Monday, February 7, 2011

The Social Network vs. The King's Speech: Some Thoughts

They're two well-made, well-written, well-acted films.  And if you haven't been paying attention, they're the films said to be the top contenders for the Best Picture Oscar on February 27th.

The Social Network released in October when we were too busy with life to make it out to the theater.  We saw The King's Speech on Christmas Day with both of our families.

It's funny, because they're two extraordinarily different films.  The King's Speech has the feel of a comforting British Melodrama in the style of Merchant and Ivory; told in a linear fashion, cast with beloved English actors.

The Social Network is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives.  The dialogue is rapid-fire, the actors young up-and-comers and former boy-band members.  For instance, Rooney Mara, who plays the fictional girl who inadvertently instigated Facebook, will appear as computer hacker Lisbeth Salander in the American film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and if you're familiar with the material, you know that calling Lisbeth a "computer hacker" doesn't even begin to cover it).  British Actor Andrew Garfield, who plays Mark Zuckerberg's former friend, will star as Peter Parker in the Spiderman reboot releasing next Summer (I will be very, very surprised if Garfield, who's also appeared in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Never Let Me Go, and Doctor Who, doesn't become a Big Deal).  There's also Justin Timberlake, who pleasantly surprised the critics by not being terrible.

The world of The Social Network is populated with anti-heroes and people we're overall indifferent to.  Zuckerberg crashes the Harvard servers with a site that allows visitors to compare female students to each other on the basis of their online Harvard Face Book photos.  Twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (you just can't make this stuff up), who fulfill every child-of-privilege clich√© available - they're tall, blond, and row crew - approach Zuckerberg to help them with their "Harvard Connect" website.

Zuckerberg agrees, takes the nugget of their concept - a Harvard-only social networking site - and builds "The Facebook."  In his mind, he's done nothing wrong at all; after all, he didn't use any of their programming code.  He points out later that a guy who makes a nice chair doesn't own owe money to everyone else who built a chair. In truth, intellectual property has become increasingly murky ground with the commonality of the internet.

The money for the servers is fronted by Zuckerberg's best and only friend, Eduardo Saverin.  As the popularity of The Facebook grows - and spreads to colleges across the country, two things happen.  First, it enrages the twins, who feel it was their idea and, as gentlemen, that such a thing should not have happened.  Secondly, it garners the attention of Napster founder Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake.  The twins try to go through school channels to stop Zuckerberg and are dismissed out of hand.

Zuckerberg shrugs them off, chalking it up to angst over not getting their way, pointing out that their idea wasn't nearly as good as his.

Three-hundred years ago, they would have challenged him to a duel.  It probably wouldn't have worked then, either.  That Zuckerberg is much, much smarter than Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss is obvious.  Not that they're dull, but Zuckerberg is of genius-level intelligence when it comes to the logical analysis of computer programming and human nature.  He could see the nugget of their idea and envision what it had the potential to be; Roger Ebert compared him to chess prodigy Bobby Fisher in this respect.

This does not translate to interpersonal skills; Zuckerberg comes across as having a touch of Asperger's.  Social cues and niceties don't register for him.  Is it because of Asperger's or simply because social niceties don't interest him intellectually?  It's difficult to say.  You can see his boredom when it comes to dealing with ordinary people.  The irony of the film is that the creator of the social networking phenomenon that Facebook became was, in many ways, isolated by his own intelligence.

Zuckerberg managed to isolate himself from his best friend, Saverin, in a series of unfortunate events.  Sean Parker, for not-wholly altruistic reasons, who helped Zuckerberg's The Facebook go global.  He advised dropping the "the," a relocation to the heart of Silicon Valley, lined up big-money investors, and helped Facebook to cross the pond.  Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and Saverin argued about advertising.  Zuckerberg was reluctant, and Parker agreed - while Facebook grew and took hold, maintaining its cool factor was the number one priority.  In fact, the cool factor was probably Parker's most important contribution, and I think Zuckerberg intuitively knew it.

Parker also tried to introduce Zuckerberg to his partying, VIP lifestyle.  But Zuckerberg?  Not interested.  He's all about the coding, all about work.  It's as if he spent his young life searching for a project to let his mind really, truly work, and when he's found it, that's all he needs.

There are lawsuits.  The Winklevoss twins have not given up.  Saverin is forced out of his CFO position largely by Parker, and by no apparent reason other than he can.  Zuckerberg answers the attorney's questions for the depositions, but only because he must.  He'd rather be coding, and the legal proceedings are a waste of his time.  The film circles back around to Erica (Rooney Mara's character) in a very Rosebud, Citizen Kane kind of way.

Text at the end tells us what became of the legal proceedings.  But what does it all mean, in the larger scope of things? We don't yet know how the Mark Zuckerberg story plays out; only this 2003-2011 window.  It is recent history, without the benefit of contextual hindsight.

The King's Speech, in so many ways, couldn't be more different.  Interpersonal relationships take center stage.  We are given the man - and the character - of Bertie, the second son of an elderly king.  The eldest son, Edward, inherited the impressive cheekbones and regal stature, but he's delighted to play footman to a married American socialite.

Bertie, as played by Colin Firth, is a man who would prefer to live in the shadows.  He's had a stammer since childhood, has been the subject of ridicule and disappointment his entire life.  He's reminded of how he doesn't measure up to the royal expectations at every turn.  He loves his wife; she loves him.  They have two young daughters.

It is a difficult thing for a wife to try to help a husband whose spirit has been crushed.  The pedigreed speech therapists only frustrate and shame Bertie more.  Elizabeth, played by a very dialed-down Helena Bonham Carter, seeks out a progressive speech therapist from Australia.  The man is Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, who looks very different when he's not dressed as a pirate.  Lionel agrees to take on Bertie, but only if he meets with him at his own offices, and not at the castle.

From there we have the rest of the movie - a wife doing what she can to give her husband his dignity back, a therapist who needs to earn his patient's trust, friendship between men in two very different stations in life...but maybe aren't so very different.

The politics of the time add drama.  King George V dies; Edward abdicates the throne soon after in favor of marrying the  now-divorced Wallis Simpson.  Bertie inherits the throne - as well as the expectation to be a well-spoken King in the face of troubles on the continent.

It's a lovely film about marriage, about masculinity, about responsibility, about friendship.  It's a character film about character.

So far, The King's Speech has walked away with guild awards from the Producer's Guild, Screen Actor's guild, and Director's Guild.  Tom Hooper won the Best Director DGA award, which essentially guarantees him the Best Director statuette on Oscar night.  Critics have pointed out the historical inaccuracies, but it's a shame to let the truth get in the way of a good story - it wasn't meant to be a documentary, after all.

My favorite of the two? Clearly The King's Speech.  I think it will best The Social Network at the Oscars as well.  There's some speculation that True Grit could edge them both out...but I don't think so.

We want to believe in marriage, in friendship.  We want to believe that the good guys win.  Those are the stories that feed our souls.


  1. I'm not I want to see Social Network. However, "The King's Speech", looks like an awesome film. Thanks for reviews. They're really good :) :) Love and hugs from Oregon, Heather :)

  2. I'm only now seeing this article, ha ha. Never seen Social Network, but The King's Speech is one of my absolute favorite movies. I can watch it and re-watch it. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter are fantastic, but Colin Firth is by far and away my always favorite ;)


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