop him from taking over the world.
Turns out, happily, that the critics are right, and this is indeed an excellent movie. Propelled by Aaron Sorkin's West Wing-style walking-talking-saying-smart-things-really-fast banter, The Social Network offers compelling characters in difficult situations. Much of the enjoyment of watching comes from the experience of seeing a really huge idea being born. Facebook is so big now that it's almost like television, or the internet itself -- it's difficult for most of us to imagine the world without it. And yet, the idea came from somewhere; it began small, as possibility or promise or potential. There are lots of ideas like this, but only a few of them deliver. Watching those early moments in which Mark Zuckerberg, played terrifically by Jesse Eisenberg, sees the future is a real thrill.
Of course, real life rarely moves directly from Point A to Point B, and that's the underlying truth in this movie. Maybe some of Zuckerberg's idea was borrowed from other people. Maybe he tricked his best friend and co-founder out of his share of the business. The movie is framed by depositions in the lawsuits over these very issues, cutting back and forth from the testimony to the events in question -- and even when we're watching things happen, it's hard to know the truth. The movie deftly avoids the trap of oversimplification. There are no real villains. Even the ridiculously handsome and privileged Winklevoss twins, party in one of the suits against Zuckerberg, aren't entirely stereotyped; their claim that Zuckerberg ripped off their idea seems to have at least some merit to it. Eduardo Saverin, who funded the initial iteration of FB, certainly seems to have been unjustly frozen out as the business grew; but he also seems to have been too timid, not enough forward-thinking -- so cutting him out might well have been the only way for FB to realize its potential. Sean Parker, the pretty-boy, party-boy, genius co-founder of Napster played by the ever-entertaining Justin Timberlake, is the foil to Saverin: brilliant, fearless, forward-looking, and a bit ruthless. No easy answers here.
The core of the movie is Eisenberg's inspired portrayal of Zuckerberg. It's not an entirely sympathetic picture, but it isn't exactly unsympathetic, either. The script hints at his motivations -- jealousy of those for whom social interactions come easily, difficulty interacting with women, desire to be cool -- but again, avoids settling for too-simple explanations. Eisenberg offers a performance that is at once vulnerable and inscrutable. It feels like an in-depth portrait, but in the end, we know little more about Zuckerberg -- either the character or the real-life version -- than we did at the beginning. Which is rather a neat metaphor for Facebook itself, and this world of online interaction: it so often feels more intimate than it really is.