The 2010 New York Film Festival opened on Friday with David Fincher's The Social Network, the event's first opening night premiere since Robert Altman's Short Cuts in 1993. For the month leading up to the screening, the entire city was besieged by Sony's marketers, and well and truly primed for the debut, with posters of Jesse Eisensberg's eyes (A.K.A Facebook founder and C.E.O Mark Zuckerberg) staring out from subway walls and on the front of mainstream media magazines. Luckily, the film doesn't disappoint.
The opening, pre-title scene checks in at nine pages long and consists entirely of Eisenberg as Zuckerberg and Rooney Mara as Erica Albright sitting in a bar (pictured); Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is rapid-fire and on point paired perfectly with Eisenberg, who is a revelation as Zuckerberg. The actor's performance is razor sharp and intelligent – qualities that he brought to the media's morning press conference, sharing the stage with director Fincher, screenwriter Sorkin and fellow actors Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake (Facebook co-founder, Eduardo Saverin and Napster founder and Facebook president Sean Parker, respectively).
For Fincher, the dialogue-heavy opening scene serves its purpose well. It tees up “exactly who this guy was, exactly what the stakes are, exactly what the world was and it teaches you how to watch the movie”. When read, nine pages runs at four and a half minutes, which gives you some idea of the pace of the film. The entire, 100-page script runs at exactly 2 hours, excluding credits.
So, what is the film about? This is the billion-dollar question. According to Sorkin, The Social Network “isn't a movie about Facebook”. Rather, what drew him to the story are its themes, that he views “as old as storytelling itself. Friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, power… to which” he attests, “David agreed.” This idea is very much the essence of the marketing spin on the film – Zuckerberg and Facebook have no relationship to The Social Network. Zuckerberg calls it fiction.
Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin “aggressively courted Facebook and Mark's co-operation in the film” but he concedes Zuckerberg did exactly what he himself would do, and declined. The only feedback the company provided the production concerned technological terms; to be precise, terms surrounding hacking. Of Zuckerberg's reluctance to associate himself and his company with the film, Sorkin says “I get it. I don't think there are any of us who would want a movie made out of the things we did when we were 19 years-old. If Mark is going through an uncomfortable moment, that doesn't give me any joy at all. I doubt he's going to be first in line to buy a ticket.”
So is The Social Network an unauthorised biopic or a film with very little foundation in reality? While I don't think we'll ever really know, for Sorkin, the answer is simple. “Nothing was invented. This is a non-fiction story,” he says determinedly. Yet it is a non-fiction film where the actors never met the people they portrayed, except Timberlake who met with Parker briefly when he was testing for the role. Eisensberg's preliminary research consisted of internet searches. These searches, he says, combined with Sorkin's characterisation, were “sufficient for the audition tape”. During the six weeks of rehearsal Eisensberg researched further. “It was not traditional biography where I was trying to do an imitation of Zuckerberg,” he says. “I was focusing on playing Aaron's characterisation of Zuckerberg.” For his part, Andrew Garfield had “a photo to go on”. He says, “I had minimal to go on which was actually quite liberating. Although,” he concedes, “I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. Of course when you are playing someone who exists and is living and breathing somewhere you feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen”.
There is no doubt the film sparks questions of privacy and identity and Hollywood's liberal portrayal of 'real life,' especially the lives of such young people. In what you could see as an incredible act of damage control, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system, in the form of Facebook shares. The announcement was made on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and aired on the very day of the NYFF premiere. Why did he choose to do it on that day? Does it even matter? It's a win for the Newark public school sector and for a debate that Oprah, together with Davis Guggenheim's documentary Waiting for Superman, has recently brought to the US national discourse and that's the main thing.
None of this changes the fact that The Social Network is an entirely entertaining and riveting film of and for our time. It was a script Fincher always knew he wanted to be involved with. “I know now and I knew when I was shooting it that I was making something that I would be able to look back on, 10 or 12 years from now, and say I got to work with all these guys.” Fincher points to the cast that surround him, “Everyday of the 72 days that I was lucky enough to be able to shoot this movie I got to walk away from it saying, he's good! That's going to work! I feel about it like—would I have loved to have made American Graffiti? Now, in some weird way, I've been able to”.
The Social Network opens in Australia October 28.