February 25th, 2011

Semi-truth: “The Social Network”

Last night I watched the movie “The Social Network,” the story of Mark Zuckerberg and his creation of Facebook, which featured his various and sundry betrayals of former friends, who later sued and won settlements against him.

Ironic, of course, because Facebook is all about keeping in touch with friends. But, as its ads note, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

The mostly-praised movie was okay, fast-paced and fairly entertaining, featuring snappy dialogue while it raises (and never answers) various moral, ethical, and legal questions. It also is, of course, about real people and real events, although somewhat fictionalized.

That’s what makes it both interesting and annoying in equal measure, at least to me. What’s fiction and what’s truth? I have always been disturbed by the indiscriminate blending of the two, and the resultant confusion of one for the other. How many people will see the movie and come away from it convinced that it depicts what actually happened? How many people will care?

In a way, whether one thinks Mack Zuckerberg is every bit as dipshitty a back-stabber as in the movie, or an even worse one, or a slightly nicer guy, is not of much import to anyone other than Zuckerberg, family, friends, and multiple (that’s a pun, by the way) ex-friends and their lawyers. But inaccuracies bug me nevertheless; I’d much rather the film used pseudonyms to make it crystal clear this is a work of fiction—but of course, then it would lose almost all of its gossipy appeal.

Zuckerberg is on record as saying:

…that the film portrayed his motivations for creating Facebook inaccurately; instead of an effort to “get girls”, he says he created the site because he enjoys “building things”. However, he added that the film accurately depicted his real-life wardrobe, saying, “It’s interesting the stuff that they focused on getting right – like every single shirt and fleece they had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”

Screenwriter Sorkin (of “The West Wing”) has said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?” Sound familiar?

But I’m a lot more upset when filmmakers such as Oliver Stone take liberties with far more important history, and their revisions and fantasies become real history in the mind of many. How many, I have no idea; certainly not everyone who watches their creations. But enough to make some sort of difference, I believe.

There’s no way to block this sort of artistic license, and no way I’d wish to do so. What I really wish is that history were taught in such a way as to make people more impervious to those who would play fast and loose with it.

19 Responses to “Semi-truth: “The Social Network””

  1. gs Says:

    DOS isn’t done
    Until Lotus won’t run.

  2. pst314 Says:

    “…that the film portrayed his motivations for creating Facebook inaccurately; instead of an effort to ‘get girls’, he says he created the site because he enjoys ‘building things’. However, he added that the film accurately depicted his real-life wardrobe…”

    That reminds me of someone’s (was it Tom Wolfe?) description of the fact-checkers at the New Yorker: They would tirelessly check the accuracy of trivial details, while allowing big errors and lies to go through unquestioned.

  3. david foster Says:

    “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling”…fine when the characters are fictional; not so fine when the characters are based on real individuals.

    A very bad example of lack of fidelity to the truth appeared in the movie “Valkyrie” (about the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler) in which General Fellgiebel…actually a man of great courage…was portrayed as a coward. Which is considerably worse even than falsely portraying Mark Z as having been unable to get girls..

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    david foster: thanks for the reminder about the Stauffenberg film. I saw it, and was aware of the controversy. I cannot understand how filmmakers can justify libeling a truly heroic figure like that, just to add a little more conflict to a film:

    One shortcut that the movie takes is how it portrays Fellgiebel, the bespectacled general confronted by Stauffenberg in the men’s room, who wants as little to do with the plot as possible, and (it seems) reluctantly agrees to pull a few switchboard lines at the critical moment. In fact Fellgiebel was deeply involved in the resistance, and had been since 1939, long before von Stauffenberg. Fellgiebel was an indispensible expert in the signals and communications aspect of the Wehrmacht, and despite his dangerously open disdain for Hitler, could not be done away with. In support of the plot, Fellgiebel planned to cut off the Wolf’s Lair from the army network, by stopping outgoing messages at two nearby ‘repeater stations,’ Rastenburg and Angerburg, through which all Wolf’s Lair army telecommunications passed.

  5. Curtis Says:

    Of what worth is truth?

    No greater example of semi-truth exists than the “truth” of evolution, whose basic popular conclusion is “there is no truth.” That the illiberal intelligentsia promotes and teaches this simplified and bowdlerized version of the complex reality can’t reasonably be refuted. Not only is the presentation of evolution “a blending,” but any theory, such as Intelligent Design, which is threatening to the hegemony of evolution is banned and the promulgators “expelled.” (See Ben’s Stein’s movie, “Expelled.”)

    Don’t like the absolute lack of respect for truth? Take the fight up at the most basic level which means one must assert truth exists and that the popular concept of evolution is false.

  6. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    Then there was this film.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Curtis: the popular concept of any aspect of science is almost always false. That’s the different between science itself and popular representations of it, the former being more complex and containing many more unknowns, always subject to new evidence and revision.

  8. Curtis Says:

    Okay. Let’s try another take. Thermodynamics is science. Is evolution? Is that which is enshrined and taught and researched as evolution science, or religion?

  9. Tom Says:

    There is no such thing as “more impervious” in the strict sense, just as there is no such thing as a “more perfect” Union. I prefer words to have precise usage. Perfect and Impervious either are, or are not.

    Neo’s hope that history be taught to make people either impervious or more impervious to distortions and outright historical lies is simply a most vain hope. Those days never existed and never will. A century ago, I venture to say that most people simply did not know. Today, they all watch more TV than they sleep, are fed incredible garbage, and believe they know.

  10. Curtis Says:

    Here’s one thought worth having: With history presenting so many intriguing stories, why does Hollywood need to blend fiction and fact?

    It’s a rather leading question, I know.

  11. Anne Says:

    “What I really wish is that history were taught in such a way as to make people more impervious to those who would play fast and loose with it.”

    That’s *exactly* what I thought when I watched The King’s Speech. While there’s no disputing it’s an entertaining film, I couldn’t help thinking that a better educated audience would have found it distasteful that the film makers altered, omitted and added things to make a political point. I have tried in vain to find any direct evidence that the future King George was subjected to the humiliating, undignified swearing, dancing and jumping up and down scenes as part of his treatment. And the therapist Lionel Logue is said to have delighted in being deferential to the royals, and wouldn’t have insulted them by using first names. The film makers clearly think and want the audience to think, “You’re nothing special. The monarchy is a ridiculous institution.” That is to say nothing of the other inaccuracies, such as Winston Churchill’s role, the audience gathering at Buckingham Palace (to applaud a speech about the outbreak of war?! I think not – it never happened and was inserted to add some Hollywood schmaltz), and the fact that the awful (very liberal, anti-monarchist) Colin Firth looks, sounds and acts nothing like the man he portrays.

    And yet ironically, the royals come out of the film rather well.

  12. Curtis Says:

    Redstate.com has an interesting and piquant post relevant to this issue. Accordingly, the TV show, “West Wing” helped cement the “nasty Republicans” myth regarding the 1994 government shutdown so that if there is a government shutdown in the near future the same thing will happen. What the myth gives to the liberals: Republicans will cave regarding the many issues in the spending bill. Gone will be the defunding of Planned Parenthood; of government abortions in the District of Columbia; the major spending cuts; virtually any fiscal discipline; and Republicans will not even attempt to defund Obamacare.

    Surely, any rational person knows this is our last chance to forestall financial calamity. I don’t think so. I think we’re shot, but I don’t want to just give up. I could be wrong and would like to pursue that possibility. Anyway, fiscal responsibility is right of itself. That is truth and the value of truth is about to make itself felt.

  13. stan Says:

    The movies that bother me the most are ones which are marketed as true stories and involve people who are still alive. See e.g. “Remember the Titans” and “Glory Road” where players who were teammates were viciously slandered as ignorant racists. That kind of nasty defamation is just reprehensible.

  14. Curtis Says:

    Talking about artistic license, how about shows like Oprah or Letterman. I watched Rand Paul on the David Letterman show and was thoroughly disappointed. Mr. Paul was obviously intimidated and did not hold his own with Letterman. He was trying to be nice and sensible. Intelligent. And all Rand Paul needed to do was have a moral sense of outrage and object not only to Letterman’s badgering and blather but to point out the simple fact that in America what we call it when someone’s money is taken simply because they have it is theft. It was clear that Letterman was trying to make points off of Paul and the first thing Paul should have said, is “Will you shut up long enough for me to answer one of your leading questions.”

  15. LAG Says:

    In light of your question, “What’s fiction and what’s truth? I have always been disturbed by the indiscriminate blending of the two, and the resultant confusion of one for the other,” neo, you might find this discussion of exactly that topic by a good historian to be interesting, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/19/author-author-antony-beevor

  16. JuliB Says:

    The DaVinci Code comes to mind….

  17. gs Says:

    Tom Says: There is no such thing as “more impervious” in the strict sense, just as there is no such thing as a “more perfect” Union. I prefer words to have precise usage. Perfect and Impervious either are, or are not.

    1. According to Webster, an obsolete secondary meaning of ‘perfect’ is ‘contented, satisfied’. Afaik the Founders were well educated, even by the standards of their time.

    2. Should ‘impervious’ be used only in an absolute sense? My immediate reaction is that there should be a degree of symmetry between antonyms, but the hour is too late for me to think the matter through.

  18. Sgt. Mom Says:

    This has come up over and over among readers of historical fiction; exactly what degree of “making stuff up” is ethical in constructing a riveting plot? The answer among us is usually that it isn’t, because a fair number of us are actually trying to teach history through our books. The consensus seems to be that author’s notes in the back out to delineate what you made up, what was speculation and what sources you based it on, and assurances that things that seemed incredible actually really happened. Wish Hollywood did the same – sort of a note at the end of the movie. I know that a lot of real people who figured in stories dramatized for movies or television were left feeling very bruised and insulted by how they were portrayed. The navigator officer in the 1190 WWII movie Memphis Belle comes to mind – in the movie he was painted as a nerve-wracked coward, and in reality he was nothing of the sort. He was quite elderly when the movie came out, and IIRC, was quite devastated. In the 1964 movie Zulu, there was a character portrayed as a drunk and a slacker, when he had actually been a teetotaler and a model soldier. His descendants were guests at the premiere and were so outraged they walked out.

  19. John Douglas Says:

    I never look at a movie that is supposed to depict history as anything other than fiction and that includes documentaries. I still like documentaries, but take them with a big grain of salt. I’m rarely willing to watch history movies, particularly if it is a subject in which I am very interested. I’m probably the only person that has never watched Titanic and as soon as I see Oliver Stone associated with any movie, I discard it. People watch these movies and believe it to be a real depiction of history. Just as growing up I thought every court room case ended in a full blown confession by the perpetrator in front of the jury.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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