The Social Network: **** (out of 4)
They had me at 'wget'.
From the time I heard that the movie was in production, my expectations for The Social Network were on the floor. A movie about Facebook? Really? The subject was so inherently flawed, to my mind, that there was essentially nothing that could get through to me and make me interested. Aaron Sorkin dialogue and script? David Fincher directing? Trent Reznor soundtrack? It takes place a few miles down the street? An artsy-and-interesting trailer? Nope; nothing got through. Even when I started hearing good - nay, superlative! - things over the last few weeks, "it's about Facebook" kept me from even wanting to see the movie. And when I decided to see the movie last night, it was with the thought that "I really should see this, if just so I can write the review".
The first few minutes of the movie allowed me to reinforce my prejudices, as I was introduced to an irritating Harvard sophomore - Mark Zuckerberg, played by the guy from Zombieland - being extra-jerky and getting dumped for it. But soon the opening credits started - under-stated, subtle, clearly setting the tone for a movie about that subject near and dear to my heart, academia. And that was followed by some fairly-realistic LiveJournal ranting and the start of a sure-to-be-stupid hacking scene...
...but then Zuckerberg started explaining what he was coding, and where and how he was getting his data. And I was sold, because it made sense, from both a technical and social perspective. The web site he put together was not amazing because it was a technical marvel; it was amazing because it was completely plausible, from the 'wget -r' to get the images to the database work required to put the site together. And as this scene continued, with cuts back to what the rest of the campus was doing, I suddenly that I was watching something amazing: a movie about the idealized college life of my time.
The Social Network is a movie about undergraduate entrepreneurship, with a little bit of technology thrown in for good measure. This is not new to me; I've watched from the side-lines as several of these ventures grew (and some even succeeded), and I even participated in one of those (doomed) ventures. Facebook may have started at Harvard, but it may as well have started from the mind of one of the motivated, genius programmers I knew so well down the hall or across campus at UIUC. And the trick, here and there and everywhere else where this kind of thing comes up, is less the genius itself and more on follow-through (and just a touch of business sense).
I was shocked to see the movie understand this - not just on an academic level, and not just on a personal level, but on every level in between.
From that initial hacking scene, I was sold. I spent the movie looking for the details, because the broad strokes were so strong, and I was generally happy with what I saw - the programming "environments" were good, the commands typed were plausible, the terminal windows showed what they were supposed to show. The classroom environments felt legitimate, as did the corporate offices and the startup work environments. The thrill of fighting with the administration, along with the sense that the administration really just wanted everybody to stay out of their way. The sense of awe from everybody involved when they met the guy with the "successful" startup. The "social strata" feel of the campus. These were all correct, and I loved the movie for that, enough to mostly ignore the few screw-ups left in for dramatic tension (pouring rain in Palo Alto in the summer? Ha!).
Also of note was the simple way that the story was told. The Social Network tells Zuckerberg's story through the lens of a pair of contentious court cases about his company. This view of the story allows the movie to simultaneously be a work of fiction and non-fiction, by removing the "narrator" from the equation and into a theoretically-omniscient-but-not-really category. Through this system, Zuckerberg can be made to look like a horrible person, an anti-social visionary, and a few things in between, all without actually forcing us to believe any of it. Somebody involved believed these things; they may all have elements of truth in them; but they do not necessarily mean that they are true. There is great power in that.
The acting was incredible - seriously, I had no idea that either Eisenberg (as Zuckerberg) was that good of an actor, and I was outright gobsmacked by Timberlake's abilities. The soundtrack was atmopheric. The dialogue was perhaps a bit forced at times, but all towards the wonderful, flowing, vibrant manner that Sorkin is so good at. And the direction was fascinating, with the back-and-forth cuts particularly striking.
I suspect I'm going to be rooting for this movie for Best Picture. I'm curious if I'll see it again, though.
Sidenote - the movie said that Zuckerberg was an emacs user. But was that actually emacs that I saw on the screen, or that I saw him typing? I didn't see any 'Ctrl-XXX' character presses, which sound subtly different than regular typing; but I also didn't really see any 'Esc' key pinky extensions, so it's hard to argue that he was actually using vim. But... still. Was that flamewar left in there?