David Fincher is perfect for investigative material. The Social Network and Zodiac are his best movies because they allow him to work within the literal; the animation he mines from real life mounts into something spectacular, but only when he has enough concrete information to work with. Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend tells him at the beginning of the movie, “Dating you is like dating a stair-master.” Watching David Fincher films can be like that too.
He’s able to get inside characters without giving us pop-psychology lessons about them. He just uses information; he’s what’s missing from almost any film with the masthead, “Inspired by true events,” particularly those of director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side). Fincher knows that concretes create personality better than assessments do. There’s no bleary-eyed interlude to tell us in certain terms what we “should” be getting out of it. Watching the Fincher movies appropriate for Fincher is like reading a case file – he makes you feel like the jury of his crimes. He doesn’t care what the verdict will be.
This is why Fight Club doesn’t work, or at least the extent to which it fumbles a pure Fincherian vision. Fincher mulls over the Palahniuk pop-cynic philosophy ejaculation; he hopes it will become more digestible when timed to a pop song (for most people, it does). Fight Club is designed to make a generation feel smarter than itself; this means that in order to make it, Fincher had to think something specific about his assessment of that generation. It feels like a judgment. With The Social Network, he turns off his conscience. It’s designed to make us feel the cost of all our thinking. It’s the movie that makes us feel bad about wanting movies like Fight Club.
This is all assuming that it’s designed to make us feel anything. Lots of movies look down on their audience, which is the first thing that will make a movie popular to undiscerning viewers (they give us all they think we deserve). Fincher lacks that ability because like Zuckerberg, he’s way beyond hating his public: he doesn’t even regard them. That’s what makes his work inciteful. He’s not saying what he thinks about us or the material. He’s a workman filmmaker. He’s building a house without wondering who’s going to live there.
This is apparent in his filmmaking here. There’s a lot of shot-reverse-shot in The Social Network, which is usually the laziest way to film dialogue because it doesn’t have any inherent emotion built into it. It’s dialogue qua dialogue. Fincher weaponizes it.
He rigs up his cameras with the cold precision of a machine (this director was made for computer-operated rigs), that he’s able to make his document films feel their own weight. They have their destiny in them. The Social Network is filmed like it was bound to happen; Fincher perfectly knows how to stylize real life to the point of feeling like our impression of having no style. Mark is often the only thing in focus to remind us whose view is the lens in this movie. The book it's based on was called The Accidental Billionaires and nothing in this film feels accidental except the money. The audience's central clue to solving the case is figuring out what, if not making billions of dollars, anyone in this film is doing on purpose.
The performances patter along perfectly to Fincher's tune. Eisenberg has that quality of intelligence that makes people want to have enough of it to regret having so much. He makes being imprisoned in yourself seem like a bad idea, bad enough to want it, like anyone would be so lucky to be smart enough to have so much to regret. He’s like if Bugs Bunny lost his superpowers and had to discover a mortal way to screw with people. I don’t even know if he’s a good actor – I’ve never seen him even fractionally as well-suited to another part. Even in the roles that come close, it seems like a mistimed Zuckerberg impression in the wrong era.
The opening conversation between Zuckerberg and his girlfriend is an intense, perfect microcosm of his personality, as relevant to what comes after as the opening meeting in The Godfather. Only by knowing him so well so quickly can we go through an entire arc of our expectations for him, from wanting to know him better to learning to accept the inevitability of his flaws. It gives us the bubbly poise that comes from his intelligence and dupes us into forgetting about the cost, just as Coppola started with revering Vito Corleone’s honor while saving his failure for a time when we could see how similar they are. Like that all-encompassing first meeting, we meet Zuckerberg having a conversation that contains the whole Facebook social equation in an unrelated talk over drinks. He has a beautiful girlfriend and a big brain and still seems to think of love like a kid looking through the window at someone else's Christmas party (he's told himself there's no Santa Claus to make it seem alright). If demonstrating a worldview or compressing a movie’s math into its most basic elements was the metric, The Social Network would have one of the greatest opening scenes of all time.
Andrew Garfield is perfect as the guy who just wants in on everyone (this is also what made him a derelict Peter Parker – he’s charming but he makes it feel like it’s your fault). As Eduardo Saverin, he's smart enough to make it big but still dumb enough to believe in honor. He's the heart of a film that's more obsessed with its brain. Fincher applies the character to the film as he was applied to his own life -- an extra variable in the equation, the one we wish we could root for, but which at some point we know has to be canceled out. Meanwhile, Eisenberg can play both hero and villain. Fincher takes a foggy situation and applies his cedar-brown pastiche to it. He turns every room into a drawing-room.
Justin Timberlake in my mind is ideally suited to play a guy that acts like no one has forgotten him, who’s right about it but only if he keeps reminding them (if you still listen to his music, you may feel differently). Even Armie Hammer is a triumph. He’s a lump in the movies that think he makes strapping men seem like good ideas, rather than just a cost of living. This is the role that makes him strapping enough to live out that cost. You understand where he’s coming from, but you never really acknowledge his right to anything – his feelings of superiority, spread over both members of his double role (they’re called the Winklevoss Twins), would make anyone else seem like the underdog, even a wisecracking asshole. They’re not bad guys, exactly, but you get the feeling that Hitler would call them model citizens.
Every time I see a list of the best CGI effects, I remind myself that the list itself is a paradox: the best effects go unnoticed. The work on transferring Hammer’s face to two bodies for the scenes with the twins is magic, the same old magic that put Raymond Massey in the city of tomorrow in Things to Come (1936), just scaled down to a man’s face. Fincher puts about one incredible feat of CGI in each of his films (in Zodiac it was an entire time period) and this may be the most unadvertised achievement in actor replacement in film history. I’m writing this almost a decade too late and it still amazes me.
When I saw The Social Network in theaters, I was a late teenager. I spent the next week talking a lot like Zuckerberg, maybe because I wanted to feel big enough to fail at something. A $25 billion company doesn’t sound like a failure, but it’s not Zuckerberg’s achievement either and the film knows it. I’m talking about bringing the entire world together out of revenge: Facebook was invented, even if Zuckerberg didn’t know it, to prove to everyone on the planet that the only thing holding us back from feeling as lonely as he does is our distance from each other. The site’s slogan is “It’s quick and easy.” Nothing offered for free has ever been sold so hard.
Read the studies on how Facebook causes depression, on how every line of code is designed to show us the good things in other people’s lives so that we focus on the bad things in ours. The ultimate intention? To make us talk to each other long enough to break up, perhaps with ourselves; it’s life designed to fracture life.
Zuckerberg made Facebook because he was mad about not being invited to the world’s party. Fincher catalogs it like a truth of madness, but his investigative calm makes it seem encyclopedic and that feeling is what makes it riveting and never frustrating. Even its most dubious elements seem so foregone that they’re comforting. It’s a nature program about being an asshole. Zuckerberg didn’t want to take anything away from us, but like a supervillain he wanted us to suffer for having it. Now, we avenge him every day. We do it by liking each other.
Image is a screenshot from the film: © Sony Pictures Releasing/Columbia Pictures