The divide between Hollywood and Silicon Valley grew even wider this weekend with a backlash online and in new media circles against Sony’s critically beloved and thus far successful drama about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “The Social Network.
In a lead story on the tech blog Venturebeat, the headline told the story: “Hollywood Gets It Wrong,” it read, over a still from the movie.
Audiences didn’t seem to care, flocking to see the film starring Jesse Eisenberg whipping off snarky-smart dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, and giving the movie an estimated $23 million.
At a Redwood City panel about the film after a screening on Friday, an early Facebook employee Matt Cohler came down even harder on the film, describing it as a “Hollywood fairy tale.”
The portrayal of the company and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is “just wrong,” Cohler said, citing the film’s depiction of the Harvard student as needing to get girls, and desperately seeking a way to connect despite his own anti-social quirks.
But that’s not the only complaint that’s being leveled at the movie, which has been enthusiastically embraced by highbrow critics from Roger Ebert to Manohla Dargis.
The movie “is not interested in the concept of social networking or the actual usage of Facebook,” wrote Huffington Post contributing editor Jose Antonio Vargas. “The film represents the biggest culmination yet of old media's disdain and misreading of new media.”
Wrote new media blogger Jeff Jarvis: “The Social Network makes no effort to understand the phenomenon right in front of its nose. It says the internet is not a revolution, but the creation of a few odd machine-men — it's the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.”: (Jeff Jarvis: The Antisocial Movie)
So what’s going on here? The debate demonstrates the enduring, if not widening divide between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Inside the industry, many feel that Hollywood has thrown its best talent at the Zeitgeist, and has come up with a story that, by the film community’s standards, succeeds brilliantly: a mainstream movie that’s well written, well directed and well acted; and marketed with savvy by a big studio wearing Oscar ambitions on its sleeve.
But the movie treats Facebook itself as a MacGuffin rather than the revolution in human communication that it is. In the end, “The Social Network” is nothing more than a sharply written drama about an intellectual property lawsuit.
It could just as easily have been about the Edsel – except that movie already got made.
On one level, the movie was sure to suffer the slings and arrows of people who know Mark Zuckerberg and complain that it’s not an accurate depiction of a man Sony’s marketing department has dubbed a “Punk Genius Billionaire.”
Kara Swisher, the co-executive editor of AllThingsD who knows Zuckerberg well, told TheWrap:
“It’s not Mark Zuckerberg. He’s just a character in a movie. He talks a lot. Mark doesn’t talk a lot. This character is dour. Mark is not dour. It’s enjoyable, but anyone who’s spent the slightest time with him knows it’s not his character. It’s fictional.”
Wrote Vargas, who just profiled Zuckerberg in The New Yorker:
“Though naturally shy and inherently a private person, he's a noted prankster among his family and friends and, at any given moment, can easily turn serious or comical. ‘Insecure’ is not a word anyone would use to describe him. Friendless, he is not. He is driven towards creating and dominating a new kind of Internet based on our identities and relationships.”
Another glaring reality seems to be the disconnect between the people who made the film and its titular social network. A large majority of the film’s producers and principal architects have no active Facebook pages, including screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher.
As Sorkin somewhat comically told Vargas for The New Yorker: "I've heard of Facebook, in the same way I've heard of a carburetor. But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn't know how to find it."
And that’s clearly part of the backlash. Moviegoers who devote a good part of their lives to the website – it’s where increasing numbers of Americans spend the bulk of their online time – feel somewhat offended. And in some way, the filmmakers have missed the special sauce of Silicon Valley – the understated drive of its geek-entrepreneurs.
Said Swisher: “They don’t understand that people create things because they’re entrepreneurs. It has to be because of a girl, or for revenge – an interesting problem. But entrepreneurism isn’t dramatizable.”
Vargas told TheWrap he considers the movie “irresponsible,” since the Hollywood impression of Facebook and Zuckerberg is quite likely to be enshrined as our culture’s conventional wisdom, regardless of how inaccurate it may be.
“There's something that feels quite dated and very 1990s about all of this, like the filmmakers never bothered to meet some of the geeksters — geeks and hipsters — at Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc. who fuel the social media renaissance in Silicon Valley,” he complains.
True or not, where “The Social Network” misses the point is that it is ostensibly about the greatest communications revolution since moveable type.
And yet viewers come away with no sense of how Facebook users actually do communicate. And so what was supposed to be a zeitgeist movie is, instead, a vehicle for elite Hollywood’s talents to blithely, if unwittingly, demonstrate how out-of-touch they are with what’s going on out there.