Last November, after three decades in feature film editing, I had the great pleasure of lecturing cinema students at my alma mater, Cornell University. Addressing under-graduates, I emphasized one basic idea: Good movies are made by men and women who know and love their art form’s great works. The best filmmakers have repeatedly watched the best pictures ever made; they’ve devoured and completely absorbed them.
I explained that my contribution as editor of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Raising Arizona,” for instance, was enhanced by my dozens of viewings of screwball comedies such as “His Girl Friday” and “The Lady Eve.” My endless, impassioned study of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” and other movies about anti-heroes enabled me, while editing Terry Zwygoff’s “Ghost World,” to make the film’s prickly protagonists palatable.
The point -- that excellent filmmakers have great films in their DNA -- might have been made, as well, by analyzing Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” For its riveting story about the creator of Facebook is nothing less than a brilliant re-working of Orson Welles 1940 masterpiece, “Citizen Kane.”
Charles Foster Kane (fashioned by its writer/director after the real-life William Randolph Hearst) and Mark Zuckerberg (fashioned by Sorkin and Fincher after the real-life... well, Mark Zuckerberg) are both deeply flawed protagonists. So, as storytellers, Welles and his contemporary counterparts had the same problem: to keep viewers entertained and engaged by a repulsive central character. And all three dealt with that conundrum in, essentially, the same way.
The films’ narratives unfold through the testimony of people whose lives were affected by their anti-heroes. In “Kane,” a reporter seeking material for a newsreel obituary tracks down and interviews key players in the life of the newspaper baron. In “The Social Network,” depositions in a lawsuit against Mr. Zuckerberg form the movie’s portrait of him. And both pictures dramatize the words of interviewees (under oath or not) with flashbacks.
Thus Welles’s most revered work and Sorkin & Fincher’s contemporary classic are really about their supporting players. The 1940 film recounts how Jed Leland, Susan Alexander, Mr. Bernstein and Mr.Thatcher are dazzled and transformed by Charles Foster Kane. Millionaire Kane may be a ruthless, egomaniacal sociopath, but he infuses so much vibrancy into the otherwise dull lives of those he exploits that his selfishness has a rosy tint. Set against the fecklessness and malevolence of characters like Thatcher and rival candidate Jim Gettis, moreover, Kane’s megalomania seems almost attractive. And despite his wealth and power, he always appears to be storming the fortress.
Like Kane, the driven Zuckerberg brightens existence for the very people of whom he takes advantage. Eduardo Severin, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, all of Facebook’s users and, yes, even the Winklevoss twins and their hapless sidekick, Divya Narenda, are better for having been exploited by him. Also like Kane, Zuckerberg seems highly attractive when compared to the mundane and villainous characters he comes across . Lawyers and university officials depicted in Sorkin and Fincher’s film are paradigms of mediocrity. Napster creator Sean Parker, lacking Zuckerberg’s tragic and romantic motivations, is simply a narcissistic prick. And Laurence Summers personifies “the banality of evil.” By contrast, Zuckerberg achieves his goal of soaring above the contemptible establishment while providing a highly valued service, authority be damned!
Readers delight in reading Kane’s newspapers. Frat boys and coeds crave their Facebook connections. And those in the orbit of the Hearst-like and the Zuckerberg-like characters all bask in the warmth of their radiance.
But above all, “Citizen Kane” and “The Social Network” share their makers’ relentless adherence to the “truth of fiction.” They are fictionalized accounts of public citizens. Orson Welles created his protagonist’s childhood and death out of whole cloth (William Randolph Hearst was very much alive in 1940) in order to tell the best story he could.
Sorkin and Fincher, in their movie, seem to compress the separate Winklevoss and Severin lawsuits into one. Such compression, as with Paul Schrader and Martin Scorcese’s merging of two real-life characters into one Joey LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” is simply a mainstay of good storytelling.
What’s more, just as Welles made up Rosebud (young Charlie’s sled), Aaron Sorkin invented Erica Albright, the woman who dumps Zuckerberg for being an incorrigibly status-seeking cad -- “an asshole” -- and refuses to forgive his pathological behavior. Presumably the desire to “get girl back” motivates Sorkin/Fincher’s protagonist to overachieve. But the real Zuckerberg is still in a relationship with the woman who was his girlfriend before he founded Facebook. And, in reality, he wouldn’t have flaunted his business ambitions to woo a lover who’d rejected him for overachieving.
So Sorkin and Fincher, again, stay close to the “Citizen Kane” model by creating a fictitious and dubious motivation for their character’s behavior. Erica, like Rosebud, is a “McGuffin,” not an explanation. If Kane’s deathbed invocation of his childhood plaything means anything, I think, it’s that when confronted by mortality, one is as likely to recall a small pleasure as he is an astounding achievement. Surely Welles wasn’t saying that the loss of a sled explains building an opera house for an untalented singer, or fomenting an illegal war of imperial conquest.
Fincher and Sorkin’s adaptation of Welles’s model, to be sure, was a choice from among several established approaches to presenting a flawed central character. In “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock is as cold, disordered and dispicable as Zuckerberg. But Buck Henry and Mike Nichols tell the young man’s story from his own point of view. Ben’s crass parents and their horrifying friends are seen through the young man’s snorkling goggles, their sounds drowned out by his own anxious, affectless breathing. Thus the audience becomes the anti-hero, seeing the world as he does. They can’t judge Benjamin harshly because they are Benjamin. A brilliant strategy -- just not Sorkin’s and Fincher’s.
Yet another style used to make pernicious protagonists likeable is to show them objectively, in cinematic third person rather than from other characters’ points of view, with a few admirable traits that make them compare favorably with even more odious personae. This was Francis Coppola’s approach in “The Godfather.” That film’s Don Corleone is a fiercely loyal family man with a strict code of business ethics. His eldest son, Sonny; the drug dealer, Solozzo; police captain McClusky; disloyal son-in-law, Carlo -- everyone else lacks the Don’s redeeming qualities.
Of course, Coppola, given to operatic and classical storytelling, infused the Don’s flaws with tragedy. Vito Corleone must resort to violence in order to provide for and protect his family. Tragically, and to varying degrees, he, his sons and his daughter become victims of the same kinds of violence used as a matter of course in the family business.
So... Sorkin and Fincher might have used Coppola’s approach or the one employed by Buck Henry and Mike Nichols. But they went to the Wellesian well instead. It makes sense. Their lead character, Mark Zuckerberg, like Charles Foster Kane, was based on an iconic public figure -- a titan in the field of communication -- and “Citizen Kane” told that story perfectly. True, David Fincher cast a non-heroic actor, as had Mike Nichols. Coppola and Welles cast larger-than-life actors in their lead roles. A social network, I guess, is more anti-heroic than a newspaper empire.
But to return to my original point, the makers of “The Social Network” were able create a film that is, arguably, a contemporary masterpiece, because they have lived and breathed great films that told similar kinds of stories. Did they consciously emulate “Citizen Kane?” Maybe, maybe not. But they certainly learned profound filmmaking lessons from watching it over and over again.
Just as novelists have to be well-read and musicians need to know music, movie makers must maintain a high degree of film literacy. Jonathan Franzen devoured Tolstoy novels before writing Freedom, while Keith Richards’ Life and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles each show their authors’ encyclopedic knowledge of the blues. A close look at “The Social Network” makes it clear that the motion picture canon is an integral part of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s narrative genius.