The heavily fictionalized film's opening scenes establish the Web as a place of predation, degradation, and privacy violation. The setting is Harvard, where future Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped by his girlfriend. Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg as a socially awkward hacker who both envies and resents the school's hierarchies, reacts by posting intimate information about his ex on his LiveJournal, illicitly extracting photos of female students from poorly protected servers, and using the pictures to create a variation on that hoary Web genre, the hot-or-not site, which by morning has humiliated women across campus. Throughout the sequence, the film keeps cutting to darkly lit scenes of students drinking, dancing, and following their hormones, all shot with a sinister air. The inserts underline the feeling of sexually charged dread: When pundits tut-tut that young people share too much of their lives on Facebook, it's images like these that they have in mind. After years of op-eds and TV reports expressing older Americans' discomfort with the Web and with a generation that's comfortable living its lives there, the social network compresses all that uneasiness into two hours of intense paranoia. As Sorkin put it to a writer from New York magazine, he is "not a fan of the Internet."
Is it an enjoyable movie? That depends on how much tolerance you have for Sorkin's self-conscious dialogue, which is rarely as clever as its author thinks it is. But as a catalog of cultural fears, the social network is as revealing as The Birth of a Nation. Director David Fincher's résumé includes Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, and se7en, so he certainly knows how to make a paranoid picture; and while the film's core anxieties come from the screenwriter, its rhythm and tone may owe more to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Between their pounding, foreboding soundtrack and a camera that never goes too long without showing us a sex- and drug-drenched den of sin, the film boils over with the idea that something rotten is eating into the country's established institutions, from Hollywood to Harvard.
Also online: the revamped version of my article "Forced to Be Free" and a squib-length review of Ken MacLeod's novel The Restoration Game.