I almost included the issue with the film’s truth problem in yesterday’s post about “The Social Network” complaints, but it’s a big enough criticism to warrant its own address. Anyway it doesn’t quite fit with the alleged discrimination and intolerance concerns. It is, however, just as ridiculous and unnecessary. I mean, since when has any movie, even a drama based on a true story, been completely accepted as factual? Most documentaries aren’t even dependable as truth. Perhaps it’s that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t a literal rock star. Maybe the idea of Zuckerberg pining over an old flame is as accurate as Jim Morrison following Pam Courson home and climbing into her window, but at least during the latter we get to hear “Love Street” during the make-believe sequence, right? Not that Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” hasn’t had its share of criticism regarding its authenticity, but films like that seem to be more excused for their dramatizations.
The complaint, though, does raise an interesting discussion about why certain movies even bother to purport to be true stories. For music biopics it’s about the popular music and the familiar celebrity. For “The Social Network,” the story could have just been a roman à clef loosely based on the life of Zuckerberg, the way “Citizen Kane” is loosely — yet obviously — about William Randolph Hearst. But nobody’s going to care about a movie depicting the founding of a fictional social network site (called, say, Friendface). Just as not many people went to see a movie about a random newspaper magnate back in 1941 (though that was largely a distribution problem caused by Hearst’s threats). Either way, we’re still going to be compelled to discover the real deal with the subjects, that “Rosebud” might actually refer to a girl (well, part of her anatomy, anyway) and “Erica Albright” was really the name of Zuckerberg’s childhood sled.
Okay, so Facebook wasn’t founded because of a left-behind toy (that would be more appropriate for an eBay movie, probably), but it also might not have had anything to do with an ex-girlfriend. That doesn’t necessarily mean Rooney Mara’s character in the film is entirely fictional, though. If at least Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires” is to be believed, Zuckerberg at least did get dumped at some point, and he actually blogged about her (in the text her name is redacted, as in “***** is a bitch,” but you can see the actual diary for her real name) and blamed the creation of Facemash on her. Also, pretty much anything a person does can be linked to a prior action, by way of simplistic and speculative logic. Maybe throw in a little “it could have been subconsciously” reasoning. But if anything in the film is indeed factually untrue, it can also be blamed on the deposition testimonials — there is even that bit in the film about how lies are common even under oath — and Harvard Crimson articles — ditto with hints of journalistic embellishment in the film — upon which the book and film are primarily sourced.
As for the exclusion of certain facts, like how Zuckerberg has had a girlfriend since about the time of Facebook’s launch, well, histories and legends often tend to leave stuff out. But there’s also something strange about the clarification concerning Priscilla Chan, who Zuckerberg met seven years ago and is now finally engaged to. She’s almost being used as a sort of defense. Yet some claim the two never really started dating until after the part of the story we see on screen, save for the depositions, and that then they only hung out about once a week. Also, up until recently, despite both of them moving out to Palo Alto from Cambridge, they hadn’t lived together. So that only makes the final moment when Zuckerberg asks the lawyer to dinner seem possibly unlikely — though not impossible. But it sounds like a relationship too complicated to deal with in this particular film. It’s better off left out.
Plus, it fits perfectly with the Facebook world. Let’s just think of the exclusion of Chan as being akin to someone’s relationship status being, intentionally or not, “single” when really the person has a significant other, whatever the seriousness and commitment. Actually, the movie’s status would be more like “it’s complicated.” But outside the romantic aspect, other falsehoods, manipulations, fabrications, dramatizations, etc. can also suit a film about a site that allows for similar real-life deceit, whether large (see “Catfish” for more on that) or small (see any examples of “Internet disease”). Is a movie claiming to be a true story different than me using a profile pic in which I have a beard while at the moment I’m clean shaven? Only to the people who think cinema should always be honest and bound to depict 100% fact when a specific title implies, or even wholeheartedly claims, to be such.
I feel bad for those people, because they’ll never fully be happy or be able to just enjoy a good movie and then go learn the “real” truth on Wikipedia if they need that (I admit I am typically curious, too). Otherwise, it might be a matter for Zuckerman himself. But what exactly does he need to prove is portrayed incorrectly? That he, same as Jim Morrison, is not quite the asshole he’s made out to be? Can that even be evidenced in court?
Here are some other interesting takes on the truth problem heard this week round the film blog water cooler:
So, why does it matter whether the book and the movie are truth or fiction? Because Mezrich and Sorkin are playing with lives here. And I don’t mean Zuckerberg’s or any of the other characters in the movie or real-life drama.
I mean mine and yours. […] Without knowing what’s truth and what’s fiction, I can’t figure out what I really believe about Facebook’s founder. Is he a visionary god who has built us an exciting new online world, or a megalomaniacal devil only acting for his own gain? (As a character says at the end of the film–a line originally spoken by a Facebook publicist–”Creation myths need a devil.”)
Sorkin, too, has left us with a myth, and the mythmaker has washed his hands of the mythmaking process. Some critics call this a brilliant meta-disclaimer, an acknowledgment that there is no universal truth in the Zuckerberg story. It’s not. It’s an abdication of responsibility for a story that pantomimes Zuckerberg and is poised to transform Mezrich and Sorkin’s version of reality into whatever passes for truth these days.
the movie treats Facebook itself as a MacGuffin rather than the revolution in human communication that it is. In the end, “The Social Network” is nothing more than a sharply written drama about an intellectual property lawsuit.
It could just as easily have been about the Edsel – except that movie already got made.
Question: what is the title of this Edsel movie? I can’t find it.
Zuckerberg’s apparent infatuation with Harvard’s esteemed final clubs and his envy over his then-best friend Eduardo Saverin’s acceptance into one is fodder for some of the main drama in “The Social Network.” Despite the great dramatic tension it creates, both Zuckerberg and his dorm neighbor at Harvard, Slate.com’s Nathan Heller, say that the film’s depiction of the Facebook creator’s obsession with getting in to the final clubs is absolutely ridiculous. Heller argues that “the notion that a crack Web programmer in 2003 would find his future blocked off by their fusty gatekeeping is risible.” Still, the fiction does make for great cinema.
And George Washington didn’t really cut down a cherry tree and lie about it. So what?
The idea that Facebook was spawned in an effort to spite a failed relationship and acquire social status seems generously simplistic, but ultimately believable on a sub-conscious level. Men have done stranger things to attract the attention of women. Think Trojan War… or monster trucks.
All in all, I think we’ve all encountered nineteen-year-olds with greater flaws and fewer redeeming qualities.
David Fincher’s The Social Network does for the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, what Rudy did for Daniel E. ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger. It doesn’t matter what was actually true, and what was fiction, the account that matters — and that may as well be the truth, whether it is or not — is what is memorialized in film. To the rest of us, Zuckerberg will always look like Jesse Eisenberg, just as Daniel Reuttiger will always look like Sean Astin. It’s more than truth; it’s a goddamn film.