Monday, October 4, 2010

Tapping Into THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Movie of the Year So Far ...?


- I was a student at Boston University's College of Communication from 2000 to 2004, and in many ways, it was an exciting time to be in college and to be studying communication. From a technological point of view, the times were definitely a-changin'. Cell phones were becoming ubiquitious. High speed internet was becoming more widely available, and at BU, circa 2000, the vast population of students was already very much connected to each other via intra-university networks, and the beginnings of the modern social media web were already beginning to evolve. We'd log on to those networks and download movies and music. People were sharing, creating, linking. My freshman year, Napster blew up, and suddenly there was this whole new world of online music. The floodgates had opened. People were blogging and instant-messaging. At a campus as huge as BU's, IM was the preferred way to keep in touch, and it was already replacing phone calls as a primary means of chatting. Your online alias was quickly becoming an important part of your identity. For a freshman communications class, I wrote a paper on the use of AIM among teens and college students and how it was changing the way young adults interacted. By my junior year, digital cameras were exploding in popularity, and people were starting to post more and more of their photos, and eventually videos, online. By the time I studied in London in 2003, it felt natural and easy to search for episodes of my favorite TV show, 24, via various online networks. I started a blog for a computer science class I was taking my senior year (which eventually morphed into this very blog), but prior to that I was semi-addicted to reading a couple of LiveJournal blogs written by friends or friends of friends, and I had my regular list of websites that I checked every day - many of which were becoming increasingly dependent on user-generated or user-submitted content. By my junior year, I think, there was something in the air in Boston. Everyone was trying to figure out how to create the Next Big Thing. All of us in COM were wondering what the digital future meant for us. My friends in the School of Management were all trying to dream up the next huge website, the next big idea. There was a lot of energy in Boston dorm rooms at this time, a lot of big dreams. But there was also a dark side to the infiltration of social connectivity and easily-shareable media. Students began getting taken to court by the record labels. At BU, a girl was filmed doing some pretty disgusting and embarassing stuff at a party, and the video was infamously passed around within the BU network, and on the internet at large, for anyone to see. A reminder that privacy was becoming less of a guarantee, that there were a lot of dark corners in the social network. It was clear, though, that this was indeed a new digital era, with all sorts of potential for both good and bad.

And then came Facebook. I know there are still some people who dismiss the site as a fad or a gimmick, but those people are not seeing clearly. Facebook has "won," and it's here to stay. There were other sites that predated it, and others that have challenge it, but right now, in 2010, Facebook is the site that is at the forefront of the revolution in social media. It's at the forefront of the web in general. At BU, the site spread like wildfire in 2004 - my senior year. Within months, seemingly everyone on BU had a profile on the site ... at a huge college like Boston U, the chance to connect so easily and with so many people - from good friends to random classmates - was hard to pass up. While it took the mainstream a while to catch on, Facebook was already well on it's way to world domination even then. Facebook was all the rage in Boston in 2004, but soon enough, it expanded to the rest of the country. Soon after that, it expanded to other countries - I now have Facebook friends in England, Israel, Australia, and elsewhere. Before long, my co-workers, young and old, were on the site. Later, my parents. Political campaigns, marketing campaigns, campaigns to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live - all conducted on Facebook. Messaging, photo-sharing, games of Scrabble - all on Facebook. You meet someone at a party, and you ask them to "Facebook-friend" you. Honestly, when I meet someone in my age range today who's NOT on Facebook, it's like meeting one of those people who used to refuse to buy a TV or something. I know there are those who like to boast that they're not on Facebook, and I get it. In some ways, the site has become an all-encompassing monster. It's addictive. It raises privacy concerns. It makes it so our lives are digitally catalogued and recorded - our likes and dislikes, our nights out, our relationships. It's fun and useful but also anxiety-inducing. And hey, I'll admit it, my life was and is changed by Facebook, as I suspect many of yours were and are. And it's for that reason that there is that fascination to understand it, to get the story behind it, to try to make sense of how we got to this point so fast and so suddenly.

But, regardless of what you think of (or how much you use) Facebook, there's no doubt that the story behind its inception is a fascinating one. So please, don't judge THE SOCIAL NETWORK based on your opinion of the site. The movie isn't a referendum on Facebook, nor is it about the specific ins and outs of using Facebook. Yes, the movie was extra compelling to me - I was there from the beginning, I was in Boston as Mark Zuckerberg was creating Facebook, and I've been on the site longer than most. I was hanging out around Harvard, exploring Cambridge, hoping fruitlessly for a chance Natalie Portman encounter. Getting pizza and hitting up Newbury Comics at The Garage in Harvard Square. I was there, and I went on to work in digital media and at a job where Facebook is very much a part of what I do. In some small way, I feel connected to the events of this movie.

But all that being said, it doesn't matter. Apart from all of that larger context, the fact is that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is an absolutely phenomenal, mind-blowing film. It captures a time, captures a place. It is riveting. The script is crackling. The acting is exceptional. The direction is the great David Fincher 100% at the top of his game. It delivers a knock-out punch. It might just be the best movie of the year so far.

I mean, think about this for a second. The hype over this being "The Facebook Movie" is so huge, that people are actually overlooking the fact that this is the new film from DAVID FINCHER, and that it's written by AARON SORKIN. That's a dream team, a once-in-a-lifetime combo of visionary writer and director. Now, these are two of the greatest creative minds of the last couple of decades, but ... both have had high profile misfires of late. For Fincher, Benjamin Button was a visually outstanding but narratively lacking film - not in the same league as the director's greatest films, like Fight Club. For Sorkin, the television show Studio 60 was a high profile flop. After a great pilot, the show became so preachy and heavy-handed that I began to question my high regard for Sorkin in general. But here's the great news about The Social Network - it might just be the best thing that Fincher has ever directed, and it might just be the best script that Sorkin has written to date.

Fincher directs the story of Mark Zuckerberg's invention of Facebook with a driving energy that makes it as intense and riveting a film as anything else he's helmed. There's a dark, almost apocalyptic vibe to the movie. Seeing such recent history play out on screen, knowing how much things are about to explode, knowing that the small actions and reactions of the characters will very quickly change the world - it gives The Social Network an ominous and pulse-pounding mood that makes it hard to take your eyes off of the screen. This is NOT a bland, slice-of-life tale of college life or corporate maneuvering. This is huge, epic, operatic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff. This is a movie that's about so much more than just the basics of the story it tells. It's bursting with subtext, with theme, with character, with depth. Fincher's camera captures that certain something, that pulsating, driving force that propels you through college, that energy and freedom and sense of possibility that makes each class, each idea, each night out, each conflict feel bigger and grander than it might have in another setting. That energy that I spoke of earlier - that feeling that was in the air in Boston circa 2003? Fincher nails it. It's something that's slightly intangible, hard to describe, but he nails it. I think about a rowing scene towards the middle of the film. It involves the Winklevoss twins - two purebred Harvard students who approached Mark Zuckerberg with an idea for a social networking site, and then felt betrayed when he ditched the project and struck off on his own, going on to create the site that would be Facebook. The Winklevoss twins are business students as well as star athletes, and their ultra-competitiveness as Olympian-level rowers - and it's transference to their rivalry with Zuckerberg - is a recurring theme throughout the movie. And in this scene, as we see them intensely rowing in a big competition, I don't know why, exactly, but it absolutely gave me chills. Fincher directs it with that driving intensity I've been talking about. It's just two guys rowing, but it feels like so much more is at stake. In that one scene, it's the old vs. new, the establishment vs. the geeks, the old world vs. the oncoming revolution. Again, Fincher never makes The Social Network feel like a "small" movie. The stakes are always epic. The themes are grand. The moody score by Trent Reznor adds immeasurably to that feeling as well. But man, this is Fincher at his absolute best.

Meanwhile, the script by Aaron Sorkin is equally impressive. For one, the dialogue is absolutely top-notch. Some of the best I've ever heard on-screen. I was worried that Sorkin would infuse the film with some sort of overt political message - the same sort of heavyhandedness that has been his achilles heel in the past. But that is not the case. Sorkin is laser-focused on character and theme, and it shows. Every character pops off the screen - from the awkward boy genius Zuckerberg, to the snobby Winklevoss twins, to the charismatic Napster founder Sean Parker, to Zuckerberg's friend and rival Eduardo Saverin. We don't know everything about these characters, and the script wisely leaves a lot open to our own interpretation. Nothing is black and white - no true heroes or villains. And yet, the characters are so brilliantly drawn so as to invite endless discussion and debate and analysis. Was Zuckerberg really a bad guy? Was Saverin screwed or was there more to his situation than meets the eye? Did the brothers Winklevoss have just cause to take Zuckerberg to court? Given the recent and reality-based nature of the events of the film, it's probably wise to leave these conclusions to the viewer. But it's not just good business - Sorkin's script is so well put together that you can only admire him for not cutting corners, for not hitting us over the head with his own opinions or biases, for creating these fully realized characters that are, like most people, capable of both good and bad. And I also have to take a moment to praise the structure of the script - it is near-perfect. So many movies have a great setup but no payoff. So many films feel rushed or too long or seem to skip over important details. The Social Network is perfectly paced. It starts off with one of the movie's best scenes - a brilliantly-written and acted bit in which we see Zuckerberg at a bar, on a date, with a girl who is quickly losing patience with him and his hyperlogical sparring. The scene will inform and drive the rest of the film, and the way in which it all comes full circle by movie's end is nothing short of genius. It's all the result of what is surely lot of creative license on the part of Sorkin, but it doesn't matter - it makes for an incredible narrative that plays out, with a gut-punch of an ending that is haunting, ironic, and darkly funny. Throughout the film, there are moments that are quietly hilarious, moments that are wrenching, and moments that are exhilerating. All the credit in the world goes to Sorkin for crafting a screenplay that works as well on the micro level (dialogue, character, humor) as it does on the macro level (overarching themes, sense of scale). A year ago the very idea might have sounded laughable, but Sorkin and Fincher have done the seemingly impossible - they've made the story of Facebook - no kidding - into one of the great epic dramas of our time.

Of course, I've also got to talk about the cast. Each and every cast member brings it, delivering the best work of their careers so far. Jesse Eisenberg is ridiculously great as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. His speech, his mannerisms - they're at once unique and stylized and yet 100% believable and real. His version of Zuckerberg is eccentric and awkward, sure. But he also feels like someone you might know. He doesn't feel like a cartoon character or a mere impression. He feels like a damn good character brought to life. This is an award-worthy performance from Jesse Eisenberg. And Andrew Garfield is just as good if not even better. His character, Eduardo Saverin, is more emotional than Zuckerberg, and so Garfield gets a lot of the movie's big, dramatic, emotional scenes. And yep, he nails 'em. Garfield again shows that he is one of the best young actors out there. This is also, easily, Justin Timberlake's best movie role ever. Timberlake's Sean Parker is a rockstar of the digital world - a smiling charmer with more than a hint of sinister temptation in his eyes. He brings the star-struck Zuckerberg into his pseudo-glamorous life and leaves an unmistakable stamp on the evolution of Facebook. Armie Hammer is also superb, playing both Winklevoss twins thanks to some impressive and seamless digital f/x. Serving as great foils for Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss brothers help establish the unique world of Harvard and the elitist Ivy League establishment that still dominates the culture of the school. Rooney Mara also has a small but crucial role as Erica Albright - that girl in the first scene who breaks up with Zuckerberg in a Cambridge bar. A made-up character, but an important one, Erica's presence haunts the entirety of the film, and Mara makes her a worthy one-that-got-away - a BU girl (go BU!) who makes for a formidable sparring partner with the sharp-as-a-tack founder of Facebook.

From the opening scene of The Social Network, I knew I was watching something special. The movie grabs you from the get-go and never lets up. By the time the credits began to roll, I was shellshocked. Stunned. The ending was every bit as powerful as the opening, and the story in between was consistently captivating. I saw this movie as part of my birthday celebration, and going in I worried that I might be too distracted by all the party-planning to fully focus in on the film at hand. But that wasn't the case. I was 100% immersed in the film for its duration, and when it was over I eagerly discussed it with my friends, all of us in agreement that we had just seen a landmark movie. This is a fantastic film in and of itself. But when looked at in the context of recent history, in terms of how it sheds light on the world in which we live in today - a place where we're simultaneously connected to everyone and no one - it becomes, I think, a singular achievement. This is a film that lives up to the hype. A film that feels important and yet never fails to entertain. It's David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin and a cast of some of Hollywood's best young actors each bringing their absolute A-games. The Social Network is a must-see, and the first truly great movie of the Fall.

My Grade: A

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