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This year, of the two front runners for Best Picture, The King’s Speech is the most obvious addition to the long list of “based on a true story” nominees and the fact vs. fiction questions that arise (as they do with any “Based on a True Story” movie) are largely immaterial. Conversely, The King’s Speech biggest competition, The Social Network, has been dogged by these questions from the start. And not unfairly. The former is considered largely accurate and the latter’s relationship with the truth is spotty. Yet…I don’t care.

The question of The Social Network’s authenticity is once again rearing its head as the inevitable backlash against the frontrunner begins. Andrew Sullivan already linked to one screed from The Awl that I mostly disagreed with. But it wasn’t until later that a friend was humming Mozart to herself that I drew a connection between The Social Network and Amadeus, the 1984 Best Picture winner; both are predicated on a glaring biographical lie.

In Milos Forman’s film, we are told the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri is a jealous, spiteful, and senile old man when we first meet him. On his deathbed, he calls in a priest to confess one final sin: killing Mozart. For the next two plus hours, the Peter Shaffer script (based on his play by the same name) weaves an engaging story of Mozart’s path from child prodigy to alcoholic trainwreck — and how Salieri drove Mozart to his untimely death.

Much of what we are told about Mozart is faithful to the era, but there is one big falsehood that today would likely cloud its Oscar chances: everything about Salieri is based on centuries old slander. Not just the supposed murder (which even in the film is seen as the ramblings of a crazy man), but Salieri’s entire relationship with Amadeus was invented as a narrative technique. Music scholar A. Peter Brown broke down the truth vs. fiction in an incisive 1991 essay: “‘fictional ornament [using a term coined by Shaffer]’ understates the gulf between what was the invention of the authors and historical truth.”

Brown takes down many of the myths concocted about Salieri: that he was jealous (their relationship was a “healthy professional one”), that his music was simple and unworthy of the royal court (he was “a highly respected and successful” composer), and that he conspired to kill Mozart (“Salieri’s two attendants attested that they had never heard such words from their charge.”) Brown makes a great effort to show his admiration for Amadeus, in spite of the fact that Shaffer drew the central conceit of the film from unfounded rumors that had been circulating since Mozart’s death.

And Brown is absolutely correct in his evaluation of the film — it is brilliant, engaging, fun, and suspenseful. And the leading and supporting male actors put in career-defining roles.

I’d say the same thing about The Social Network — and it too derives its plot from a giant, but in the end immaterial, lie: that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in an attempt to get others (girls, finals clubs, the world) to like him. The critique I linked to above by Richard Rushfield gets into it, as have others. Sorkin, with help from author/fabulist Ben Mezrich, ignores the fact that the real Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend for years — predating Facebook. He apparently had no interest in the finals clubs; he was a member of a fraternity. Rushfield writes, “Zuckerberg is portrayed as an angry, vengeful sociopath, which by most accounts and all appearances, he is not.”

So why should we judge these films differently? Shaffer made the decision to tell the story of Mozart through the prism of a manufactured competitor just as Sorkin told the story of Facebook by taking Eduardo Saverin’s side and twisting it a bit to make it more dramatic. The more I think about the comparison between these two films, the more it fits. And if The Social Network wants to combat the backlash it will get as the frontrunner of the Oscars, it would be good for them to consider what made Amadeus‘ half-truths seem less relevant to voters*

*Yes, the 80s were a different era of Oscar voting. Yes, I know one had 200 years of murky history and one had 5 years of rather well-documented history. I still don’t think it matters.

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Last week, John and I got to see a preview screening of The Social Network. Our thoughts, below:

JOHN: The Social Network is an immensely entertaining film. I was totally skeptical of the concept of a Facebook film, but the advance raves piqued my interest. Good thing it did because I had a hell of a good time.

I hesitate to give it any sort of higher significance as a lot of other commentators have. It’s not the film that explains our generation or anything like that. It’s an inherently interesting story about a driven kid and a business dispute, deftly constructed and full of entertaining dialogue. Truthfully, the fact that it’s about a game-changing website barely even matters. It does sort of dwell on themes of obsession and honor, but it’s primarily a plot-driven film and is better for it.

Come Oscar time it could certainly find a spot in the Picture, Director, and Screenplay races, and probably deservedly so. I’ve soured on Sorkin over the years as his contrived dialogue does less and less for me. It’s still quintessentially Sorkin, but the characters don’t feel like they came from some sort of smooth-talking alien planet like in Studio 60. Interestingly, it may end up in the Original Screenplay race since it was apparently written separately although concurrently with the Ben Mezrich book. And David Fincher brings an interesting enough visual style to the table, though there’s one totally bizarre rowing scene that stands out whose flair I didn’t get at all.

I liked Trent Reznor’s score, but not as much as I hoped. As for the cast, I love Jesse Eisenberg but he’s got the Michael Cera syndrome of playing the same character in every movie. Here he tightens his lips and alters his body movements, but it’s sort of the same old performance. Justin Timberlake is turning into a very good actor but if he ends up in the Supporting Actor hunt it’s only because he’s Justin Timberlake. The acting revelation here is Spider-Man-in-waiting Andrew Garfield as Mark Zuckerberg’s screwed business partner Eduardo Saverin. If audiences come out of the theater sympathizing with Saverin over Zuckerberg more than the creators intended, it’s probably because Garfield nails it.

Go see The Social Network when it comes out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

BRIAN: Like Jared, this film was high on my list of movies to see. Probably would have been my answer to our Question of the Week of the Oscar movie we are most looking forward to. Having been a relatively early Facebook user, and been on the perimeter of the perimeter of the entire Facebook creation story (Hi Alice!), I was fascinated to see how it translated to the screen. And then there’s the pedigree behind it. Aaron Sorkin on the script, David Fincher behind the camera and Jesse Eisenberg in front of it.

Verdict? Highly entertaining and enjoyable — funny in parts, depressing in others. Watching Eisenberg work through the Machiavellian scheming was a joy — here is a character whose brain is always working. The gem of his performance is that you never know if he’s thinking about the next release of Facebook or if he actually cares about the people he’s screwing over. The early sequence of the implementation of Facemash, Facebook’s predecessor, really sets the tone and allows Sorkin’s script to shine. The whole first hour was a perfect example of Sorkin at his best: heavy exposition with a light touch that gives you just enough insight into the characters to be drawn in for the next sequence.

My only trepidation going in was that Sorkin was working off of a book by Ben Mezrich, a fiction author who pretends to write non-fiction. Notorious for playing fast and loose with his facts, Mezrich devises a backstory to the Facebook narrative that doesn’t really exist. Yet as I watched The Social Network, I realized that in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because even when movies are based on just-the-facts sources, they inevitably alter the story for cinematic convenience.

For this, and other reasons, The Social Network reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite (and underrated) movies, Shattered Glass. In both, you have a narcissistic prodigal genius who has little ability to interact with others. The difference, of course, is that Stephen Glass got caught. But what I appreciate out of both films is their ability to let you sympathize with and despise its central character — not an easy feat. And each of them finds a way to make what should be boring, exciting. For Shattered Glass, its fact-checking and editing a magazine (and believe me — its not that exciting), and in The Social Network, it’s coding the back-end of a website. Aaron Sorkin makes programming look cool.

Unfortunately, I’m worried that this film is going to bomb, and bomb badly, and the box office. The screening was half-empty and the few friends I’ve talked with have little to no interest in seeing it, which is a shame. It’s a very good movie that deserves to be seen — and I hope that Sorkin gets his much deserved screenwriting nod. Eisenberg, and the film itself, are deserving of recognition too, but it’s too early for me to say if it’s my front-runner.

And just to disagree with John — I thought Garfield hammed it up and was actually distractingly bad in this. I’ll be curious to see what he’s like in Never Let Me Go.


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