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'Social Network' weaves a complex Web (review)

The impressive new film about the contested origins of Facebook is best classified as mythology, but it's also about how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

"When (Hermes) had driven away the cattle of Apollo and had been caught in the act, to win pardon more easily, at Apollo's request he gave him permission to claim the invention of the lyre."
--The Astronomica of Pseudo-Hyginus (2.7) explains the birth of deception, and intellectual property

"For those of you addicted to FarmVille as much as I am there is a glitch in the game that gives you free cows."
--A much-read how-to on the Facebook Platform's biggest runaway success

In one scene in David Fincher's new film "The Social Network," a retelling of the early days of Facebook that opens in wide release in the U.S. on October 1, company founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is given a bit of insight on behalf of one of his lawyers (Rashida Jones) as he's faced with a million-dollar lawsuit from college classmates who claim that he stole their idea for creating an exclusive social network for Harvard University students.

"Creation myths need a devil," she says, explaining to Zuckerberg her recommendation that the lawsuit be settled rather than taken to trial.

The poster for Columbia Pictures' 'The Social Network,' starring actor Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

She's telling him that even if he isn't really guilty of anything, his past actions (drunkenly and publicly blogging about an ex-girlfriend, making a joke about comparing the appearances of girls on Harvard's campus to farm animals) are enough for the members of a jury to complete the circuit with their own details, to somehow provide enough wiring to turn a disparate set of facts and plot points into a coherent illumination of a narrative. The jurors would see what he put online (and later regretted) and it would shape their opinions of Zuckerberg regardless of what he says in court.

This is key. "The Social Network" is a thought-provoking, cerebral treatise--perhaps, unfortunately, too brainy for mass-market success--on the ambiguity of friendship, identity, and social status. It's about how we see ourselves and how the world sees us, and how these two forces can find themselves at odds. It's about the truly weird coexistence of rapid, unprecedented change ("It won't be finished, that's the point," Zuckerberg says of his iterative vision of Facebook) with unflinching permanence: another character, a fictionalized version of the aforementioned ex-girlfriend, says to Zuckerberg of the blog posts about her, "The Internet's not written in pencil, it's written in ink."

It seems consciously meta for the characters in "The Social Network" to be talking about creation myths. After all, the film is itself a creation tale of Facebook, as penned by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and crafted for the screen by Fincher. And in this interpretation, Zuckerberg himself really is the devil--or, to delve more into the Intro to Mythology class you might recall from college, more the "trickster god" than the devil, a Hermes or Loki with little regard for the status quo, as preoccupied with unmaking as with creating. He's devious, obsessively surveying the world around him and scheming as to how he can lay his own framework on top of it, unafraid to cast others aside when they threaten his vision--like the onscreen version of spurned Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, in an impressive performance by British actor Andrew Garfield.

An early montage depicts it best. As Harvard students socialize and chatter in their dorm rooms, drink and dance at parties, and strive to scale the storied university's well-established social ladder, Zuckerberg is at his computer, building a predecessor to Facebook that let undergraduates click to rank the appearances of their fellow classmates based on pictures gleaned from online "face book" directories. He's hacking their lives with beer in hand, mischievously unmaking and remaking their social world as they know it: Loki at work.

According to Facebook, "The Social Network" itself is a creation myth on behalf of Fincher and Sorkin (and Ben Mezrich, author of "The Accidental Billionaires," the book upon which its storyline was based). Disputed facts and situations in the book and film have already been parsed and re-parsed ad nauseam, and Facebook's gelid reception toward the film has been enough to satisfy any Silicon Valley gossip for the season. That's not the point. Every detail in "The Social Network" could be pulled from the transcripts of public court records--and, indeed, much of it is--and the film would regardless be inflected with the artistic direction of Sorkin and Fincher. Fincher's "The Social Network" would be a very different film from Steven Spielberg's or Wes Anderson's. It's not a matter of fact versus fiction, it's about the nature of storytelling.

And "The Social Network" is indeed very much a piece of tense entertainment, rather than a documentarian take on the company. The film throws viewers smack into the action, with Zuckerberg and his girlfriend in a rapid-fire argument that's nearly drowned out by the drone of the bar that they're in, and is unapologetic about jumping back and forth between the main narrative, which takes place in the winter of 2003-2004 and courtroom scenes that were set at a later date. The pace and substance of the dialogue offers little time to blink.

Tawdry on-campus shenanigans that were arguably gratuitous details in Mezrich's book--lingerie-clad coeds gyrating on mahogany tables of one of Harvard's finals clubs, the frequent bong hit in the background--become an almost tongue-in-cheek pastiche of collegiate life against which Zuckerberg begins to construct his grand vision. Ivy Leaguers, of course, are chiseled and beautiful. A scene set at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in the U.K. uses tilt-shift cinematography to make buildings and boats look like toys in a storybook imagining of old-school competition, athletic prowess, and social status.

So we have our creation myth, one about a company that continues to rapidly grow and change and alter the world around it while still generating an unheard-of sense of permanence and public narrative. And we have our Hermes in Zuckerberg; plus, there's a set of blue-blooded twin Apollos in antagonists Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (played with camera tricks by actor Armie Hammer), eventual members of the Olympic crew team prone to both utterances of law-abiding mannerliness ("We are gentlemen of Harvard!") and what they believe to be noble aggression ("Let's freakin' gut that little nerd!").

Then there's Zuckerberg's kindred spirit in Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a surprisingly good performance by erstwhile boy-band singer Justin Timberlake), an entrepreneur prone not only to deceit and pranksterism but to ribald hedonism and wild, sometimes questionable tales of his own past in Silicon Valley. He can shape-shift in the manner of traditional lore, morphing from broke Palo Alto couch-crasher to man of the hour with martini glass in hand. In Fincher and Sorkin's retelling, Parker is the Digital Age's original trickster.

But here's where Zuckerberg comes in. The real-life Zuckerberg, as tech news aficionados are likely aware, abides by a credo of "real identity": On Facebook, you're supposed to share your real name, your real photographs and statistics, accompanied by digital simulacra of your real-world social connections. It seems to leave little room for a shape-shifter like Timberlake's Parker--but in reality, it just wrests that shape-shifting from your own control, and leaves your identities open, often full of gaps, for others to complete the picture. Facebook executives like to say that you have control of your own identity on the social network and perhaps that's true. But you've never had complete control over what others think of you, and merely by sharing snippets of your life online (regardless of the platform or outlet) you're setting that lack of control loose in a public or semi-public space.

And so Zuckerberg has rendered the majority of Facebook's 500 million-plus members into public figures for the first time, open to the judgments, interpretations, and prejudices of an entire planet--just as Zuckerberg himself has now been depicted and mythologized by Fincher and Sorkin. He's not happy about it.

There are also real consequences for the rest of us, some critics of Facebook say. "I care deeply about the culture of the Web, and am concerned that many of the decisions Facebook makes are detrimental to its culture, particularly when Facebook inadvertently imposes an extreme set of values on its users without adequately communicating the consequences of those choices," dot-com thinker Anil Dash wrote in a recent blog post explaining his view that socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage may weigh heavily on how the information we share online can affect us.

So we, too, have to consider the questions: Are our Facebook profiles our own "creation myths," or are they the platform--pun intended--from which others can devise their own impressions of us? How "real" is the Zuckerbergian manifesto of "real identity" if everyone's interpretation of everyone else is different? And it's the world that's still evolving on behalf of this new "digital mythology," in which anyone can have a hand in the building of another person's narrative, that "The Social Network" at once encapsulates and previews.

It's a world that's exciting and scary. And if you made it this far, you win a prize in the form of the Short Version of this "Social Network" review: four out of five stars.