The Social Network: Inside the Reviews

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  • Publish Date: October 6, 2010

How the Facebook movie friended the toughest critics

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We've said it before, and we'll say it again: The Social Network 95 is one of the best-reviewed films not only of this year, but in a long time, placing near the top of all movies in our database. All but one of the critics we track gave the film a positive review, including some critics who don't typically like director David Fincher's films or Aaron Sorkin's writing.

Below, we look at the average scores given by this latter group of critics for previous films directed by Fincher or scripted by Sorkin. The "vs. Critics" column shows how each critic's score for those films compared to the average scores given by all critics for the same films.

Critics Who Tend to Grade Lower Than Average for David Fincher Films
Critic   Social Network   Previous Fincher Films   Previous Sorkin Films
    Grades Avg. vs. Critics   Grades Avg. vs. Critics
Kimberly Jones   89   mixedmixed 45 ↓26   mixed 40 ↓32
J. Hoberman   70   mixedmixed 45 ↓25   n/a    
Stephanie Zacharek   95   mixedmixed 55 ↓22   positive 80 ↑8
Kenneth Turan   100   positivemixedmixednegative 53 ↓18   mixedmixedmixed 53 ↓16
Ann Hornaday   100   positivemixed 57 ↓16   n/a    
Mick LaSalle   100   positivepositivemixednegative 56 ↓16   positive 75 ↑3
Peter Rainer   83   positivemixedmixedmixed 58 ↓14   positive 75 ↑3

As you can see, these critics rarely give Fincher-directed films positive reviews, and they usually grade far below their peers for his films. (The same can be said for Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan and films written by Sorkin.) Yet every one of these critics had a positive impression of The Social Network. What changed between past works and the new film to bring these reviewers around? Let's look at a few examples.

Austin Chronicle critic Kimberly Jones was unimpressed by previous Fincher and Sorkin movies, yet somehow the combination of the two talents worked for her. Jones' problems with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (full review) mainly stemmed from Eric Roth's script and Fincher's far too whimsical and unconvincing direction. She liked Fincher's darker Panic Room slightly better (full review), but still had problems with the director's camera trickery -- which she found more confusing than impressive -- and especially with the film's lack of heart. In Charlie Wilson's War (full review), she felt that Sorkin's script was too corny and sentimental, lacking the sharp edges required by the material and refusing to commit to a side.

Those problems all appear to be solved for her in the new film (full review):

"Turns out Sorkin's signature mile-a-minute sparring rubs up quite nicely with Fincher's command of near sick-making tension. ...

"The Social Network moves silkily between spryness and menace ...

"Fincher, alongside Michael Mann, is surely making some of the best-looking and formally invigorating digitally shot dramas today ...

"History as we know it is still unfurling, and The Social Network is that rare film that has something – not yet definitive, but certainly provocative – to say about it."

Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan praises Sorkin's "strong and persuasive script," yet prior films penned by The West Wing creator left the critic cold. Turan found A Few Good Men's plot "contrived," and Charlie Wilson's War "glib rather than witty," while "suffer[ing] from being not all of a piece, with mismatched elements struggling to cohere." But in The Social Network, Sorkin's "crackling dialogue" helps bring a "propulsive energy" to the film, and "the basic thrust of this tale never wavers, no matter whose eyes events are being told through." Turan adds (full review) that the new film's screenplay "doesn't have an ounce of fat on it," and he particularly praises the writer's choice to employ such an "extremely unlikable" protagonist.

What else did critics "like"?

Below is a sampling of the critical reaction to various aspects of The Social Network.

The story and characters

The historical accuracy of the film is irrelevant to most reviewers, who acknowledge that parts of the story (if not the whole thing) may be misrepresentations or fabrications of actual events, but add that the film does not suffer (and indeed may benefit) from it.

"That the particulars of Zuckerberg’s life and business practices remain the subject of intense debate in no way diminishes the importance of 'The Social Network,' which has an uncommonly perceptive, razor-sharp script by Aaron Sorkin."

--Lou Lumenick, New York Post

"The debate about the movie's accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue.'"

--David Denby, The New Yorker

"Movies are stories, not depositions; and Sorkin is following the dictum from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.'"

--Richard Corliss, Time

Many critics praised the filmmakers for the somewhat unconventional choice of featuring such an unlikable protagonist, whose compelling presence seems to be one of the film's strongest aspects.

"It's hard to recall the last serious movie built around a character who was this much of an intellectual scoundrel. ... The power of The Social Network is that Zuckerberg is a weasel with a mission that can never be dismissed. The movie suggests that he may have built his ambivalence about human connection into Facebook's very DNA. That's what makes him a jerk-hero for our time."

--Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"There have been complaints from early screenings that no one is very likable in this movie. You'll get no argument here but that's beside the point. 'Mark Zuckerberg' is thoroughly unlikable but he is an original. Ask yourself: How many truly original characters show up in American movies?"

--Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

And that protagonist is definitely painted in an unflattering light.

"Whether the movie is fair or horribly unfair - I know nothing of the actual facts and can't make that determination - its portrait of Zuckerberg is a hatchet job of epic and perhaps lasting proportions."

--Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Interestingly, LaSalle suggests that the filmmakers have little regard for The Social Network's other understood (if little-seen) protagonist: Facebook itself.

"In a sense, this is a movie about an inventor and how he invented something with a half a billion users worldwide. Yet there is irreverence and a distance in the relation of this saga that you could never imagine in a movie about Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright brothers. Implicit in the tone is the idea that what is being created here is of no benefit to humanity but that rather this is something useless, catering to dark or at least trivial aspects of human nature, like narcissism and the desire to be cool."

--Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

And at least one critic experienced some schadenfreude as the film turned the tables on Zuckerberg.

"Given all the privacy issues that have sprung up around Facebook, there's something perversely satisfying about seeing its creator's own privacy invaded."

--J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader

The screenplay and dialogue

When EW's Gleiberman calls The Social Network "a thriller for the brain," he's not alone in emphasizing the film's intelligence; nearly every critic mentions, as the Daily News' Joe Neumaier says, how "hyper-smart" the movie is. In fact, Slate's film critic thinks the film's high IQ might just be the reason for all of the acclaim from the press.

"Listening to the debate -- is it the best movie of the year, or merely very good? A narrowly focused biopic or a sweeping portrait of a generation? -- I'm struck by how ready people are for films that are big and smart and ambitious and compassionate, how tired we are of being condescended and marketed to."

--Dana Stevens, Slate

With so much praise for the writing, Sorkin's screenplay might just be his best yet. (In fact, critic David Denby calls it just that.)

"It hurtles through two hours of spellbinding dialogue. It makes an untellable story clear and fascinating. ... In an age when movie dialogue is dumbed and slowed down to suit slow-wits in the audience, the dialogue here has the velocity and snap of screwball comedy."

--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"The script is filled with sharp, intense, witty writing, much of it performed at a thrilling rat-a-tat pace and played with sustained power."

--Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian

And the acclaim for the screenplay isn't only for Sorkin's trademark dialogue.

"Sorkin ... packs two movies' worth of dialogue into two hours at a rollicking, dare-you-to-keep-up speed. ... But despite the ceaseless yammering, The Social Network delivers the heady, rib-tickling rush of an action picture, and it gradually builds to an emotional wallop that blindsides you. ... The story behind the creation of Facebook is interesting enough, but what makes The Social Network soar - what makes it easily the best movie of the year thus far - is its insights into human behavior."

--Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Most (but not quite all) critics also seem to enjoy the film's Rashomon-like structure of telling the same story from multiple perspectives.

"The Social Network combines a multitude of impressions and conflicting first-person accounts in a trajectory that is refreshingly coherent"

--Rex Reed, The New York Observer

But much of the praise for the film also centers on how it seems to truly capture the zeitgeist and comments on the impact of technology on modern relationships.

"'The Social Network' may have a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and center on a college student who became the richest member of Generation Y, but it's a timeless and compelling story that speaks volumes about the way we live today."

--Lou Lumenick, New York Post

"'The Social Network' is one of those works of art that exactly crystallizes the moment in which it was made -- for good and bad. ... We’re continually told that something is the film or book or record of the year or even of the decade; well, 'The Social Network' is the film of our times -- which may, in the way of these things, last only for a few minutes or endure for decades but which corresponds more than any calendar date to what it’s like to be alive just now. "

--Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian

"With surgical precision, exhilarating insight and considerable storytelling flair, [Sorkin and Fincher] make Zuckerberg both a metaphor and a lens through which to understand contemporary culture."

--Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

" The result is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place. 'The Social Network' is shrewdly perceptive about such things as class, manners, ethics, and the emptying out of self that accompanies a genius's absorption in his work. It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake."

--David Denby, The New Yorker

The performances

Though Rolling Stone's Peter Travers speaks for many critics when he calls the film "acted to perfection without exception," certain actors are being singled out for additional praise. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, star Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland, The Squid and the Whale) is attracting near-universal praise from reviewers for a performance that the Post's Lou Lumenick calls "award-worthy."

"Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an egomaniacal whiz-kid creep who's the smartest dude in any situation because he's outside it and inside it at the same time. The actor takes on a whole new aspect — he's a geek programmed for revenge. And he's mesmerizing."

--Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"I can't remember the last time I loved such a defiantly unlikable performance. ... What's perhaps most remarkable about Eisenberg's performance is how close he holds us even as he exerts almost negative charisma."

--Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline

"Eisenberg delivers a tour de force, nimbly negotiating Sorkin's rat-a-tat dialogue and revealing how alienation and loneliness actually fuel Mark's ambition. More crucially, Eisenberg lets us see the chinks in Mark's armor."

--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"It's Eisenberg's picture. The young actor's nebbishy persona found a consummate vessel in the role of Mark, and his bone-dry sarcasm lends almost every moment a tetchy, unpredictable comic energy."

--Justin Chang, Variety

"Eisenberg is extraordinary -- he should get an Oscar."

--Dana Stevens, Slate

Co-stars Andrew Garfield (who plays Zuckerberg's partner Eduardo Saverin) and pop star Justin Timberlake (as Napster co-founder Sean Parker) are also earning strong notices.

"Timberlake is phenomenal, a revelation, even. ... Note to Oscar: You need to step up big time for Garfield."

--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"Garfield [is] subtle and commanding in a crucial supporting role."

--Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

The directing

While Fincher is usually cited most for his visual virtuosity (even while his filmmaking can leave some critics cold), for the first time, critics here are praising the complete package; in fact, the lack of any obvious directorial gimmicks is itself lauded.

"Fincher's direction is a model of coherence and discipline, relying on the traditional virtues of camera placement and editing to tell the story, and never resorting to any of the stylistic gimmicks the subject matter would seem to invite."

--Justin Chang, Variety

"Almost nobody today makes [movies] better; conjuring the mood, inspiring the crew, shaping a superb group of actors into a faultless ensemble."

--Richard Corliss, Time

"In terms of technical dazzle, it's Fincher's most modest movie yet. It may also be his greatest: He has perhaps reached a point where he has nothing to prove, which is precisely when many filmmakers start doing their best work."

--Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline

"'The Social Network' is a great film not because of its dazzling style or visual cleverness, but because it is splendidly well-made."

--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Fincher ... puts his visual mastery to work on the verbal pyrotechnics in the dynamite, dick-swinging script by [Sorkin], and they both do the best and ballsiest work of their careers."

--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"Fincher ... makes no distinction between action or exposition, between a conference-room confrontation or an English regatta. He stages every moment with fearless energy and a firm touch, and turns the rapier wit of Mr. Sorkin's script into verbal swordplay."

--Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

"While other filmmakers would let the wonky tone overtake them, Fincher is a filmmaker whose best work ... finds strength in acquainting us with loners who dream of changing their status, and here he has the perfect one for our era."

--Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News

"Sorkin and Fincher do an impressive job of making activities that are inherently dull to watch -- typing at a computer keyboard, sitting in a deposition room -- seem not only interesting but urgent. And not just by punching scenes up with suspenseful music (though there's a bit too much of that in the first half) but by building characters and ideas with incremental care."

--Dana Stevens, Slate

"It's astonishing that a movie mostly set in front of computer screens and in deposition rooms, a movie where the end is already known, has the hold of a suspense film. Fincher and Sorkin tell us what happened. But they involve us, deeply, in figuring out the why."

--Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Many reviewers, in fact, laud Fincher's decision to push the pace of the movie to complement Sorkin's dialogue-heavy script and generate action and suspense, resulting in a "breathtaking" and "propulsive" film, in the words of the Inquirer's Rickey.

Yet a frequent criticism of Fincher's films -- coolness, detachment, and lack of emotion -- pops up in at least one review of The Social Network.

"Fincher's direction is so cool and depersonalizing that the story has no emotional heft."

--David Edelstein, New York

The negatives

Despite the film's whopping 95 Metascore, not every reviewer found The Social Network to be a perfect movie, and Edelstein -- the lone major critic who didn't fully endorse the film -- wasn't alone in finding faults. While every critic seems to love the film's first segment (and the pre-credit sequence in particular), Village Voice's J. Hoberman finds that "the narrative stumbles" after the opening act.

At least one critic finds the film a bit too male-centric, while another highlights the director's approach to the women on screen.

"All that 'The Social Network' lacks is a strong female presence."

--Ty Burr, Boston Globe

"More than once, the camera scrutinizes young women from behind, appraising them as the movie's horny young voyeurs do. "

--David Edelstein, New York

New York's Edelstein also doesn't seem to approve of how Fincher directs his actors ("like a drill sergeant"), and, as a result, he is the only major critic who doesn't enjoy Eisenberg's performance.

"Eisenberg has been, until now, a hugely likable actor with an instinct for thinking and fumbling in character. As Zuckerberg, he's been whipped into monotony."

--David Edelstein, New York

Edelstein adds that Timberlake seems to be the only actor able to break free from Fincher's control to "give a fully rounded performance." But another critic thinks Timberlake's acting is distracting ...

"All I can say about Timberlake's performance as the thoroughly odious, desperately seductive, textbook-case metrosexual Parker is that he brings so much reptilian fun that he unbalances the movie, almost fatally."

--Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

... while one thinks the same about Sorkin's dialogue (to a minor extent).

"That's a problem with much of Sorkin's work. Whether American politicians (The West Wing) or TV jocks (Sports Night), his characters often sound too eloquent for their roles – in fact, they can all start to sound like a suspiciously articulate pack of Aaron Sorkins. Yet the pack bays so wittily, and bites so trenchantly, that his biggest sin is also the easiest to forgive."

--Rick Groen, The Globe and Mail

Peter Rainer is another reviewer who isn't completely sold on the screenplay; he questions the film's reluctance to take a stand on how events actually happened (as manifested through "ambiguous" flashbacks, which are also derided as "clumsy" by critic Hoberman), and finds many characters "aggressively one-dimensional," including the protagonist:

"The problem is, the geek in question, at least as Jesse Eisenberg plays him, doesn't have the emotional expansiveness to fill out a movie."

--Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor

Another critic feels that the problem is limited to two supporting characters in particular.

"The [Winklevoss twins] are this movie's Achilles heel; their subplot provides some of the film's funniest moments and also a few of its unfortunate bouts of self-seriousness."

--Dana Stevens, Slate

What do you think?

Is The Social Network truly one of the best movies of the year, or do you think it is overrated? What did you like or dislike about the film? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (11)

  • Chad S.  

    Point taken, Mick VV. I wish all naysayers were this polite. I never go on message boards anymore because people are so mean-spirited.

  • MickVV  

    Have to disagree with Chad S. about rooting for the Winklevosses. Thought some of the funniest moments in the film included the mockery being had at their expense--especially during the depositions. Despite his success, the Zuckerberg character was in fact often pitiably sympathetic, certainly when going to war with those perfect children of perfection, but in may other spots as well. Just look at the film's end.

  • Chad S.  

    Whereas the Alpha Betas are chanting, "Nerds...nerds...nerds..." in "Revenge of the Nerds", it's the audience who's thinking the same thing when one of the Winklevoss twins("Winklevoss twins activate, form of, an ascot." declares that it's time to "gut the freakin' nerd." You're rooting for the privileged kids. You want the silver spoons to take out Long Island. It took great writing, direction, and acting to pull that one off. "The Karate Kid" gets quoted in "The Social Network" because the karate kid, the nerd(Mark Zuckerberg), is the bad guy, which goes against convention, because we're supposed to love the underdog. I wonder if Mara Rooney can pull a Judi Dench and nab a Best Supporting Actress nod with what amounts to something like eight minutes of actual screen time. That opening scene at the bar with Jesse Eisenberg is as good as it gets.

  • Will  

    Great analysis, Jason! "The Social Network" is easily the best movie of the year. @A.C, if articles like these are "overkill" as you say, then review aggregators in general are, too. @Jamie, just because you are among the extreme few people that didn't like the film does not mean that the 97% majority of professional critics are "pathetic dick heads".

  • Damon Larkins  

    I believe that this is Fincher's masterpiece, and after the button fiasco he has returned to form and polished this film with depth, creativity, and style. I loved every minute of this film, and was impressed with all the performances even the bratty twins of Harvard Crew team. The screenplay is envisioned through David Fincher and he creates the moments in a timely fashion. Aaron Sorkin developed a highly complex idea and script and has proven that sometimes the action in a film can be trumped by powerful and profound dialogue. The score is even effective, because it is blended in the film at the right time. This film is full of twists, humor, and emotionally charged without being "day-time" soap opera like. This is a film of our time undoubtedly and poses tough everyday questions such as "if i were in the shoes of Mark Zuckerberg would I crush everything that ever loved me to get to the top and stay at the top during the toughest of times." The ending visual "Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire", but what does he have to show for it besides this feat: NOTHING! Simply brilliant piece of filmmaking, and sure to sweep the Oscars considering the lack of production in films this year.

  • Chaps  

    Great analysis. I definitely want to see more of this on Metacritic, at least for the really big films. I thought The Social Network was hugely overrated: it's a decent film; I just don't understand how critics are nearly UNANIMOUS in making it virtually the greatest film of the last decade. Anyway, I think Metacritic is doing us a great service in picking apart criticism; this, in my mind, is yet one more thing that elevates this site over Rotten Tomatoes.

  • ejs93kid  

    I completely agree with @DVJ mainly because its true. Numbers only provide a small amount of the actual review. Also, its really beneficial to study for aspiring filmmakers (like myself). Being able to compare why a movies directing was good vs. why the film was atrocious. Basically I'm suggesting that you guys continue with this new format, it's a great idea!!

  • Jamie  

    This movie was utter **** It just goes to show you dick heads can't review a film to save your sad pathetic lives.

  • DVJ  

    This is great stuff, and something I'd like to see a lot more of on Metacritic. I completely disagree with the comment from AC. The numbers give us one thing, but it's good to see a little more exploration of the sentiment behind what critics have been saying about movies that seem important. Criticism is subjective by nature, and there's so much more to it than just assigning a score.

  • A.C.  

    Here, we have analysis of movie analysis. This is just overkill, I'm sorry.

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