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Review: The Social Network

David Fincher has been making Hollywood films since 1992, but it was fifteen years ago that he became a critical and commercial favourite with the stylish, dark and shocking Se7en.  Since then, he has made a handful of classic films, as good in their way as anything by Hitchcock or Kubrick, the directors he is most often compared to, in terms of theme and visual originality: Fight Club, and Zodiac.  He has also made a few mediocre films, like Panic Room and that Benjamin Button fiasco.  Zodiac marked a new level of maturity for the director - for that film is justifiably admired for its open-ended, Checkovian (nothing much happens) manner, combined with a low-thrumming menace.  Fincher is, notably, best at mise-en-scene.  He is, like Michael Mann, a stylist first and foremost.

Therefore, his new film, The Social Network, seems an anomaly, though it is about male competition, a regular concern.  It is not about violence (physical anyway) and is not particularly twisty; it also affords few obvious visual treats.  Instead, Fincher has made his masterpiece, with the genius of contemporary fast-paced dialogue, Aaron Sorkin.  I think this movie is one of the best of the new century, and is a sort of hyper-new Citizen Kane - a Citizen Com.  The Kane comparison is not merely cheap or idle - this film, too, charts the lonely rise of a media tycoon, who sacrifices true friendship along the way to the top, to build a questionable empire.  Both films feature a media start-up, exuberant early promise, madcap dialogue, and a dramatic structure that uses flashback to seek the truth.  Both are also centered in California, ultimately.

The Social Network's major achievement is its total transcendence of its supposed topic - a billionaire computer geek.  From the start, when we see a young Zuckerberg wending his way through Harvard Yard, with Trent Reznor's subtly ominous score, a sense of foreboding is built up, so that the title card, telling us this is 2003 hits with something of the impact of the cards in Schindler's List.  We are shocked to realise we are witnessing the making of a phenomenon that is insidious and has maximum culture-changing impact, almost in real time.  Never a docu-drama, the movie maximises the editing options, soundtrack, cinematography, and lighting, to create a hyper-real, very tense, and always entertaining battle of the wits between the uber-men of Harvard and the computer twits.  The film's anti-hero is a cypher, appropriately, as wired-in, and self-directed as any arch-villain in a comic, but also very normal, even sad.  His last act, of friending Erica Albright/Albrecht reminds us that Albright is his Rosebud - the early loss of genuine human contact that triggers a velocity of empty ascension; and her name also echoes the great renaissance artist and theorist.

Ultimately, the key line of dialogue, the key trope is the sentence "can we speak alone" - used several times in the film at key moments to indicate a breakdown of communication, in a public space.  In these instances, the poignant paradox of Facebook is glossed: there is no private space anymore now, and no one again will be able to really "speak alone".  The horror of the film is that a potentially antisocial genius has invented a new form of human communication that utterly transforms the landscape of human interaction. Five specs out of five.
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