Biopics often blur the line of fiction and reality
By Maureen Tant
Much ado has been made about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher’s depiction of Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and Napster founder Sean Parker in this year’s The Social Network. Movie-goers expected to find Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal an unforgivable character, a reason to shut down your Facebook profile, or evidence of something more malicious, perhaps criminal.
Instead, the film is forgiving. Only Parker (Justin Timberlake) is two-dimensional—he’s the movie’s vehicle for corruption, and represents inclusion in an elite world, one Zuckerberg longs to inhabit. The film points to goals of inclusion as Zuckerberg’s motivation for starting the website, and behaving so badly toward his friends.
A few weeks ago, Disney released a biopic of its own: Secretariat, a film about Penny Chenery Tweedy. After Penny’s father dies, she takes over his horse-breeding empire despite opposition from her brother and husband. During her tenure, she oversees the training of Secretariat, who became the country’s greatest racehorse. The events in the movie take place across four years—the tediousness that screenwriters Mike Rich and William Nack present those events makes the movie feel around four years long. The trick in presenting such a long narrative—and a true one at that—is to pick out the most dramatic moments and sew them together reality-TV style, so we get a picture of the strain on Penny’s marriage, the stress her heavy workload put on her kids, and the difficulties she faced in dealing with so many condescending men, even if that diminishes the story’s resemblance to the truth.
This is by no mean’s a new genre. In 1986, Oliver Stone’s movie Salvador was meant to show audience the brutality and deception on the part of American government in El Salvador, but the characters in it were real. The movie is a little more than two hours long (The Social Network is the same length), but during that time a tedious, brilliant run-through of the abuses suffered by journalist Richard Boyle is shown.
Boyle is no saint, but in the scope of the film world, he’s a hero. Though he may have been morally corrupt on a grand scale, he was on the right side. Zuckerberg is almost an inverse figure—he’s forgivable (in Sorkin and Fincher’s movie at least) on an individual level, but irredeemable in his inability to understand how his actions affected the rest of the world.
Sorkin knows what he’s doing. Filmmakers are not legally bound to present their subjects sympathetically. At his best, a filmmaker is an artist, and at his worst he’s an entertainer and businessman. One function of art is to present opinions and inspire debates about those ideas, an expectation The Social Network certainly met. Documentarians aren’t neccesarily journalists, and only in the United States is neutrality valued in that medium.
“Saying a documentary is meant to be objective gives you away as a member of the white, privileged elite,” said Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College. “Nowhere else in the world do people believe documentaries and news sources should be objective. In Singapore, anchors are very opinionated and have arguments during broadcasts.”
Zuckerberg made his statements about the inaccuracies in the film not long after donating $100 million to the Newark, N.J. public school system—a notoriously troubled district. (The state lost a $400 million education grant earlier this year due to a clerical error, according to New York Times.) There has been talk that Zuckerberg’s motivations for donating might not have been totally pure, but as Aaron Sorkin said, “Your only response should be ‘thank you,’”—an appropriate reaction, considering how many filters we already have for evaluating Zuckerberg’s character, most of which were engendered in The Social Network.
“I think it’s just such a big disconnect from the way that the people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley, building stuff,” Zuckerberg said at a recent conference, “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
Zuckerberg’s desire to build isn’t so different from Sorkin or Fincher’s creative processes—rather than building a website, they built the character “Mark Zuckerberg,” and in doing so shaped perceptions of his persona.
A. Maureen Tant is a freshman cinema and photography major who wants to make a biopic about Debra Messing. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.