‘So­cial’ is no friend of truth

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - PA­TRICK GOLD­STEIN

When it comes to mak­ing movies about real peo­ple, Hollywood has a long his­tory of not let­ting the facts get in the way.

Nearly 70 years ago, there was “Cit­i­zen Kane,” chron­i­cling the rise to power of me­dia baron Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst. Now comes “The So­cial Net­work,” re­count­ing the cre­ation of Face­book by Mark Zucker­berg.

Al­though the two movies have a lot in com­mon, both be­ing wildly am­bi­tious pro­files of in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful but deeply flawed me­dia vi­sion­ar­ies, their sto­ries fea­ture an el­e­men­tal dif­fer­ence that speaks vol­umes about the eras that spawned them. Though both films are a quasi-fic­tional telling of a real-life char­ac­ter’s story, they present the “truthi­ness” of their char­ac­ters in rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent fash­ions.

When Or­son Welles and Her­man Mankiewicz wrote “Cit­i­zen Kane,” there was never any doubt that Hearst was the cen­tral char­ac­ter, even if his name wasn’t men­tioned. Af­ter all, Mankiewicz knew him well, hav­ing spent many a night carous­ing at Hearst’s par­ties un­til he was banned for booz­ing it up too much. But in the time of “Cit­i­zen Kane,” fic­tion had a lit­er­ary po­tency. And of course, when it came to a pow­er­ful czar like Hearst, fic­tion was a pro­tec­tive mech­a­nism.

Welles and Mankiewicz had le­git­i­mate cause for con­cern: The me­dia baron was so en­raged by the pic­ture that he banned any ad­ver­tis­ing or re­views of it in his pa­pers, in­tim­i­dated many the­aters into not show­ing it, had his re­porters at­tack Welles in print and pres­sured MGM chief Louis B. Mayer into of­fer­ing RKO Pic­tures $800,000 to de­stroy all prints of the film and burn the neg­a­tive.

Hearst knew ex­actly who the movie was about, be­cause in mid-20th cen­tury Amer­ica, nov­el­ists and


Hollywood film­mak­ers were in the habit of us­ing lit­er­ary de­vices such as ro­man a clefs to give them­selves nar­ra­tive free­dom to base sto­ries on real peo­ple. Af­ter all, dur­ing much of the 20th cen­tury, fic­tion ruled the roost: The ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion for writ­ers was to be the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el­ist, not a cel­e­brated writer of non­fic­tion.

But times have changed. We live in an age when au­di­ences de­mand re­al­ity, not a thinly veiled equiv­a­lent. So though a few films still fic­tion­al­ize their sub­jects — the im­pe­ri­ous fashion mag­a­zine edi­tor in “The Devil Wears Prada” was clearly in­spired by Anna Win­tour — most movies these days give us the sto­ries of real peo­ple, even if the sto­ries don’t hew to the facts.

In the case of “The So­cial Net­work,” it’s not even clear what source ma­te­rial the movie is based upon. The film­mak­ers have said the movie was in­spired by Ben Mezrich’s pro­posal for a book that was ul­ti­mately pub­lished un­der the some­what breath­less ti­tle “The Ac­ci­den­tal Bil­lion­aire: The Found­ing of Face­book — A Tale of Sex, Money, Ge­nius and Be­trayal.”

To say that the book it­self is not es­pe­cially fact­based would be an un­der­state­ment, since Mezrich ac­knowl­edges re-cre­at­ing scenes, chang­ing set­tings and even say­ing he used not just the fac­tual record but “my best judg­ment.” (When Janet Maslin re­viewed the book in the New York Times, she said it was “so clearly un­re­li­able that there’s no mis­tak­ing it for a se­ri­ous doc­u­ment.”)

To make mat­ters fog­gier, “So­cial Net­work” screen­writer Aaron Sorkin has said that he didn’t re­ally get a look at the book un­til his screen­play was nearly fin­ished, hav­ing only lis­tened to “Ben read­ing some notes off his com­puter.”

David Kirk­patrick, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist who re­cently wrote a book with Zucker­berg’s co­op­er­a­tion ti­tled “The Face­book Ef­fect,” has called the movie “hor­rif­i­cally un­fair.” Zucker­berg him­self has la­beled the film “fic­tion,” and, chan­nel­ing Hearst, hasn’t al­lowed ads for “The So­cial Net­work” on Face­book. But it al­most seems as if he thinks it would be un­cool to fur­ther chal­lenge the film’s ver­sion of events. So this all raises a num­ber of ques­tions:

Is “The So­cial Net­work” re­ally about Zucker­berg? Or is he sim­ply a fic­tional char­ac­ter Sorkin has de­cided to call Zucker­berg? And if so, should the au­di­ence, mean­ing all of us who will see the movie, feel a lit­tle un­easy about just how emo­tion­ally in­volved we should get in a story with an au­then­tic­ity that has so many loose ends? Af­ter all, if it isn’t re­ally Zucker­berg on­screen, whose life is it any­way?

In Hollywood, film­mak­ers are quick to ar­gue that they are en­ti­tled to fic­tion­al­ize peo­ple’s sto­ries to their heart’s con­tent as long as they do it in the right spirit. In other words: trust us. When Sorkin was asked by New York mag­a­zine’s Mark Har­ris about scenes in “So­cial Net­work” that seem com­pletely in­vented, he said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to sto­ry­telling.”

This is sound screen­writ­ing prac­tice — the story al­ways comes first. Though when Mankiewicz did it 70 years ago, at least he didn’t have his cake and eat it too. The mod­ern drama­tist largely gets to use real life as mod­el­ing clay, hap­pily bend­ing and twist­ing the char­ac­ter in ways that give the story its most ap­peal­ing shape and heft. It’s ob­vi­ous that “The So­cial Net­work” wouldn’t have re­motely the same buz­zwor­thi­ness if it were about a fic­tional so­cial net­work pi­o­neer named Matt Fein­berg.

When it comes to how much re­shap­ing is al­lowed, our rule book is em­i­nently flex­i­ble. The bet­ter we like the story, and re­spect its teller, the more slack we cut the film. A thou­sand and one jour­nal­ists bashed Nor­man Jewi­son’s “The Hur­ri­cane,” which took a host of lib­er­ties in telling the story of boxer Ru­bin “Hur­ri­cane” Carter, largely be­cause they thought the film was sen­ti­men­tal schlock. Bri­tish play­wright turned screen­writer Peter Mor­gan has done at least as much dra­matic in­ven­tion with “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” but he’s es­caped al­most scot free, largely be­cause crit­ics hold his work (and in­ten­tions) in high re­gard and, of equal im­por­tance, none of the prin­ci­pals have pub­licly com­plained.

Not ev­ery­one plays fast and loose with the facts. Steven Soder­bergh was scrupu­lously faith­ful to the record in mak­ing “Erin Brock­ovich” and man­aged to briefly de­rail “Money­ball” in part be­cause he wanted to shoot a script that ad­hered pre­cisely to the film’s source ma­te­rial. But for the most part, to­day’s film­mak­ers feel at ease in­vent­ing al­most any fic­tional props they need to tell true-life sto­ries. It can make for vivid sto­ry­telling, but it also makes for a queasy blur­ring of the al­ready hazy line be­tween truth and fic­tion.

In the course of de­fend­ing “The Hur­ri­cane,” Roger Ebert wrote that “those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his lov­ing grand­mother.” I think Ebert’s ex­pec­ta­tions have sunk too low. In Hollywood, if we can’t seek the truth from our best, most gifted sto­ry­tellers, then whom are we sup­posed to get it from?

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