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No clear villains in Facebook tragedy

The Social Network (M). Director: David Fincher. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara. 120 minutes

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social NetworkWhich 'social network'? The one that has more than 500 million members, which turned its young founder into a multi-billionaire, and saw him named by Vanity Fair as the most influential person of the Information Age. Chances are that you have it open right now, in a separate browser tab, as you read these words. Incidentally, so do I, as I write them. For better and worse, Facebook is with us — always, it seems.

Based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network is a funny and engaging account of Facebook's inauspicious founding and cataclysmic rise. This is dramatised history rather than documentary — screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) has been candid about the fact that he put storytelling ahead of slavish factuality — but it does walk with its toes close to the historical record.

Two parallel lawsuits provide the framework for a tightly structured narrative about the rise and rise of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg). One is mounted by his co-founder and former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Garfield). The other, by titanic twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Hammer), Harvard alumni and aspiring Olympic rowers, who have accused Zuckerberg of stealing their intellectual property.

The film flashes back to Harvard and to the roots of an idea that will change the world. As a student, IT whiz Zuckerberg cripples the Harvard network, along with his reputation with his female peers, by creating a website that invites users to rank female undergrads based on their physical attractiveness. This frat-geek stunt brings him to the attention of the Winklevosses, who enlist him as a programmer on the exclusive Harvard dating website they have conceived.

Zuckerberg strings the twins along while secretly working on his own sleeker and more ambitious social networking site. Saverin, unaware of Zuckerberg's agreement with the Winklevosses, puts up capital and comes on board to oversee the business side of thefacebook.com. By the time the Winklevosses learn of the rival site's existence, it has been live for several days; it's an instant hit, and ready for expansion, to other schools and beyond.

The Social Network is a drama with plenty of conflict and no clear-cut baddies. Clever visual effects and finely distinguished dual performances from Hammer embody the boyishly arrogant Winklevosses on screen. Barrackers for the underdog will take pleasure in Zuckerberg's undercutting of these twin towers of exquisite genes and silver-spoon breeding. But Cameron and Tyler are more buffoonish than villainous.

Although the film shies from stating how substantial their legal claim against Zuckerberg is, there's no doubt his betrayal is ethically questionable. The twins are therefore more pitiable than malicious, as they stand back all but helpless and watch Facebook's exponential growth. It's hard not to feel sorry for them when a close loss in a major rowing regatta coincides with the news Facebook has gone international.

Timberlake gives a scene-stealing performance as Sean Parker, founder of the notorious music-sharing website Napster, whose rock star lifestyle, maverick conduct and anarchistic philosophising inspire the impressionable Zuckerberg, not always for the better. Parker becomes the devil on Zuckerberg's shoulder, whispering hedonistic temptations in his ear. But still, it's Zuckerberg's choice whether or not he'll listen.

The real Zuckerberg is reportedly displeased with the film, but the portrayal is sympathetic. Zuckerberg is shown to be driven, hard-working and prodigiously intelligent. If his behaviour is not always admirable, it's because he is too proud to admit to his own insecurities — regarding, among other things, his inability to gain access to one of the exclusive, prestigious Harvard 'final clubs'.

It is pride that causes him to raze, in humiliating fashion, his romantic relationship with fellow student Erica Albright (Mara); a mistake that plagues him throughout the film, motivating his quest to connect the world and ultimately robbing his quest of personal spiritual resonance.

Pride can also be blamed for his eventual, heartbreaking betrayal of Saverin, who is portrayed by Garfield as intelligent, generous and trusting to a fault. The decay of this friendship during the creation of a site predicated on accumulating 'friends' is the The Social Network's greatest irony, and greatest tragedy. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. 

Topic tags: The Social Network, David Finche, Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook



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