Last night I finally got around to seeing The Social Network, David Fincher's film of Aaron Sorkin's adapted screenplay of Ben Mezrich's book about the establishment of that well-known, rapidly metastasizing connectivity platform we all call Facebook. It's a brilliant film, one of the year's best, anchored by crackerjack scripting and fully inhabited performances from the entire cast. It is also a film that has played extremely--and unapologetically--fast and loose with the facts of a story that only occurred within the past decade, for the purposes of crafting its compelling narrative and indelible characters.
Mezrich is no stranger to this criticism. Not only is his original book The Accidental Billionaires considered just a few steps shy of outright libel by several of its subjects, the same sorts of objections were leveled at him after the release of his book Bringing Down The House, which took liberties with the story of MIT students who had concocted a highly effective card-counting system that defeated a number of large casinos throughout the United States (later turned into an even more fictionalized version of events in the film 21).
Bringing Down the House is a great narrative that was better before I knew how much of it was fabrication and "composite characters." The Social Network is a film that I suspected beforehand would not be completely factual or fair-minded, but it still works on the level that I most appreciate all stories: as character study. Mark Zuckerberg--or, as I must henceforth refer to him, "Mark Zuckerberg"--is a fascinating specimen. He is a deeply introverted but ferociously focused Dr. Jekyll unwilling to admit how much capacity he has to be Mr. Hyde. The film very pointedly notes the irony of a man with such flawed social skills becoming the mastermind of the next evolution of human connection, and I found myself haunted by "Mark Zuckerberg" not for his sheer insensitivity but for how profoundly unaware he was of himself. He is driven in all senses of the word. "Mark Zuckerberg" is a man whose intellect harnesses him for its own incredible activities.
But "Mark Zuckerberg" is not Mark Zuckerberg, strictly speaking, although at this point it will be near-impossible for most people to understand that.
I enjoy historical fiction, but I tend to view it in the same way as I view individual ownership of handguns. I am less opposed to its existence as I am to its often irresponsible utility. I believe that gun owners should take the time and effort to understand the mechanics of his or her weapon, and should spend the time and money to learn how to shoot it straight. I believe that historical fiction should be labeled as such up-front and that those who indulge in historical fiction should, afterwards, spend time doing their research to try and discern what was fact and what was embellishment.
Here's my conflict. It's become harder for me, in the past decade, to accept the work of writers like Mezrich, who insist on soft-pedaling their fictional trappings, and instead weasel their way through the publication process with phrases like "based on" or "untold" or "inspired by" when they don't simply come out and say "the true story of." And it's become harder for me to accept that because in the past decade we've allowed far too many people, people with much more power and much loftier agendas than Mezrich, to take facts and toss them away in place of more convenient or more marketable lies.
I understand what Sorkin says when he defends his screenplay, asking that we not let facts get in the way of a powerful human drama, but Sorkin's job was as storyteller, not journalist or historian. And right now, the airwaves are positively clogged with so-called journalists and historians who not only have no command of the facts, but have an open disdain for them. Why is it fair for me to accept "Mark Zuckerberg" but not the ridiculous cartoon versions of "Barack Obama"--socialist, radical, incognito terrorist reparations Svengali--that are vomited into the public discourse day after day? And the flipside, then: what stops people from continuing to craft and profit from their vicious, over-the-top slanders if our collective response to "Mark Zuckerberg" is to shrug and say, "it's just entertainment"?
This is where we've arrived as a culture: our sense of entertainment has engorged itself into a laughing, gluttonous mass, glossy with fat, covered with stain and crust, while our sense of education has been handed a bag of liquid proteins and an unsterilized IV needle and told that it's on its own now. I'm not saying anything new. We would much rather be amused than informed, would much rather feel our decisions than think them through. We invaded the nation of Iraq on the basis of one administration's endorphin chase, built on a foundation of discredited garbage, and we did this, we allowed this, ultimately, because toppling a medal-adorned dictator with his palaces and uniformed guards and underground volcano lairs of ICBMs was more interesting than the fact that the enemy has always been an exponentially smaller group of ugly, unlaundered thugs and zealots.
There are elementary school history textbooks being rewritten, right now, to edit out the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and to claim that the Confederacy was a legitimate enterprise of freedom and personal responsibility and oh sure maybe there were slaves but that's not why the South seceded. There remains a significant push to teach the Biblical story of creation as a hard science despite its lacking even the most basic components of hard science. The incoming Congress grants environmental legislation powers to men who claim that God's promises to Noah are enough reason to dismiss all the empirical data suggesting dramatic climate change.
I wish I could simply enjoy The Social Network's fictions for what they are. I wish I could just accept "Mark Zuckerberg" and move on with my life. I'm not really mad at Ben Mezrich and Aaron Sorkin for fictionalizing the journalism. I'm mad at the idea that it's okay to fictionalize everything in this manner.