The ever unpredictable David Fincher, along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, didn't try to go high tech with this monumental "bio-pic" about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). No bells or whistles or exotic graphics. Instead, Fincher and Sorkin went the retro route, drawing on that hallowed, eight-decade-old film genre: the screwball comedy.
Critics have already noted the opening scene, in which the dialogue between Zuckerberg and a disenchanted girlfriend (Rooney Mara) bristles with the oblique, rapid-fire pizzazz of a Howard Hawks movie. But there's more to the genre resemblance than just talk. Zuckerberg is a latter-day Frank Capra hero, a Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper character with all of their spirit and none of their charm. Like them, he takes on the fat cats, a lone warrior against an entrenched system. His weapon, however, isn't decency but genius, and in the deadpan bravura of Eisenberg's performance, that searing intellect glows with charisma. Few actors could match Eisenberg's mastery of the sarcastic putdown or the contemptuous glance as he punctures the vanity of blueblood Harvard snobs or pompous lawyers during a legal deposition.
That's another conventional motif that Fincher exploits with brusque unconventionality: the courtroom drama. He and Sorkin may draw on Ben Mezrich's controversial book The Accidental Billionaires, but they also dip into the reams of records from attempts by Zuckerberg's ex-associates to sue him. Through deft shooting and a brilliant orchestration of flashforwards and flashbacks, they turn these potentially deadly scenes of legal sparring into a zesty narrative framework.
The story they tell is of an aspiring asshole ascending the hierarchy of power, encountering lesser assholes along the way and crushing or exploiting them. It's the girl in the opening scene who puts Zuckerberg on this path, dumping him and inspiring him to write a misogynist program called Facemash that matches pairs of Harvard co-eds for guys to vote on. (In a rare moment of restraint, he decides not to pair the girls against farm animals.)
Facemash attracts the attention of a pair of moneyed undergrads, towering identical twins Tyler and Cameron Wincklevoss (Armie Hammer), who are trying to get their own version of a Harvard exclusive social network under way. Stalling them for months, Zuckerberg takes seed money from Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), his best and perhaps only friend. He develops his own concept of social networking, moves to Palo Alto, dumps Saverin in favor of Napster prankster and entrepreneur Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), follows Parker's advice to drop the "the" from "thefacebook" and to play hardball with deep-pocket investors, and the rest is history — and numerous lawsuits.
So Zuckerberg ends up with billions of dollars and millions of friends, but does anyone love him? Is this a screwball comedy or a screwball tragedy? The ending may or may not be happy, but it satisfies, reconciling, as genre movies do, two unbridgeable desires: independence and conformity. What better way to resolve that conflict than a program that allows you to advertise your identity along with 500 million others? Facebook tears down the established social network only to create another that is even more pervasive. And that makes Zuckerberg one of the world's greatest iconoclasts — but also one of its most powerful institutions.