Mark Zuckerberg has changed the world. Facebook, the website of his design, has altered how we communicate, play, work (or avoid it), flirt, date, share our lives, see others, discover new interests, advertise, and the list goes on and on. It is as impersonal as it is easy, and the view of Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network explores, in a sympathetic but unflinching way, a possible reason why a phenomenon that revolves around a circle of one’s friends has expressed itself in a medium that intrinsically maintains distance between people.

That reason is Zuckerberg himself (played by Jesse Eisenberg in a striking performance of detachment by choice), whose eyes don’t look away or even through someone but directly at that person — listening, contemplating, and deciding in a few moments whether or not to continue paying attention to and caring about what that person has to say. Most of the time, he doesn’t. The trend starts in the first scene, a virtuoso dialogue between Mark and his current girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) that concisely establishes their relationship, the power struggle happening in it, and how the one-sided fight for superiority on Mark’s end defines his ability to connect to other people. Needless to say, they are not dating by the end of the discussion.

After a long, lonely walk, uninterrupted by friends, acquaintances, or well-wishers, Mark arrives at his dorm room on the campus of Harvard University in 2003. His first instinct (usually the wrong one) is to begin blogging about Erica, full of the usual invective one typically keeps between close friends. Over the course of writing and drinking, he has another idea: Set up a website that allows people to vote on comparative pictures of female Harvard students and farm animals. His friends and roommates, especially Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), think that might be taking it too far. So Mark decides to just make it a vote between two students.

In six hours, he has collected pictures of every female student living on campus, and only Eduardo asks the ethical question: Is this a good idea? Before the sun rises, while other students party (and later leave the party to vote on the website themselves), Mark’s site has crashed the Harvard servers.

Girls despise him, and Harvard security wants him expelled. Mark argues he didn’t follow through on the farm animal idea (he has no answer when confronted with the fact that he thought it and wrote it for all to read) and thinks he deserves credit for pointing out the holes in security.

Here is a kid — 19 years old at this point — with talent and, perhaps more importantly, chutzpah. He does not back down from a fight, since he considers most of them to be beneath his attention. Hence, when rich-kid twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) issue Mark with a cease-and-desist order on the social networking site that would change the way some people live, Mark simply leaves it sitting on a table, collecting dust. Only Eduardo, now Facebook’s CFO, thinks they might have a problem.

Mark’s vaulting ambition, as is typical in tragedies — and this is in part a tragedy on an individual scale — is key to his downfall. There is also, of course, the irony that this young man’s “downfall” ends with him being the youngest billionaire in the world.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, working from the details of Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, does not begrudge Mark his success or call into question the legitimacy of his invention. This is the portrait of a kid who doesn’t want his time in the sun; he knows for certain without any doubt that he deserves it.

Sorkin mixes the allegations of the Winklevoss brothers and Narenda, who consult with Mark to write the code for a social networking site that would have a Harvard-exclusive membership. They want to use it to lure girls who want to date guys from Harvard, and Mark sees something bigger. After much bickering about the gentlemanliness of a Harvard man and biting of the tongue as Facebook grows beyond Harvard, the three file a lawsuit.

Back and forth the screenplay goes, between the two sides of the argument and also watching as Mark alienates Eduardo, who also files a grievance against his former best friend and boss. When Mark gains the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), another man who at a young age turned a convention on its head with Napster, he has found a kindred spirit, and Eduardo has discovered more reason to fear for his safety.

As a dramatization of a legal dispute, the film is full of the juicier kinds of details. Hearsay and speculation erupt from both sides. Mark and Eduardo take it just far enough before genuinely destroying the other’s reputation, until the lawyers take over and, as they must, dig up the dirt.

It is fascinating material on its own, but Sorkin unravels an exclusive community. Sean, in a moment of piercing honesty, declares that he started Napster to get back at a girl, much, as he sees it, in the way Mark began his path to Facebook. Mark, in his own, guarded way of expressing himself, asks if he ever got over the girl. There is a sense of success as a way to win a grudge against anyone who doesn’t believe, doesn’t care, or doesn’t have the courtesy roll over and let them pass.

The Zuckerberg of The Social Network believes he is better than most people (the way he manipulates an attorney’s patronizing question to stab the egos of the attorney and his clients is the cleverest sort of deserved malice), and in some ways, he is. In the film’s final image, waiting for a redemption as the coda spells out more and more of his success, though, is what he must give up for that privilege.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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