Nobody likes gossip when it’s about them. So when someone makes a film about a still-living person, it’s easy to imagine that that person isn’t always flattered with the way he’s portrayed. But when a film deliberately exaggerates the facts about someone’s life, especially if it creates a negative view of that person, does it cross a certain ethical line? Do filmmakers and screenwriters have a duty to remain faithful to facts, or are they given an artistic license to change the facts of current history for the sake of drama?
Though this issue has affected many films, it can currently be seen dogging David Fincher’s The Social Network, which tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook and subsequent legal and personal disputes. To put it mildly, Zuckerberg doesn’t come off too well in the film.
The basis for The Social Network is Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, a 2009 account telling the same story that came under fire for deliberately sensationalizing some of the events surrounding the website’s founding. A New York Times article following the book’s release claimed that it was so overly dramatized that no serious reader could mistake it for a factual record. But one serious issue with the book (and as a result, the film), is that Eduardo Saverin, former CFO of Facebook who is frozen out by Zuckerberg in the film, served as a consultant for Mezrich. Therefore, a lot of the Mark Zuckerberg in the book and the film is how Saverin views him. If you felt you’d been double crossed out of a multi-billion dollar corporation, how do you think you’d remember the man who was responsible?
While it may seem obvious to readers that the facts and situations in the book are embellished, films have exponentially larger audiences than most books. Also, a film like The Social Network, which has relevance in the lives of countless young people across the country as well as a serious amount of Oscar buzz, can bring in a pretty large audience. But will audiences have read enough about the film to know what is fact and what is fiction? Or will they exit the theater thinking that Mark Zuckerberg is exactly who they saw on screen?
A Boston Globe article the day after the film’s release chronicles the thoughts of five Harvard students who were contemporaries of Zuckerberg, along with their thoughts on the film. The general consensus is that while the film was well-made, the Mark Zuckerberg on film is a complete misrepresentation of the real man. One of the students worries that the world will think of Zuckerberg as an unprintable word because of the film’s depiction, stating that that isn’t really who he is. And it’s hard to imagine that everyone who sees the film will read this or other articles that explain the liberties the film took with Zuckerberg and the events surrounding its creation. The Social Network’s version of the man will most likely be the one that most of the country, and possibly the world, recognizes and believes in.
There is no clear answer to whether or not this is wrong. When people make movies about figures like Richard Nixon, it seems fair to take a negative stance; the person in question committed a definite crime. But the way The Social Network depicts Zuckerberg is more reliant on his motives and personality rather than the lawsuits he’s involved in. It’s possible that he was driven by a desire to belong, to get girls, and to be popular; however, it’s just as likely that this wasn’t the true story, or at least not the whole story.
Furthermore, that Saverin is the closest source to the actual story isn’t exactly credible. In the film he comes off as extremely sympathetic: a forgotten friend on Zuckerberg’s rise to power. Though he still shows signs of wanting to be Zuckerberg’s friend, it is clear that he feels he identifies as a victim, and deserves to be seen that way. This is not to say that he isn’t right in feeling that way, or even in remembering and retelling events the way that he does. The point is that it isn’t the whole story, and without a counter argument, there is no way to know how slanted the story really is.
The Social Network has earned rave reviews thus far (including ours), and is sure to be one of the biggest films of the year. But it is a film that walks a very fine line with how it presents its story and the truths surrounding it, and how it walks that tightrope will have a real effect on the lives of certain people and how the rest of the world will see them afterward. It’s great art, but just the kind that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.