(A) Aaron Sorkin's script. The "West Wing" creator packed 163 pages worth of words into a two-hour movie. Not a single syllable is wasted. The instant-classic opening scene establishes the movie's verbal style -- a boobytrapped kind of banter -- as Harvard whiz Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) repels a fresh-faced BU girl named Erica (Rooney Mara) with a toxic mixture of hubris and insecurity. (That's a still from the scene, right.)
But the scene also has its subtle equivalent of Chekhov's Gun. (As Chekhov put it, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.") When Mark feebly jokes that to stand out at Harvard he could "row crew or invent a $25 dollar PC," Erica responds affably (and frivolously) that she "likes guys who row crew." When those upper-crust members of Harvard's crew team, the Winklevoss twins, approach Zuckerberg about designing their pre-Facebook social network, we know that Erica's words still ring in Zuckerberg's ears -- and that any partnership is doomed.
(B) David Fincher's direction. In the second-greatest passage in the movie, Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) swoops into a chic Tribeca restaurant to meet Zuckerberg, The Facebook creator's only friend and first partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and Saverin's girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song). On one level, it's a pithy break-up-and-seduction sequence. As Parker humiliates Saverin and wins Zuckerberg over to his high-flying ways, Fincher, a masterly director of actors, wrings every bromantic shading from the repartee. (That's Timberlake and Eisenberg in another scene from the film.)
But in that getting-to-know-you dinner, Fincher, through his camera placement and staging and editing, also expresses the film's "Rashomon"-like insistence on the unknowability of "the truth." We are flashing back to this sequence from Saverin's point of view as he's deposed for his lawsuit against Zuckerberg. At one end of the restaurant table, Zuckerberg nods along poodle-like to Parker's entrepreneurial wisdom; at the other end, Saverin does a cringe-worthy slow burn. We realize we've been sucked into the betrayed man's point of view.
(C) The ensemble performance. Yes, Eisenberg is amazing, but so are Garfield and Timberlake and Song and Mara. If Judi Dench could get a supporting actress Oscar for one scene in "Shakespeare in Love," Mara should be able to get one for "The Social Network."