The murky origins of Facebook provide the background for what is essentially a pseudo courtroom drama about broken friendships, ambition and the corrupting influence of power in this new film by David Fincher, the director of Seven and Fight Club.
Packed full of excellent one-liners from the mind of The West Wing's creenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, the movie goes to great lengths not to create any heroes or villains.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the Harvard undergraduate turned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a highly intelligent but socially inept student who created the biggest internet phenomenon of the past decade after being dumped by his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Blending a naïve innocence with a steely determination, Eisenberg is excellent and at the heart of the movie.
In a startling opening dinner scene, Erica dumps Mark with the assessment that "dating you is like going out with a StairMaster". She adds: "Although he may think people don't like him because he's a nerd, it's actually because he's an asshole." Zuckerberg then spends a drunken night blogging inanities about his former belle and creating a website called Facemash that allows users to compare and rate the relative attractiveness of girls at Harvard. And so the scene is set.
The person affected most by Zuckerberg's behaviour is his classmate and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. British actor Andrew Garfield gives a fine performance as Saverin, who helps Zuckerberg to overcome his heartbreak and fulfil his ambition of creating a social network on the web.
The problem with Saverin is that he is not as clued up as Zuckerberg, and is unaware that the way to make money online is to first build a following and only then to seek revenue streams through advertising. The irony is that it's the nerdy Zuckerberg who realises more than anyone that being cool is the most powerful and valuable weapon the website can have.
Fincher is a director famed for his visual panache. The finest trick in The Social Network may not be obvious to viewers as it is so expertly done. Male model Josh Pence and actor Armie Hammer play the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, with Hammer's face superimposed onto Pence's body. The twins rowed for the US Olympic team in Beijing and won damages from Zuckerberg after they claimed he stole their idea. They could easily have been portrayed as opportunist jocks, but Hammer does a good job of giving each twin an individual personality. Fincher is at pains to show that everyone involved in the legal talks believed they were in the right. That he does so successfully is what makes the action so riveting. The director refuses to take sides. The jumps between the lawyer's office and flashback scenes is dextrously done, with sentences in the historical scenes seamlessly finished by characters talking to the lawyers.
What comes across less well is a sense of time. We are also given little feeling of the protagonists' lives away from the university dorm.
If there is a villain of the piece it is the Napster founder Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. He is a revelation, and plays Parker as cocksure, arrogant and egocentric – ironically, the same qualities that convinced Zuckerberg to give him a share in Facebook and make it the ubiquitous internet tool it is today.