In anticipation of the upcoming release of The Social Network, a Hollywood dramatization of the founding of Facebook, Wired and New York magazine have published separate in-depth articles on the film's adherence to the truth. The movie, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, draws heavily on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires. The controversial book takes the perspective of aggrieved Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and—like the movie—has been dismissed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a misleading work of fiction. The movie has been similarly denounced as "horrifically unfair" by Fortune editor David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect.
In this month's articles, both pieces confront the same issue: The Social Network, judging by the hype and intrigue surrounding it, will undoubtedly shape the way most people view Mark Zuckerberg. Given that it accentuates and dramatizes the most lurid and campy elements of Facebook's dorm room founding, how can it possibly do justice to the truth? And how is that at all fair to Zuckerberg, a mere 26-year-old?
Conveying the potential injustice of the movie, New York magazine's Mark Harris writes:
It’s one thing to play with Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. It’s a new kind of license to turn a real-life 26-year-old whose most life-changing decisions were made as a teenager into an incarnation of Silicon Valley killer instinct, undergrad dorkdom, impatient brilliance, and middle-class Jewish-American aspiration fighting the Wasp Establishment. Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in—inside the Harvard final clubs that represent power and acceptance (something Zuckerberg has denied ever wanting), inside the social and dating dynamics that seem easy for his classmates and unreachable for him, and away from the Jewish fraternity that symbolizes his lack of access to the inner circle. It’s a great idea for a character—but you don’t have to be particularly sympathetic to Zuckerberg to understand his likely horror at having an entire set of motives, flaws, and vulnerabilities so publicly and permanently ascribed to him.
However, Harris also points to a surprising bias of the film's creators. Sorkin, Fincher and the film's actors have great empathy for Zuckerberg:
The two men were in full accord on The Social Network’s portrayal of Zuckerberg as misunderstood genius, nerd, creep, ambitious young postadolescent, misfit, or all of the above. And it might surprise Facebook’s CEO to know that he is viewed with intense sympathy by just about everyone behind this movie—all of whom, not incidentally, have been at some point in their professional lives on the receiving end of the word asshole. “I know what it’s like to be 21 years old and trying to direct and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute but aren’t about to give you control of anything,” says Fincher. “I know the anger that comes from when you just want to be allowed to do the things that you know you can do. So I feel it would be irresponsible to say this is the story of a guy who betrayed his friends.”
As for Wired's Scott Brown—he focuses on the differences between Mezrich's unauthorized book and Fincher's movie. He finds that the movie is much more kind to Zuckerberg:
The movie and book versions converge on several points (the primacy of sex, partying, and social acceptance), but there are key differences: Mezrich implicitly takes Saverin's side, while Sorkin's script unfolds as a series of legal depositions, thus highlighting the tale's ambiguities. (He also axed Mezrich's disputed account of Zuckerberg eating koala meat on a yacht and a digression about a Zuck assignation with a Victoria's Secret model.)
In the end, Brown actually feels that The Social Network could be a good thing for Zuckerberg:
If Hollywood... paints him as a Kane-like robber baron with a serious humanity deficiency, well, that's bad, right?
Not necessarily. A little infamy never hurt any American corporate overlord—just ask Donald Trump. Facebook might even count itself lucky, The Social Network makes no mention of the privacy controversy, the site's greatest PR liability. What's more, the movie more or less declares Zuckerberg an unalloyed (if slightly evil) genius. He's got some ripping speeches, too, and all the most quotable lines, all the best fuck-you moments. (And fuck-you moments, as we all know, are coin of the realm, the riffs moviegoers repeat on the ride home—and then in their status updates.)
But what does Sorkin think? Harris deftly forced the screenwriter into a corner making him address whether or not his movie is an honest piece of cinema:
Is [the movie] fair?
Sorkin pauses before answering, which is not a rhetorical device he often employs. “When you’re writing nonfiction,” he says, “that’s always a question that you’re wrestling with, especially when you’re writing about people who are still alive. On one hand, you don’t want to screw around with people’s lives, you never want to say anything that isn’t true, and you don’t want to mess with history. On the other hand, this isn’t a documentary. Art isn’t about what happened, and the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things. There’s a set of facts I’m dealing with, and I try to imagine motivations and fill in blanks that none of us can see. But the question of truth … the very first words out of Mark’s mouth in the present-day part of the movie are, ‘That’s not what happened.’ And that’s my signal to the audience that there are going to be any number of unreliable narrators. This isn’t the movie that’s going to tell you ‘Mark Zuckerberg stole Facebook,’ or that he didn’t. But,” he says, “we would sure love for those arguments to happen in the parking lot.”
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.