Hearst didn’t have a sled called Rosebud
So, after writing a largely positive review of “The Social Network” this morning, I was quickly and forcefully made to understand that a lot of people really don’t like this movie. Not because of the acting, script, direction, themes (except maybe some suspicion—mostly from extra-textual sources—that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like the internet), or anything really in the movie, but what is outside of it. I’ve had people point out that they have problems with other things Sorkin’s written, or aspects of his biography that make them think he’s a prick. But the main objection to “The Social Network” has been what I jokingly said was the “nuh-uh” critique. As in “Nuh-uh, it didn’t happen that way,” or, “Nuh-uh, Harvard isn’t really like that.” (This is often aimed at the sequence at the party inside the final club, which I’m now 100% sure was a dream sequence, what the character of Mark Zuckerberg thinks happens at those parties, not how they actually are.) I must admit, I’m more than a little surprised to see so many people object, seemingly out of nowhere, to the concept of poetic license. I pointed out, repeatedly, that the movie is being compared to “Citizen Kane” because it’s essentially the same story—that of a tycoon who captures the world by excelling like a motherfucker at the dominant media of his era, but who is a tragic figure because he can’t get his personal life in order. William Randolph Hearst wasn’t particularly happy about “Citizen Kane” when it was released, presumably for many of the same reasons that people who sympathize with Mark Zuckerberg are pissed off about this movie, and also because Hearst was a bad man and a control freak in a way I suspect Zuckerberg (the real person) is not.
But the concept of poetic license when it comes to important historical figures and their place in works of fiction or poetry is nothing new. No one thinks that Shakespeare’s histories are exact accounts of what went down, and only fundamentalists are silly enough to think Biblical stories about the kings of Israel or the life of Jesus are to be taken as a literal accounting of fact. Using poetic license to use real people in fiction or fictionalized histories is super common nowadays. Off the top of my head, the TV shows and movies I can think of that have done it are “Silence of the Lambs”, “Young Guns”, “Deadwood”, “Elizabeth”, “The Tudors”, “Homicide”, “Becoming Jane Austen”, and “The Hours”. Also, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Hunter S. Thompson are characters on “The Venture Brothers”. I’ll bet you could come up with a few dozen more if you put your mind to it. Sometimes the real life people’s names are changed, and sometimes they portrayed more directly as the real historical figure, but there’s no doubt that they are nonetheless a character in a story, and this isn’t a literal account of the truth.
And frankly, I prefer it that way. Biopics are notorious for sucking. Even the ones that are good by biopic standards—like the recent Johnny Cash biopic film “Walk The Line”—aren’t really that good by storytelling standards. This is due, in no small part, to this need for accuracy. Oh, biopic makers will roll a few important people into one person or fudge a few details to save time, but on the whole, they try to get the trajectory of a person’s life right. And in doing so, they end up saying nothing more than, “This person did some important stuff while living the same kind of messed up life as most anyone.” The problem with real people is that they’re not characters in stories. They’re changeable, arbitrary, and way too multi-faceted, particularly for movies. Life doesn’t have themes or plots. It’s just…..life. Even for important people.
The purpose of storytelling is not to reflect life exactly how it is, but to draw out the sort of themes and ideas that disorganized, messy life doesn’t provide. That, and to entertain you, which is no small thing, either. If a story is inspired by real world events, the needs for coherence, time, and meaning—as well as for entertainment—require the storytellers to fictionalize events. “Deadwood”, I think, is a really good example of how overly literal folks let themselves get way confused. The characters were based on real people and often had their names and shared much of their biography. But they also diverged in dramatic ways, not the least of which was how they spoke in a stream of curse words that were mostly not used back then. This is because the creators had a larger story to tell, one that couldn’t be shaped out of strict adherence to the literal truth. But I think they managed to convey something more meaningful than a historical re-enactment soaked in literal truth would have. Same story with “The Social Network”—a movie about the real events exactly how they happened would end up being a story about nothing in particular. Maybe about how it’s good to be the lucky bastard who got there first? Some of the suggestions I’ve seen, particularly around making a movie about the critical importance of user-friendly minimalist design, sound like the most boring things you could ever make a movie about. My concerns that this movie was going to be that kind of movie is why I was reluctant to see it. Only the good reviews got me out the door.
Aaron Sorkin has made the fatal mistake of giving his critics ammunition by claiming what is a demonstrably fictional film is non-fiction. That was stupid, but it doesn’t make this not a fictional story based on real events. Mark Zuckerberg, of course, is still alive, and this, for some reason, making this whole thing more confusing, particularly if you let “what will the stupid people make of this?” color your perceptions. The question, then, is why not do what Orson Welles did in “Citizen Kane”, and change the name of his character along with major biographical details?
Well, there’s a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious is what I call the “eye-rolling problem”. There is only one Facebook—part of the story is showing how it beat out MySpace and Friendster, so you can’t really say that there’s not. You could try to name it “Spacebook” if you want, but that’s actually going to be annoying to the point of distraction for an audience that probably uses the actual Facebook every single day. For such a serious film, you can’t really risk having the audience spending all their time saying, “Is that supposed to fool us?!” In the case of “Citizen Kane”, there were literally thousands of newspapers, so fictionalizing another is not so much a big deal.
It’s also worth noting that the context in which a movie is released has changed drastically. You could make a movie about “Spacebook” and change the names of the players, but the audience wouldn’t be even slightly discouraged from freaking out about where the facts have diverged from the movie. And a large part of that is people are latching onto fact-checking because they object to what they perceive are criticisms of social networking (I thought the movie itself was neutral on the matter), to portrayals of geek culture as misogynist or socially awkward, the portrayal of Harvard, or maybe to portrayals of men that aren’t jocks in a less than flattering light. (The movie is also critical of jocks, but I haven’t seen anyone angry about that.) Seizing onto factual inaccuracies is a way to say, “This movie’s ideas are wrong, and I can use real life to prove it.” So you haven’t bought yourself anything, but you’ve introduced the eye-rolling problem.
So are the ideas wrong? That’s the real question, not whether or not someone has a “right” to use poetic license to portray real life people in ways that they objectively are not. My feeling is that yes, I think the movie had some interesting ideas that speak to deeper truths than whether or not the real world Mark Zuckerberg totally has a girlfriend. The movie was, as Dana Stevens noted, about homosociality and how it works in our culture, and it used elements from this real world series of events to tell that story. That masculinity is often defined in our culture through competition with other men—a competition that often reduces women to prizes and tokens—shouldn’t really be that controversial of a point. A fictionalized story that explores this theme is a great idea, and I think Sorkin and Fincher did a bang-up job of it. Sure, in the real world, men are often torn between homosocial pressures and their desires for intimacy with women in far more complex ways than you get in a 2 hour plus change film. In real life, the ability to get inside people’s heads during dreams would probably have a lot more varied uses than corporate intrigue. In real life, true friendships are deeper and more complex than that what you get from having a wild weekend with someone you just met. In real life, Bonnie and Clyde were wankers and cold-blooded murderers, not anti-heroes channeling inchoate disgust with the system. In real life, there’s not much you can learn about the human condition of ordinary people by looking at organized crime that is composed of a bunch of ruthless psychopaths.
I could go on, but you get the idea. We create fiction and art in general precisely because it’s not real life. We use it as a lens with which to view real life and deepen our meaning of it, sure. But that doesn’t mean we should confuse art and life.