Movie stars require a quality of aggression — at least if audiences are going to feel wired to their every move. In films like The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Adventureland (2009), Jesse Eisenberg, his head lowered and jutting like a faithful dog’s, has played anxiously fast-talking, insecure nice guys, and he has often been marvelous. Yet he’s staked out the kind of youth-neurotic terrain that, by definition, can never be electrifying. In The Social Network, the thrillingly intense, enjoyable, and resonant new drama about the founding of Facebook, Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the brilliant, ruthless Harvard student who rejiggered the spirit of the Internet age. From the opening moments, the actor grips you with the armored force of his verbal attack.
We’re in a dark bar in Cambridge, Mass., where Zuckerberg, having a beer with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), jabbers on about his thwarted desire to join one of Harvard’s elite final clubs. Eisenberg holds his head still, and every line tumbles out as if he’d shot it from his brain like a bullet. He’s not just talking, he’s working off his anger on whoever will listen — in this case, the girlfriend who’s about to dump him and call him an ”a–hole.”
In response, Zuckerberg stalks across campus and posts a nasty blog item about her, proving her characterization a bull’s-eye. Then he goes further, cobbling together a website called Facemash that invites students to survey paired photographs of coeds and say which one they think is hotter. It’s an egregious idea — and a huge hit. With his close-cropped curls and pursed lips that make him look like a Jewish-preppy John Lydon, Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an egomaniacal whiz-kid creep who’s the smartest dude in any situation because he’s outside it and inside it at the same time. The actor takes on a whole new aspect — he’s a geek programmed for revenge. And he’s mesmerizing.
It’s hard to recall the last serious movie built around a character who was this much of an intellectual scoundrel. Yet the creators of The Social Network — screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), whose dialogue here is so sharp it could slice ribbons, and director David Fincher (Zodiac) — have something tricky and emotionally complex up their sleeves. The story of how Zuckerberg put Facebook together, one Silicon Valley bong bash and venture-capitalist powwow at a time, is intercut with a pair of deposition hearings in which he faces down the two parties he ostensibly screwed over. The Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer, with body-doubling by Josh Pence), are super-WASP Harvard crew champions who accuse Zuckerberg of ripping off their idea for a website that will allow Harvard students to interface with one another. Then there’s Zuckerberg’s partner, CFO, and only friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whom he ultimately leaves out in the cold. The sizzling ethical-dramatic question that drives The Social Network is: Why did Zuckerberg betray these people? Or, in fact, did he really?
Hooked by the desire to belong, but also by his dream of what a game changer Facebook could be, Zuckerberg does whatever it takes to push his vision forward. He’s a cad, but in his devious techno-entrepreneurial way he’s also an idealist, driven by a force greater than greed. He’s an Asperger’s version of Citizen Kane, aware of everything around him yet disengaged from it, too. He undercuts the snobbery of the Winklevosses’ idea, making it more supple and democratic even as he snatches it from under their blue-blood noses.
The Social Network has everything you want in a thriller for the brain: huge doses of ego and duplicity, corporate backstabbing, and some very layered performances. Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker, the Napster cofounder who helped launch Facebook, as an ultra-shrewd party boy who encourages Zuckerberg to see that what looks illegal in the Internet era may in fact be the rules of the future. As the ingenuous Eduardo, whose only crime is thinking small (which to Zuckerberg is the biggest crime of all), Andrew Garfield has a great moment where he confronts his ex-comrade. It’s the tongue-lashing we’ve been waiting for, yet the power of The Social Network is that Zuckerberg is a weasel with a mission that can never be dismissed. The movie suggests that he may have built his ambivalence about human connection into Facebook’s very DNA. That’s what makes him a jerk-hero for our time. A