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Wednesday
Sep292010

Four movies that play loose with the truth, like 'The Social Network'

Hollywood biopics hit theaters all the time, but few have the potential to damage real lives. I have not seen The Social Network yet, but early reviews report that it portrays the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, quite negatively. Millions will judge Zuckerberg by David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin, and Jesse Eisenbergs' vision of him in this film. Is it right to release a scathing biopic about someone who is only 26? 

We already know that some scenes in The Social Network are fabricated--Aaron Sorkin has admitted as much. The film's plot comes from The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, a book by Ben Mezrich. From the title alone, one could guess that Mezrich is prone to embellishment. During interviews, Sorkin claims that he finished most of the screenplay before the book was actually published. Instead of waiting for the book, Mezrich read him notes from a computer so the movie could be fast-tracked. 

A lot of backstabbing and negative things happened during the founding of The Facebook (it's documented), but Mark Zuckerberg may not deserve this kind of public punishment. I wouldn't want to to have my character assassinated in a big budget movie for some mean things I did seven years ago. I was a jerk back then; who knows what mean things I said. Having a billion dollars won't help Zuckerberg escape it either. He is rich, to be sure, but movies like this never die. He's going to hear about this film for the rest of his life. I don't know the guy, but I do feel bad for him. Unlike our courts, in Hollywood it seems you're presumed guilty.

In commemoration of this sad reality, I've compiled a few more scathing biopics. Surprisingly, there aren't very many. Most biographical films are upbeat or inspirational, and the rest seem to be about people that are dead or dying. Zuckerberg is low on company. Few dramatic filmmakers have the nerve to attack a living person. 

Here's what I found:

W. (2008)

Target: President George W. Bush

Oliver Stone is the king of controversial political biopics, and W. is up there with his most fabricated. I am no fan of the former President, but Stone's version of him lacks any depth at all. The film is a highlight reel of sorts, skipping through George W. Bush's troubled pre-political years and decisions as President. 

Effect: Minimal. Stone's movie performed poorly and is a drop in the bucket of bad publicity Pres. Bush has endured.  

The Informant! (2009)

Target: Mark Whitacre

This biographical comedy follows Mark Whitacre, who became the highest level executive in U.S. history to whistleblow on his own company in the 1990s (review). He worked with the FBI for years investigating price fixing in the lysine market, but ended up in jail longer than the executives he helped capture. It turns out that, while helping the FBI, he also embezzled millions of dollars from his own company. The real Mark Whitacre is out of jail now and runs a biotech company in California. 

Effect: It might have hurt business at Cypress Systems, Mark's new company, but in an interview with This American Life, Whitacre said the movie was pretty fair and honest. 

The Queen (2006)

Target: Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Blair, etc.

Though I haven't heard anyone complain about the film, Stephen Frears's film follows a quarrel between Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair over the death of Princess Diana. The Queen wanted Diana's burial to be private, since she was divorced from Prince Charles and not technically royalty. This did not go over well. Still, the film portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in a fairly positive light and wasn't overtly harsh on anyone.

Effect: In many countries, Queen Elizabeth II rode a big wave of popularity after the film's release. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, has seen better days. Today, screenwriter Peter Morgan alledges that Blair plagiarized lines from The Queen in his autobiography.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Target: William Randolph Hearst

The big one! Though Citizen Kane is about a fictional character named Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles and his co-writer Herman Mankiewics used the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as the story's backbone. Like Hearst, Kane holes himself up in a huge palace (Xanadu) in his old age and creates a newspaper empire, which he later uses to promote his own causes and political campaigns. Orson Welles thought the Hearst controversy would only help benefit Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, he made the wrong enemy. Hearst did everything in his power to prevent the film from hitting theaters, including prohibiting his own newspapers from mentioning the film. It worked. Citizen Kane was a critical success, but failed to recoup its budget at the box office.

Effect: Citizen Kane did not ruin William Randolph Hearst's life, but it did sink its creator, Orson Welles. After the success of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Welles (24) was given one of the best movie contracts in Hollywood, complete with a decent budget and complete creative freedom. After the movie failed to recoup its budget, Welles had an increasingly difficult time getting funded again. Before Kane, he was a man who could do no wrong; after Kane, he slowly fell apart. Hearst died before Citizen Kane began to take off in the late 1950s. It is now considered one of the greatest films of all time.  

Where we're at

If I've missed any substantial negative biographies, let me know. As it stands, one cannot compare the quality or impact of The Social Network to Citizen Kane, but it has been 70 years since a filmmaker had the gall to attack a powerful man with powerful connections at the height of his power. In 1941, Orson Welles changed the name of his target; today, we don't bother with such formalities. William Randolph Hearst may have been able to stifle the success of Citizen Kane, but there's little Mark Zuckerberg can do but sit and watch. Like Hearst, he has banned The Social Network from advertising on his network. Hopefully he won't start hiding out in his own Xanadu. 

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