Arts and Culture

'The Social Network'

Hey it's just a fun flick. Tell that to the real people forever depicted as sleaze-geeks.

By Steve Burgess 8 Oct 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about film on The Tyee every other Friday. For now, at least.

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'The Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.'

Mark Zuckerberg -- the real one -- was on Oprah recently, handing out $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school system. Later, Mark Zuckerberg -- fictional version, played by Jesse Eisenberg -- was taking in $23 million as the star of David Fincher's new film The Social Network. In the battle of bucks, at least, that round goes to the genuine Zuckerberg. As for the battle to define the man, it's one that Hollywood usually wins.

In artistic terms, The Social Network is an undeniable success. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay recounts the story of Facebook as a rip-snorting chronicle of a transformative idea, and manages the difficult feat of making both web programming and legal depositions seem compelling. The movie argues that the creation of Facebook, like many other great ideas, was driven not by a lust for money but for vengeance. Zuckerberg is portrayed as an outcast whose success will be payback, aimed at all the elite campus cliques and their exclusive clubs, and most of all, aimed at the girl who dumped him (Rooney Mara). When he's a famous social networking pioneer won't she be sorry, etc. The Social Network is a reminder that, while the hierarchies of school politics are sometimes reversed in the wider world, the effects of that social exclusion tend to outlast later success.

The Social Network deals with real people and real history -- very recent. Most viewers will emerge feeling that they have met the principle figures. Sorkin has said that Fincher was scrupulous about facts, right down to re-shooting a scene to show Zuckerberg drinking a beer instead of a highball (they had received inside info about the correct tipple). Even those inclined to be skeptical will have little ability to fact check.

But a Washington Post story suggested that the movie exaggerated Zuckerberg's anti-social tendencies -- a friend described him as a sociable guy at Harvard, often seen at parties. Another source suggests that Zuckerberg actually had a girlfriend during the period detailed by the film. Then there's the designated Mephistopheles of The Social Network -- Napster co-founder Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Parker refused Timberlake's request to spend time with him. There would be no point, Parker claimed, since the screenplay version of him was Sorkin's invention.

Consider the source

It makes sense. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield, soon to be seen as the next Spider-Man) was reportedly a key source for the screenplay. In almost any biopic, you can tell who wrote the source material -- just look for the guy wearing the halo. Saverin was the aggrieved party in the Facebook inner circle, and so it's no surprise that his opponents come off looking unethical. Saverin is the closest thing to a moral centre in the movie. It's important to get your version of the story on the record first.

Yet the details of the court case, as revealed in the movie, were not invented. And they paint a damning picture, regardless of any Fincher/Sorkin embellishments. A stock maneuver aimed at Saverin seems sufficient in itself to convict Zuckerberg and Parker of sleazeball status.

It's always remarkable how Hollywood gets a free pass when it comes to history. "It's just a movie," filmmakers say. Fine when your movie is about robots in outer space -- harder to defend when the stars of your film are real public figures.

The names have not been changed...

Fincher has jokingly referred to The Social Network as "the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies." It's an interesting parallel. With Citizen Kane, Orson Welles at least fictionalized his portrait of William Randolph Hearst. But Hearst was no fool. He attacked Welles and his movie with every means at his disposal, knowing that the public would accept the thinly veiled portrait, backed by the magic and majesty of the giant screen and Welles' brilliant artistry. How much worse for Zuckerberg or Parker, portrayed without even the fig leaf of an alias?

People who make films about history presumably feel the story is worth telling. Why then do they feel so much need to embellish? Frost/Nixon took such liberties with the facts that the movie itself should be added to the long list of Watergate felonies. Johnny Cash's daughter Roseanne Cash described the experience of watching Walk the Line as "like having a root canal without anesthetic."

In such cases, artistic license is asked for and usually granted. But imagine a Tea Party backer making a film biography of President Obama as a secret Muslim, born in Kenya. Would you be willing to shrug that off as artistic license?

Chill, pass the popcorn

The Social Network is an excellent movie, and there is reason to believe that its version of the main facts would stand up to scrutiny. But how much has been tweaked, we punters cannot know. It's been said that journalism is the first draft of history. These days, the definitive version -- the story that people will remember and believe -- is often set on screen. That knowledge ought to burden filmmakers with a powerful sense of responsibility. Instead, they tell us, "It's just a movie."

Certainly when I write my forthcoming screenplay depicting Tyee editor David Beers as a socially maladroit tightwad coasting along on the coattails of his film reviewers, I will be sure to explain to him that it's just a movie. That scene where he drowns a bag of kittens may be invented, but it's true in spirit. If you don't like it, Dave, make your own movie.  [Tyee]

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