The Social Network, David Fincher’s darkly comic vision of how the online colossus Facebook came to be founded, and then how its founder came to be sued by enemies and friends alike, is the best movie I’ve ever seen about the modern meritocracy. Anyone who’s had the dubious privilege of spending his college years in the peculiar pressure cooker of an elite university will find its story deeply resonant, and perhaps horribly so. And anyone who’s ever dated, worked with, competed with, or otherwise encountered someone from that world will find it an illuminating guide to why we sometimes (often?) can seem like such awful creeps.
The movie’s antihero is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who’s currently worth $25 billion or so, but who makes his first appearance in Fincher’s story as an awkward, tightly wound, fast-talking Harvard sophomore, drinking with his Boston University girlfriend (Rooney Mara) in the fall of 2003. They’re discussing the great Ivy League dilemma: How do you distinguish yourself on a campus where getting a perfect score on your SAT makes you only slightly above average? Or rather, Zuckerberg is discussing it, along with the more particular dilemma of how he might attract the attention of Harvard’s “final clubs,” the all-male centers of the school’s social life. His girlfriend, bright and pert and lovely, is stuck playing second fiddle to his self-involvement, and she’s clearly growing tired of it. Tired enough, in fact, to seize on a disparaging remark he makes about BU academics as the perfect excuse to dump him.