‘The Social Network’ captures the ambition, agonies & triumphs of Facebook's founder

In the opening few minutes of "The Social Network," all you see are two college kids yakking, and it's the most enthralling movie sequence of the year.

On the surface, it's a testy conversation between a dweeby Harvard undergrad and the college girlfriend who's about to dump him. The two squabble and apologize, parry and thrust, attack and withdraw.

The combatants often stop mid-argument to parse the precise meaning of the words in play - they want to gauge the sincerity, the intent, the possible permutations of the remarks they make.

It's an object lesson in nuance, irony, context, body language, tone, expression. Elements of communication that can only be determined via personal, human interaction, at which the young Harvard man - a genius in every other way - is hopelessly remedial.

He does not seem to notice when he's hurt the girl's feelings. Her eyes moisten with emotion, he blinks in apparent confusion - what is this species across the table?

The scene reveals so much about the man, and we're riveted, because he's not some random undergrad - he's Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, the man who will be a billionaire by 25 and more to the point, reconfigure human interaction.

Within a decade, one in 14 people on the planet would adopt his mode of human interaction, a way to "friend" a person without actually meeting them. It's a form of communication, as we see, that's more to his liking.

The rest of "The Social Network" is just as smartly done - shrewdly cast, perfectly acted and a slick narrative that hums with freighted meaning.

The movie establishes a breakneck pace and hardly pauses for a breath as it races through Zuckerberg's rise to power/fame/infamy, pausing to consider the growing list of casualties (friends and partners) he jettisons on the way.

It's a story of corporate formation and cultural transformation that's always kept on a personal, often brutally human scale.

As we note in scene one, wherein a scalded Zuckerberg runs back to his Harvard dorm to insult his girlfriend on a public blog, then to attack women in general - he steals private photos of Harvard women from online dormitory registers (known as facebooks), posts them online two by two, and invites all undergrads to vote for the hottest Harvard chick.

It's a huge campus hit. It's also a creepy, exploitive, interactive, communal and hypnotically addictive form of superficial judgment.

In other words, social networking.

In its Pong infancy.

Zuckerberg's stunt catches the attention of the brothers Winklevoss, two Harvard rowers (Armie Hammer, playing both roles) who've been spitballing an idea about an online community where undergrads would upload photos and personal info, and meet and communicate online.

They ask Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to partner with them, to write the code that would enable their idea, and he agrees, though he sets to work almost immediately on his own version of a networking site to serve college students, called thefacebook.com.

"The Social Network" makes a Woody Allen comedy of the Winklevoss-Zuckerberg contrast - they are tall blond WASPY, genial, athletic, exceedingly popular. He is short, nerdy, Jewish, socially maladroit.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (doing his best work yet) presents this disparity as motivation for Zuckerberg, but here is where the collaborative movie process works its magic. Director David Fincher (a former troublemaking wunderkind himself) and Eisenberg find something deeper in Zuckerberg.

Maybe the arrogance of a genius who believes his big brain, his big ideas, his growing sense that he has the power to transform culture, place him outside and above his Harvard fellows.

He doesn't feel inferior to the Winklevoss twins - he feels superior to them. If he treats them shabbily, so what? And the Winklevosses really do treat Zuckerberg like a code-writing mule, interchangeable with any other. A mistake, for while there is inspiration in the idea, the true art is in the code, in the engineering.

Zuckerberg sees himself as the real creative force, wherein lies the real ownership of Facebook, of social networking writ large - it explains why he is dismissive to competitors, to businessmen partners, investors. Alas, this includes best friend and bankroller Edward Saverin (Andrew Garfield, who gives the movie heart by making the betrayal so emotionally raw).

Zuckerberg eventually latches on to another self-styled visionary - adrift Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Together they take Facebook to the next level, consigning hapless former associates to the history's dustbin, or so they think.

The movie works as a meaty human story, the sting of betrayal, backstabbing, dissolving bonds, is deeply felt. That's miraculous, given the narrow framework of the narrative. Sorkin was limited mainly to lawsuit transcripts, and in simple terms the movie is two depositions relieved by flashbacks.

Fincher has worked this inside-outside contrast before, in "Panic Room," but here the sustained tension serves a much bigger agenda - conflicts reveal character, the character of young men who remade culture and communication.

They are the revolutionaries that "Fight Club's" Tyler Durden imagined himself to be, and though their fights are not as physical, the combat is just as fierce and wounds go much deeper. "Fight Club" for code writers? That's glib, but yes.

Fincher's collaborator here is Eisenberg, who makes us feel Zuckerberg's social disorientation, and a consequence is he is valuably sympathetic in a role that's unflattering on the page.

Throughout "The Social Network" the Fincher/Eisenberg affinity for Zuckerberg is thrillingly at war with Sorkin's natural, old-media suspicion of social networking, his distaste for Zuckerberg's megalomania.

You can walk out of the movie seeing Zuckerberg as a hero, villain, both, neither, without ever feeling that the movie retreats to ambiguity, or that it lacks judgment.

It shows us a substantial, real, living, complex human being, and I'd wager it differs greatly from Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook page.

Or anyone's, for that matter.

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher. With Brenda Song, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Eisenberg, Stream, Joseph Mazzello, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Trevor Wright, Max Minghella, Andrew Garfield. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().