Truth and the Art of 'The Social Network'


Columbia Pictures

"I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to story-telling." So said Aaron Sorkin in Mark Harris' intriguing New York Magazine piece on the origins of The Social Network.

But, when a film is about real people, real events and real time, shouldn't there be fidelity both to truth and to story-telling? I think so.

Some of the debate about the film has, of course, been whether it gives an "accurate" portrayal of the character and motivation of Mark Zuckerberg. The polar positions on the facts are represented by two books: the anti-Zuckerberg The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich (based on the story of Zuckerberg's jilted early partner and an important source for the film) and the pro-Zuckerberg The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick (based on extensive cooperation with Facebook).

These books are works of journalism. And the code of journalism—and of its more stately relative, history—is accuracy about facts. Journalism and history seek to recount events as accurately as possible, even though it is understood that there is necessary choice (subjectivity) in the interpretation put on facts. Journalists and historians aren't supposed to make it up.

But many commentators say that, in viewing The Social Network , the actual Zuckerberg is quite beside the point. Like Sorkin, they view the film as a creative act which (to use a Graham Greene distinction) either provides excellent "entertainment" or, for some, achieves cinematic "art." They view the story of friendship, obsession, jealousy, revenge and betrayal—set in the internet age—as a modern parable with many dimensions and implications.

For these commentators, accuracy about facts is not important; the human truths told in entertainment and art are more profound than whether certain scenes or events in the film are the literally correct. Two examples:

  • David Denby, reviewing the film in The New Yorker, writes: "The debate about the movie's accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue."

  • The New York Times' Joe Nocera, one of the best business columnists, criticizes Mezrich ("he up to the point where the final product is an indistinguishable blend of fact and fiction") and praises Kirkpatrick ("a business journalist of the old school...would never take the kind of dramatic liberties taken by Mr. Mezrick and Mr. Sorkin"). But, he says that The Social Network is "possibly the finest film about business ever made" because the arrogant, unpleasant obsession it portrays is so essential to starting a new venture and because, despite Kirkpatrick's fair points about the movie's errors, Sorkin captures that "deep lasting truth." (Nocera's pen would disembowel any CEO who ignored facts in attempting to portray some larger corporate "truth.")

Yet, should entertainment or art about contemporary events that presents itself, as The Social Network does, as a "real" account of people and events—and not as parody or satire or cartoon—strive to be accurate, to strive for some deference to journalistic or historical accuracy in addition to skillful story-telling.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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