It takes a long time for films to establish themselves as cinematic classics, and it often takes several decades to fully realize a film's legacy. As such, few films from the 21st century are already considered classics that'll be worth revisiting generations later.
However, if any film of the past two decades will withstand the test of time, it's undoubtedly "The Social Network." Not only is David Fincher's masterful study of the dawn of social media a rich, compelling drama that's highly entertaining to watch, but as time passes it becomes more relevant than ever. The figures depicted in the 2010 film are still in the news; in fact, now is a better time than ever for a "The Social Network" sequel.
The biographical film follows a young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as he develops Facebook with his best friend, Eduardo (Andrew Garfield). Aaron Sorkin's time-hopping screenplay switches between eras, showing both the origins of the social networking site and the two subsequent court cases that Zuckerberg was involved with.
"The Social Network" is an essential piece of cinema that captures the mood and anxieties of the current era. If you loved "The Social Network," these other great films are also worth checking out.
It's impossible to discuss "The Social Network" without praising Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is among the most detail-oriented screenwriters in Hollywood, and has a unique ability to explain highly complex subject matter in a compelling dramatic fashion. Sorkin's early work was characterized by his idealism; "The West Wing," "The American President," "A Few Good Men," and "Charlie Wilson's War" all highlight a strong belief in the American justice system.
However, in his later projects, Sorkin left behind his optimism to examine how new technology intersects with modern relationships. "The Social Network" explored how the birth of a network designed to connect people ultimately drives them further apart, and it's told in an intriguing nonlinear fashion. Later, Sorkin gave a similar treatment to one of the most important tech figures of all time with "Steve Jobs."
Paired with another singular filmmaker in Danny Boyle, Sorkin depicts the background drama that unfolded during three pivotal product launches for Apple. Like Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender gives a complex performance as the co-founder of a tech giant that is uncanny in its accuracy. Sorkin is somewhat sympathetic to both figures and notes the degree of their accomplishments, but doesn't shy away from making them seem selfish, militant, and often completely unlikeable. Unfortunately a financial disappointment, "Steve Jobs" deserves the same level of praise as "The Social Network."
While much of the brilliance of "The Social Network" comes from Sorkin's screenplay, it's also impossible to ignore the importance of director David Fincher. When Fincher was hired as the director of the Mark Zuckerberg biopic, he was certainly an unusual choice. At the time, Fincher was best known for his grizzled psychological crime dramas, including "Fight Club," "Se7en," "The Game," "Zodiac," and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." He certainly wasn't an obvious pick to helm a relationship-centric biopic, but Fincher proved that the same attention to detail he brought to his crime fiction could be used to capture a historical moment. Whether it's piecing together the clues in a serial killer case or a heated argument between Mark and Eduardo, no filmmaker creates tension quite like Fincher.
Thankfully, Fincher's work on "The Social Network" isn't an outlier in his career. He recently helmed the Netflix biopic "Mank," which explores the life of famous Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). It was a passion project for Fincher, as the screenplay was written by his father, Jack, who passed away in 2003 and never got the chance to see the film come to life.
Mankiewicz was best known as the screenwriter behind "Citizen Kane," and the film explores his complex relationship with Orson Welles (Tom Burke) throughout the film's development process. Like "The Social Network," "Mank" explores a complicated friendship plagued by disagreements about artistic integrity, vision, and ownership. It's also nuanced in its depiction of the 1930s political scene.
Good Night, And Good Luck
Films about media and journalism can often be challenging to handle, as they are subjects that are constantly in flux. New technology emerges on an almost daily basis, and audiences' reception to the news develops right alongside it. Many older films that may have seemed cutting edge in their depiction of technology now feel out of date, and the ones that are still effective may hit too close to home for some viewers. That's particularly true in the era of social media, when audiences are inundated with a barrage of headlines every day; a film centering on these topics may not feel very comforting.
"The Social Network" sidelined these concerns and was able to tell a compelling dramatic story centered on the way people communicate and see the world. Another great film that explores these issues is the brilliant 2005 biographical drama "Good Night, and Good Luck." Directed by George Clooney, the film follows landmark CBS television host, programmer, and personality Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) throughout the 1950s. Murrow became a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who infamously attempted to publicly expose "communists" working in America, and the film explores the impact these accusations had on Murrow's career, audience, and program.
Like "The Social Network," "Good Night, and Good Luck" captures the look and feel of a specific era in great detail. It was a very impressive directorial effort by Clooney, who, unfortunately, has not topped it since.
One of the most compelling aspects of "The Social Network" is the film's nuanced characterization of Zuckerberg himself. He's certainly not a likeable protagonist, and the brilliant opening scene in which he argues with his then-girlfriend (Rooney Mara) perfectly establishes Zuckerberg's brooding jealousy and self-centered goals. There are moments in which the audience may feel sympathetic towards Zuckerberg, particularly as he's taken advantage of by Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), but overall "The Social Network" is in awe of his achievements more than it is his personality.
Cory Finley's 2019 biopic "Bad Education" (not to be confused with the Pedro Almodovar classic of the same name) explores a similarly complicated real-life figure whose web of lies and deceit both benefited and harmed his community. Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is a beloved superintendent at the wealthy Roslyn Union Free School District on Long Island, and is renowned for his school's high test scores and its national ranking. However, unbeknownst to the community, Tassone is laundering millions of dollars. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky explores the public school crisis with the same detail Sorkin gave to social media, and both scripts disseminate complex information without becoming convoluted or confusing.
Both films also let both of its stars play to their strengths. If Eisenberg's characteristic nervous anxiety is never more apparent than it is in "The Social Network," then Hugh Jackman's charisma is highlighted to the same degree in "Bad Education."
The Bling Ring
Given its complete dominance over our culture at large, films about social media itself are a challenging prospect for any filmmaker. Social media is constantly changing, and it's easy for a film to feel out of date. Even when you look at films released only a few years prior, their depiction of online interactions may seem laughable. As such, the best films about social media aren't focused on the technology itself, but rather the impact it has on people, relationships, and culture. Obviously, "The Social Network" is no longer up to date with the website it's commenting on, but its encapsulation of a specific moment still makes it worth revisiting.
As a great filmmaker, Fincher is able to find that balance, and his contemporary Sofia Coppola has many of the same talents. Coppola's 2013 film "The Bling Ring" explores celebrity-obsessed internet culture by offering a satirical take on an astonishing true story. The film centers on seven teenagers who break into the homes of well-known celebrities and post about their journeys, trying to replicate these icons' lifestyles. The characters are completely plastic in their personalities; they base their behavior on what will get the most "likes," not what will make them truly happy.
Kill The Messenger
Good journalism is a tough subject matter to approach, as it's a topic that is highly likely to generate controversy. "The Social Network" was certainly critical of the way Zuckerberg's rise to success was characterized, and how many of the uglier sides of his story were left out of the headlines. Similar criticism can be found in the highly underrated 2014 biopic "Kill the Messenger," which unfortunately hasn't earned the same amount of praise as "The Social Network."
"Kill the Messenger" follows journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he uncovers a CIA conspiracy involving the smuggling of weapons and illicit funds to Nicaraguan rebels who rely on profits from drug cartels. Webb's idealism is spotlighted by Renner in one of the best performances of his career; he's a sympathetic character who is betrayed by his allies, similar to Eduardo. Like "The Social Network," "Kill the Messenger" remains a timely story. While Webb himself died by suicide, the events he uncovered are still having an impact on world politics.
The People Vs. Larry Flynt
Any film that attempts to accurately bring historical events to life must pay meticulous attention to the way that the figures, dates, and locations are depicted. It's certainly a challenge, and that difficulty is even greater when the film is centered on events that were highly covered by the news media. The real-life court cases involving Mark Zuckerberg were frequently mentioned by the press, and as a result "The Social Network" had to either match the audience's preconceived notions of the story, or risk losing their emotional investment.
Milos Forman's 1997 film "The People vs. Larry Flynt" took a similar gamble, as it depicted a real-life media circus that many viewers were already familiar with. The film follows the life of infamous pornographic magazine editor Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), who developed Hustler. Like Fincher, Forman delves into the public nature of the controversy as he deals with the social, political, and religious outrage surrounding Flynt and his publication.
Emerging technology provides an exciting foundation for a cinematic epic. "The Social Network," for example, examined how the ability to learn about someone's personal life through the internet became the catalyst for social change. Part of the brilliance of "The Social Network" is the film's ability to capture both the social shifts caused by Facebook and the enigmas surrounding its creator.
The 2020 biographical film "Tesla" did the same thing for one of the most famous inventors of all time. Ethan Hawke gives a dynamic performance as the titular Nikola Tesla, and the film chronicles Tesla's career from his early experiments to his rivalries with other inventors, including Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Like "The Social Network," "Tesla" is a quickly-paced film that is highly entertaining. "Tesla" also utilizes similar nonlinear framing devices, and even includes a bizarre sequence in which Hawke performs "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye
As memorable as Jesse Eisenberg's Academy Award-nominated performance as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" is, Andrew Garfield's Eduardo Saverin is the heart of the film. Eduardo is certainly a flawed character, but he initially accepts Mark for his faults and remains his best friend. He's energized by Facebook's possibilities, but grows disillusioned by Zuckerberg's greed and his relationship with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Garfield makes the character absolutely heartbreaking, and successfully captures the essence of a real historical figure.
Garfield brought a similar sensitivity to 2021's biographical drama "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," although, ironically, his character Jim Bakker has much more in common with Zuckerberg than he does with Saverin. One of the most prominent televangelists in modern television history, Bakker is involved in criminal activity that strains his marriage with his wife and business partner Tammy (Jessica Chastain).
One of Sorkin's gifts as a storyteller is his ability to capture complicated subject material and present it in a way that's thrilling, emotional, and heartbreaking. Even if the viewer can't follow every specific detail of the technical innovations behind Facebook's conception and the resulting lawsuits, Sorkin captures the dramatic intent within each scene through his snappy dialogue and compelling characters, highlighting the emotional weight that each plot development carries.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor crafted his underrated 2011 directorial debut "Margin Call" with similar precision. On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, a leading investment bank begins a downward spiral and begins laying off its longest tenured employees. Upon his firing, risk management head Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) hands a flash drive to his colleague Dr. Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) containing details about the company's dire financial state. Sullivan realizes the firm is hiding years of losses that could dramatically affect its customers, and that upper management is desperate to cover up its crimes before the night is over.
Journalism is based on the second-hand dispersal of information, and as a result films about news, information, and technology rarely have characters that are purely good or evil. The characters in "The Social Network" are complex; while it's easy to label Zuckerberg as the antagonist, there are moments when the viewer feels sympathetic for him, especially when he's compared to Timberlake's more outwardly villainous Parker. Both Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) have redeeming qualities, forcing the viewer to question how each story beat impacts every individual character.
Ron Howard crafted a similarly complex depiction of modern media with his 1994 dramedy "The Paper." The film follows the inner workings of a modern newspaper across a 24-hour news cycle. The film follows diligent editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), a workaholic who pushes his staff to pursue the truth no matter the personal cost. Bernie White (Robert Duvall), the editor of "New York Sun," struggles to support Hackett's ambitious endeavors as he deals with oppressive managing editor Alica Clark (Glenn Close).
Ingrid Goes West
It's fascinating to see the dawn of social media as it originates in "The Social Network," as the very prospect of moving the social experience online was a groundbreaking innovation. Zuckerberg takes his frustrations with his own social awkwardness and funnels them into the website, making it the fundamentally flawed brainchild of a perpetually angry young man. All future films that tackle the dark aspects of social media work off of the foundation that "The Social Network" established.
One such film is the 2017 dark comedy "Ingrid Goes West," which explores the phenomenon of feeling like you "know" an online personality through their carefully constructed internet persona and the problems that subsequently arise. The film follows the emotionally challenged Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), who ventures to Los Angeles to meet the internet celebrity she's obsessed with, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Sloane doesn't realize how obsessive Ingrid truly is, and her initial quirkiness takes a terrifying turn in a film that's equally humorous and unnerving
The Current War
One of the most interesting aspects of "The Social Network" is seeing how each of the creators involved with Facebook's creation influenced the technology in different ways. While a majority of the most innovative concepts came from Zuckerberg himself, each of his collaborators put their own mark on the website. No technological breakthrough occurs because of only one person, and there is often conflict over who should get credit for various groundbreaking achievements.
These conflicts over ownership in the tech space have existed since the earliest days of electricity. The underrated biographical film "The Current War" explores the 19th century battle over power delivery methods, as seen through the eyes of three rival geniuses. The discussions between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) aren't dissimilar from the hot-headed court cases in "The Social Network." The film unfortunately sat on the shelf for over a year after a negative reaction at the Toronto International Film Festival and the collapse of the Weinstein Company, but a much stronger director's cut was released in 2019.
A year after "The Social Network," Sorkin delivered another great biographical drama that condensed complex material into a highly entertaining, surprisingly emotional story. Bennet Miller's "Moneyball" examines the Oakland Athletics' breakthrough 2002, during which manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) utilized advanced analytical analysis to identify undervalued baseball players and build the perfect team. Like Zuckerberg, Beane faced many skeptics who doubted that his unprecedented idea would work.
Thankfully, Beane is a much more likable character than Zuckerberg, and Pitt delivers one of his most sensitive and vulnerable performances ever in the film. Beane is struggling to overcome the idea that he's failed to live up to his potential, as he was drafted at a young age, but was not successful as a professional baseball player. Upon release, it was also surprising to see Jonah Hill deliver a dramatic performance as Beane's assistant manager Peter Brand; like Eisenberg prior to "The Social Network," he was best known for his comedic roles. Pitt and Hill have great chemistry, and Sorkin's dialogue is as crisp and memorable as ever.
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