David Fincher’s “The Social Network” tells a shocking story about the rise of Facebook. It suggests that site founder Mark Zuckerberg started a social networking revolution mostly because his girlfriend dumped him and he failed to get into Harvard’s elite final clubs. He stole the idea for Facebook from several classmates and abandoned his best friend (and Facebook co-founder) for a wild life of partying and amorality.
Unsurprisingly, little of the movie is based in fact. Zuckerberg didn’t care for final clubs, nor did he make a Facebook-like site out of spite towards his ex. Most of the drugs, sex and parties portrayed never happened, and if they did, Zuckerberg wasn’t involved. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin even admits, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”
Should filmmakers be allowed to edit reality in the name of storytelling? Fincher and Sorkin aren’t the only members of Hollywood who have rewritten real life for the big screen. Last year, Quentin Tarantino gave Jews the last laugh when Aldo Raine and his troupe murdered half the Third Reich, Hitler included, in his World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.” Twenty-five years earlier, Milos Forman dramatized Mozart’s life in “Amadeus” and turned the renowned composer into a childish, rude genius, regardless of historical accounts describing his actual behavior. Even some of the most painstakingly researched and accurate films must allow some interpretation; Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” recreates the last moments on the 9/11 plane that never reached its destination, trying to be truthful where possible, but admitting there’s only so much we know about how the passengers acted before dying.
Cinema, like literature, paintings and all other forms of art, is a human media. It’s influenced by our strengths as well as our weaknesses. Studies in social psychology show that humans view the world through their own biases, culture, religion and memories. There may be an objective reality out there, but it’s not for us to see. Whether we’re a politician, a priest, a scientist or a—yes!—a Hollywood filmmaker, the absolute truth evades us.
Movies can accomplish many things, but they can’t tell you the truth. Even documentaries are guided by the views and opinions of their directors. If “The Social Network” attempted to emulate Zuckerberg’s actual life down to the smallest detail, it would still be an interpretation because an actor plays Zuckerberg, a screenwriter reduces his life to a 120-page script, and a cameraman guides our eyes to certain details and images.
Should movies give up on emulating real life? Not necessarily; research and truthfulness certainly help movies like “United 93” and “Supersize Me” make their point. Still, it’s important to admit that interpretation is an integral part of filmmaking’s toolset and is a key to making a good movie. When movies deny they use interpretation, you get “The Blind Side.” You get movies with the “Based on a True Story” tagline meant to inspire hope and good feelings, even though story details are carefully selected and discarded to help manipulate those emotions. That is a dishonesty the movie industry can do without.
“The Social Network” hasn’t committed a crime by fictionalizing Mark Zuckerberg’s life. It doesn’t pretend to be an accurate portrayal of his work. Instead, using the art of interpretation, Fincher and Sorkin move beyond Zuckerberg and Facebook, and raise questions about what motivates people to create game-changing inventions, to alter the way we think, act and communicate. Because of that, it’s one of the year’s best movies, and a testament to what film as a medium can accomplish.