Is ‘The Social Network’s’ view of Harvard’s final clubs hopelessly outdated?

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The people who are closest to the world portrayed in a film are almost always the ones quickest to indulge in all sorts of nitpicking criticism of the film’s depiction of that world. It’s one reason why Hollywood probably has a healthy aversion to making movies about journalists, since we’re the ones who immediately start whining about all the tiny little inaccuracies in the storyline. Kevin Macdonald’s ‘State of Play’ got raked over the coals for all sorts of journalistic exaggerations, and you can only imagine the eye-rolling among my colleagues when ‘The Soloist’ portrayed L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez out on a story armed with a geeky tape recorder instead of a trusty reporter’s notebook.

And so it is with ‘The Social Network,’ which already has been under fire for taking liberties with its depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook while a young student at Harvard. In the film, much is made of Zuckerberg’s quest to be accepted into one of the college’s patrician final clubs. But Slate’s Nathan Heller, who went to Harvard with Zuckerberg and lived a couple of rooms away from him as a freshman, contends that filmmaker David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin completely misrepresent Zuckerberg’s obsession with the snooty clubs, saying that ‘the notion that a crack Web programmer in 2003 would find his future blocked off by their fusty gatekeeping is risible.’ Here’s a condensed version of Heller’s case against the film:

‘Sorkin and Fincher’s 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and -- well, do what, exactly? Wear madras? People who arrive in the Ivy League these days do not come from black-tie dinners and wood-paneled rooms, nor do they enter such milieus after they leave. Sorkin and Fincher’s failure to discern the underlying culture of the place in the aughts may be why their portrait of today’s Cambridge, Mass., strivers felt so tediously stock and two-dimensional to me: I recognized their Harvard, but only from ‘Love Story’ and ‘The Paper Chase,’ not my experience. To get the university this wrong in this movie is no small matter. In doing so, ‘The Social Network’ misunderstands the cultural ambitions, and the nature of Zuckerberg’s acumen, that made Facebook possible. Facebook didn’t rise as a scrappy force trying to conquer a patrician culture. That culture was already dead.’

This is an argument often leveled against Hollywood filmmakers. They swoop in, often only capturing the most obvious or superficial aspect of a culture, without getting any depth or context. And it’s often true. Hollywood has a way of oversimplifying complicated characters, especially when it comes to heroes with too many rough edges, such as John Nash in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ or sports stories that require too many gauzy, inspirational moments, such as ‘Glory Road’ and ‘Remember the Titans.’


I wouldn’t put ‘The Social Network’ in the same category. Having spoken with Sorkin in recent days, I have heard about how much research and interviewing he did before he wrote the script. Before he wrote a word, he had his reporter’s notebook out. As a fan of the film, I’d argue that his attention to detail has paid off. Sorkin and Fincher not only uncovered a great subject, but they’ve done a great job of dramatizing it. Perhaps Sorkin has over-stated the importance of the final clubs, as Heller argues. But as a screenwriter, especially one puzzling over what was driving Zuckerberg’s need to achieve, Sorkin needed some kind of obstacle to put in his hero’s way. The final clubs seem to fit the bill nicely. Perhaps they are ‘vestigial curios,’ as Heller puts it, but their presence seems to work in the context of the movie. It makes you wonder how many other brash young entrepreneurs, from Sam Goldwyn to Bill Gates, have needed a seriously old-school barrier to help fuel their ambitions.