A friend of mine insists all art, all creative endeavour, all work is, at heart, about revenge, about retribution on anyone who’s ever belittled us, doubted us, hurt us- a largely-unconscious, retaliatory ‘fuck you’ to the world. To be honest, I’ve never been convinced and, though glimpsing on occasion aspects of darkness in my own motivation to write and to do the job I do, I’ve always felt- definitely always wanted to feel- that, for most of us, there’s a far greater drive to connect and embrace than to distance and humiliate. Right now, I’m far less sure: sucked into the nuanced, sly perspective of this often brilliant piece of work, I’m left feeling unanchored, bemused, a little wary even of my desire to type these words.
David Fincher begins his film bravely, with a dark, delicately-written, double-headed scene of verbal energy, wit, wisdom and emotional acuity and, throughout, rarely shies away from ambivalence and complexity. The beautifully underplayed performances- Jesse Eisenberg as brilliant, socially-crude Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Rooney Mara as his unwitting muse, Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg’s ‘only friend’ in particular- bring a wisdom and subtlety to Aaron Sorkin’s pyrotechnic script that propel what could have been a dull, small, limited, indulgent story into a narrative of universal power. Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (Napster bloke and, superficially, a more charismatic, cool, rounded geek than Zuckerberg) is a captivating presence and one which, ultimately, catalyses us (and Zuckerberg) into acknowledging the wounded, raging misanthropy behind competitive male ‘intelligence’, creativity and capitalism.
The film grips and seduces: a beautiful, chill autumnal sheen turns to harsher blue tones; words and images tumble and fall breathlessly; minutiae become important; ambiguity suffuses the whole thing, wrong-footing and undermining any attempt at a clean decision about right and wrong. Monsters are shot through with flaw and fault and softness. We’re part of this- no easy ‘them and us’ here.
Two false notes do mean the Social Network stops short of perfection. There’s an unconvincing humour and occasionally clumsy ‘old-school honour and decency’ v ‘new-school money-grabbing’ dialectic embodied in the Winklevoss twins’ legal battles with Zuckerberg. One scene in particular, set in Henley and featuring Armie Hammer’s twins (yep- he plays both)- is clunky, ill-fitting and superfluous. More significantly problematic is the treatment of women here. Mara aside, the only even partially-realised female character is that of the under-used Shelby Young; the links between the nerds’ awkward misogyny and their (and, crucially, the film’s) placement of women as peripheral ciphers- as devices to illuminate or be blamed for male imperfections- feel, at times, uncomfortable and ill-considered.
Not minor quibbles, these, but never enough to derail the piece. It remains a pacy, exquisitely atmospheric and masterful examination of masculinity, friendship and betrayal and one which is caustically aware of- but never bludgeons home- the irony that the developers of a phenomenon purportedly about communication (though ultimately, of course, and unironically, about advertising revenues) were themselves so unable to empathise or connect.
It’ll be hard to use Facebook, or to write anything, in quite the same way again.