In 1983 Kenneth Waters (Sam Rockwell) was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the brutal murder of a woman named Katharina Brow in Ayer, Massachusetts. At the time of his conviction, his sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) didn't even have her high school diploma, but made it her mission to get to and through law school, and have her brother's conviction overturned. The film is based on a true story so, I don't really feel it necessary to hide the fact that she succeeds in freeing Kenneth. Not because you've probably already heard the true story, but because, if you know anything about the movies, you know they generally don't make movies about real women fighting their way through the academic and legal systems for 20 years, only to fail and send you home depressed.
The film begins with some rather brief backstory to get us acquainted with the Waters siblings. They grew up under a neglectful mother before being split up and put into separate foster homes, which, in many ways, probably only made them closer. They remained inseparable into their adult years, each of them starting families at a young age, until that fateful day when Kenneth is arrested for murder, picked up at his grandpa's funeral no less.
The cop who arrests Kenneth is a hard woman named Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), who seems to have it out for him from the get go. Leo's Nancy Taylor could quite possibly be the sister of her angry, vindictive Alice Ward character from The Fighter. Taylor is assisted in sending Waters up the river by testimony from Kenny's white trash ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), and his baby mama (Clea DuVall).
The early years of Betty Anne's struggle are moved through very quickly by Goldwyn, she goes from deciding to go to law school, to going to law school, to passing the bar, in a very short time. This is a missed opportunity, a woman of limited means, and with little education, pushing her way through college and law school is really enough material for a film on it's own, especially when played by someone as talented as Swank. Of course more focus on this area would have made the film somewhat longer, but I'm not sure that a bit more length wouldn't make Betty Anne's struggle seem that much more epic in scale.
Swank in many ways is a one note actress, but she plays the hell out of that one note. She specializes in outgunned, but doggedly determined outsider characters (it's no wonder she was once cast as The Karate Kid), and could quite possibly be the most intrinsically likable actor this side of Tom Hanks. Rockwell's performance is interesting in that he manages to play Kenneth Waters as charismatic, but not particularly likable. This keeps his character fresh in moments when a lesser actor might fall into cliche.
In the end, Conviction proves the "King's Speech" rule that, no matter how much of a foregone conclusion the end of a film might be, it is always enjoyable to watch a character we like over come the odds and succeed. There are some faults in the pacing and structure, but Swank and Rockwell carry Conviction past these rather smoothly and give us a very solid legal/family drama.
There is a line in the great 1950 film Harvey where Jimmy Stewart's character Elwood P. Dowd espouses the virtues of being pleasant over those of being smart. Mark Zuckerberg has never seen this movie, or if he has perhaps he was only half listening as he checked his email or pined for a girl across the room that still has no idea that he even exists. This is the kind of man Mark Zuckerberg is, obsessive, and convinced of his own genius even if nobody else is, or at least that's how he's portrayed in David Fincher's brilliant new movie The Soocial Network.
In 2010 most people know Mark Zuckerberg's name, and even if they don't they certainly know what he created. Facebook, the now ubiquitous social networking site that seems to infiltrate a different aspect of our lives everyday. The feds have used it to find terrorists and spies, businesses use it to get the skinny on potential employees, Facebook, it seems, can do it all. In 2003, on the other hand, when Zuckerberg began work on what he then called "The Facebook" in his Harvard dorm, his main concerns were his girlfriend who had just dumped him, and gaining acceptance to one of the university's prestigious final clubs.
The Social Network follows Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and The Whale, Zombieland), from these humble beginnings to a pair of well furnished deposition rooms where he finds himself on the other side of lawsuits from a set of hulking, row boating twins, and a man he once called his best friend and the "co-creator" of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin.
Along the way Zuckerberg falls under the spell of a charismatic Internet mogul named Sean Parker, played to the hilt by Justin Timberlake (those SNL digital shorts, *NSYNC). Parker had already changed the way people listen to music when he invented Napster in the late 90s, and he's determined to help Zuckerberg make Facebook the next big thing. It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that Parker is actually a drugged out, paranoid, and apparently homeless wreck, but all Zuckerberg sees is a man who can get any girl he lays eyes on and is telling him everything he wants to hear.
All three leads give award worthy performances. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg with a nebbish confidence that veils a pool of self doubt/loathing, Garfield gives Saverin a baby faced charm to mask the tragedy of his character's betrayal, and Timberlake plays Parker with the kind of reckless abandon that can only be achieved by someone who hasn't done much acting...or Nicolas Cage.
Despite the universally strong performances, the real star of The Social Network is Aaaron Sorkin's (The West Wing) remarkable screenplay. I can't remember the last time I heard this much dialogue in a mainstream film, let alone dialogue this crisp and exciting to listen to. You could sit in the theater with your eyes closed and The Social Network would still be an enjoyable experience. Sorkin's words zig when they should zag, crack a joke when they should cry, and cry when most would crack a joke.
Director David Fincher's (Se7en, Fight Club) wisest choice in The Social Network is to take a back seat to his material. As he did with his great 2007 film Zodiac, Fincher puts his signature jerky, dark style on hold and allows the film to find it's own tone instead of inserting himself where he doesn't belong. During the entire 2 hour running time of the film, there is maybe 1 shot that anybody might notice. The film is also well scored by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor who fills the film with dark and pulsing tones that underline Sorkin's incendiary dialogue.
The Social Network does have some things to say about the nature of big business, and the Internet generation, but really this is the tale of one man, who not unlike Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane, comes in to great wealth at an early age, and sees less value in his money than he does in the admiration and adoration of others. Unfortunately, as we have all heard, there are some things that money can't buy. It's a story as old as time told in a refreshing and entirely modern way, and it is far and away, the best film I have seen this year.