In Ben Mezrich's engaging nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is a fascinatingly enigmatic figure defined primarily by what looks like an undiagnosed autism spectrum condition; it's a central irony that the guy who has connected millions seems incapable of creating his own social connections. In The Social Network -- the witty, insightful, wildly entertaining adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher -- we get a slightly different but no less compelling interpretation. Here, Zuckerberg's the ruthless magnate who creates an empire while trying to fill a personal hole -- Citizen Kane with a laptop.
Sorkin and Fincher find a brilliant framework for their tale of a tragic a-hole as they begin with Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) planting the seed for Facebook in fall 2003. As a prank, he hacks dorm photo databases after getting dumped by his then-girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara). This stunt grabs the attention of Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler Winkelvoss (Josh Pence), twin athletes with an idea for a website to socially connect Harvard undergrads. Zuckerberg agrees to help the twins with their idea -- but meanwhile, he's pitching something very similar to his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who has the money to get the project off the ground.
Perhaps surprisingly, there's little attempt here to use this story as an overarching metaphor for the age of virtual interaction. Sorkin and Fincher stay focused on these specific individuals and on their complicated real-world interactions with one another.
And that proves to be a brilliant choice, because there are some terrific characters here. Justin Timberlake does sensational work as Sean Parker, the fast-talking Napster founder who latches on to Facebook as the chance to finally get his big payday. The Winkelvoss twins evolve from aggrieved victims to sons of privilege who use their father's connections to arrange a meeting with Harvard's president to air their complaints.
The fulcrum, though, is Zuckerberg himself, and he makes for an amazing antagonist/protagonist. There's a ferocity to his performance that emphasizes Zuckerberg's frustration at not being able to be part of the social world that seems to come so easily to everyone else.
Fincher directs a great early scene in which Zuckerberg's drunken late-night creation of the prototype "Facemash" is juxtaposed with the debauchery taking place at Harvard's Final Clubs, the center of social life for the leaders of tomorrow. Zuckerberg's conclusion, as interpreted by The Social Network, is that it's better to reign online than to serve in a world with which he can't relate, even if that means his own personal Rosebud, the girl he didn't understand how to connect with, becomes nothing more than a face on his computer screen.