‘The Social Network,’ ‘Citizen Kane’ and the truth in Hollywood
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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.
While the movies have a lot in common, both being wildly ambitious dissections 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 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 like 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.
So when Hemingway wrote “The Sun Also Rises” about his friends in 1920s Europe, he created aliases for everyone, starting with the character Lady Brett Ashley, who is almost entirely based on Lady Duff Twysden, a charismatic British expatriate Hemingway had met in Spain just months before he wrote the novel. When Robert Penn Warren fell under the larger-than-life spell of Louisiana politician Huey P. Long, he transformed him into Willie Stark, who became the protagonist in “All the King’s Men,” Warren’s cautionary tale about political demagoguery.
But times have changed. We live in an age where audiences demand reality, not a thinly veiled equivalent. So while 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 fact-based 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 judgement.” (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 called “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 begs a number of questions:
Is “The Social Network” really about Mark 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 whose authenticity has so many loose ends? After all, if it isn’t really Zuckerberg on screen, 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 my colleague John Horn asked Danny Boyle why he had added invented sequences to the story of a trapped hiker’s harrowing wilderness experience in his new film, “127 Hours,” Boyle responded: “It may not be factual, but it’s truthful.” 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 Herman 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 pretty 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 entirely scot-free, largely because critics hold his work (and intentions) in high regard and, of equal importance, none of the principals have ever publicly complained.
When it comes to reshaping reality, the credibility bar has sunk perilously low. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” was filled with so much loopy, outlandishly fictionalized hysteria that by the time he got around to making “W” hardly anyone was shocked by the filmmaker’s invented scenes and idle speculation. Not everyone plays fast and loose with the facts. Steven Soderbergh was scrupulously faithful to the factual 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 totally 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?