The Social Network – review

The tale of how Mark Zuckerberg hit on the idea of Facebook is a riveting movie about friendship and greed

In 1492 Columbus set out to find a shorter route to the silks and spices of India and discovered the New World. Some 511 years and God knows how many new frontiers later, Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old Harvard student, sat down at his computer one night to have a little malevolent fun and accidentally hit on the idea of Facebook, an event almost as momentous and, we're told, involving far more people than currently live in the United States.

Although the advocate of numerous explorers have contested Columbus's claims, no lawyers representing Leif Ericsson, Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot or Francis Drake turned up at his door seeking their share of his fortune, as turned out to be the case with Zuckerberg. This indeed happens whenever anyone strikes gold today, and Zuckerberg's story as told in The Social Network is in some ways The Treasure of the Sierra Madre of cyberspace. It's also one of the most intelligent, pertinent and arresting movies of the past couple of years.

The movie is brilliantly scripted by Aaron Sorkin, author of the courtroom drama A Few Good Men and the TV series The West Wing, and incisively directed by David Fincher, whose films (among them Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and Zodiac) show him to be a doubter of outward appearance, a questioner of accepted realities. It begins with an extended dialogue set in a Boston bar near the Harvard University campus in the autumn of 2003. The clever, articulate Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard sophomore, is having an edgy drink with a girlfriend, alternately courting and insulting her in a fashion that suggests a suspicious, contradictory nature, at once diffident and aggressive, anticipating and countering rejection. The slightly built, unprepossessing Eisenberg is a gifted specialist in troubled and troublesome young men, as he demonstrated in The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland, and this performance is a major addition to the gallery. The opening scene, which sets up what is to follow, ends with the girl telling him: "You're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a tech geek, and I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

Zuckerberg's response is to go drunkenly to his computer, hack into the university's data bank and create "Facemash", a college program that mocks all the girls on campus, making him a notorious celebrity to his peers and the subject of censure to the faculty. But this resentful Jewish outsider, who is excluded from the university's elite clubs, attracts the attentions of two insiders, the rich Wasp twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. These handsome oarsmen, heirs to old money, employ him to help create an exclusive site called Harvard Connection, with the less well-connected maths student Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) as their businessman. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg starts developing something he calls "Thefacebook" with seed money provided by his roommate Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

First slowly, then suddenly, and then exponentially, Zuckerberg's operation expands from college to college with the intervention of a dazzling but erratic entrepreneur (or webpreneur), Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). The creator of the controversial, shortlived music site Napster, he has major connections in Silicon valley but has never been nearer a university than sleeping with Stanford co-eds in Palo Alto. It appears that the charismatic Parker's first contribution is to hypnotise Zuckerberg, his second to marginalise Saverin, his third to hold out the prospect of big hedge-fund money, and the fourth to suggest shortening the title to "Facebook".

I say "it appears" because few things are absolutely clear in this story. So to save themselves from running a gauntlet of process servers reaching from California to Massachusetts, and to make clear that they have not one but half-a-dozen unreliable witnesses, Sorkin and Fincher adopted the wise strategy of turning the narrative into a courtroom drama. The action is constantly interrupted by Zuckerberg, Saverin, Parker, the Winklevoss twins and Narendra appearing in pre-trial hearings in which middle-aged lawyers seek to determine the facts and the past states of minds of these young former partners. Once brothers in an exciting new venture, they're now angrily divided, distrustful, and fighting over the ownership of an enterprise worth billions and rapidly expanding around the world, changing perceptions of what is public and what is private along the way.

The case was ultimately settled out of court with billions changing hands. Everyone involved signed confidentiality agreements that, ironically, commit them to the kind of personal prudence and privacy that Facebook – a key agent of invasion and exhibition – threatens to destroy. The character I find most sympathetic is the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, onetime Clinton's treasury secretary and a rather dubious figure in some ways. The arrogant, snobbish Winklevoss twins force their way into his office and attempt to use their family's social muscle to persuade him to crush the uncollegial Zuckerberg.

Summers kicks them out, telling them to move on and think up some other little invention in cyberspace. This is the funniest and to my mind most refreshing sequence in the movie, and it reminded me of the wonderful moment in Quiz Show when Paul Scofield, as the old-style literary academic Mark Van Doren, says dismissively of his son's depredations that "cheating on a quiz show is like plagiarising a comic strip". But both Summers and van Doren are men whose old-fashioned probity leaves them open to the charge of naivety when they fail to move with the times.

I should of course declare an interest, or possible lack of it, as I don't blog, tweet, text or surf and don't know my apps from my elbow. But The Social Network takes familiar ideas about trust, friendship, endeavour, ambition, betrayal and greed into fascinating new areas of experience. It's as riveting, lucid and open-minded a film as Rashomon.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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