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Why The Social Network isn’t an “Outside” Choice for Best Picture…

I enjoyed The Social Network. Hell, I loved The Social Network. I think it’s easily one of the best films of the year. It has – deservedly in my humble opinion – generated a huge amount of buzz about the Best Picture Oscar. However, the more interesting facets of discussion measure the film against the other favourites, like The King’s Speech or Black Swan. A number of these arguments suggest that The Social Network deserves the Oscar because it is “more socially relevant”, even painting the Oscar voters at a crossroads – forced to choose between a modern film (The Social Network) and a classy but stuffy period piece (The King’s Speech). However, I find this argument rather disingenuous. While the Oscar voters in that situation would undoubtedly be choosing between two solid films, I think it clearly misrepresents the appeal of David Fincher’s deconstruction of the American Dream.

Will Academy voters be getting a friend request?

It’s easy to paint The Social Network as a “modern” film. It is set in 2003 (less than a decade ago) and concerns the development of a platform that is still hugely popular – the fact that Facebook is hugely popular among young people in particular makes it seem vibrant and energetic, in contrast to the stuffier and more conservative films out there. This has led some to brand it a choice for the Academy, an opportunity to grab the zeitgeist by the scruff of the neck or revert back to being a socially irrelevant bunch of “artsy-fartsy” old folks:

The Social Network is now and The King’s Speech is then. It’s not a matter of one being better than the other, but I do feel that those who vote for the traditional strategies and emotional bromides in the The King’s Speech over the crackerjack pacing, procedural neutralism and 21st Century instant-mythology of The Social Network will have written their social-industry epitaph. I don’t mean to sound like a hard-ass, but either you get with The Social Network program (or the agenda of another film that’s as strong and distinct) or you risk being seen as out of it — there’s no third way. This is pretty much a generational dividing-line issue. A “no” vote for The Social Network doesn’t mean you’re clueless or moribund or lacking in taste, hardly — but it does sorta kinda mean that the 21st Century way of seeing and processing life hasn’t exactly gotten through to you and yours, and that you’re basically looking more to the past than to the future to fill your plate.

Some pundits go even further and state that the movie is “of the moment” and might do well by the sense of cultural significance which arguably helped The Hurt Locker triumph over Avatar last year:

But The Social Network has a quality that gives it an edge in the current derby: It reflects the national zeitgeist during this Age of Facebook.

Academy voters want their best pictures to feel important, to provide special insight into the world (or cyber world) we inhabit today. One of the reasons that The Hurt Locker scored so powerfully with voters last year was because it enabled them to feel firsthand the terror of U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s surprising that Watergate drama All the President’s Men (1976) lost best picture so soon after Richard Nixon’s resignation, but the film was released during America’s bicentennial celebration. Oscar voters preferred the zeitgeist reflected in the positive, inspiring fable of an average Joe getting his shot at the world heavyweight boxing championship in Rocky.

Is an Oscar for Inception just a pipe dream?

Neverminding that the loss of All the President’s Men to Rocky kinda undermines the argument that voters will prefer more socially relevant films (in fact, I’d argue that social relevance has little to do with it) – in the same way that Platoon couldn’t win until long after the Vietnam War – there’s a strong argument that The Social Network is a film of the moment, capturing public consciousness on film:

Sony’s strategy of showing it to onliners first before the usual critics seems wholly appropriate considering the subject matter. Whether this story of how Facebook was invented and the resulting legal entanglements  that surrounded its beginnings in 2003 has the same level of appeal to the older computer-challenged Academy members is a bigger question, but my guess is everyone should be able to relate to the mesmerizing dramatic conflict on screen. Despite its high-tech bones, what Fincher and Sorkin have managed to do is tell a time-honored very human story, a social document for a generation that has as much relevance now as movies like On The Waterfront, Network, All The President’s Men, and The Graduate did in their time.

I have to respectfully disagree with pretty much this entire line of argument. I don’t believe that The Social Network has anything particularly insightful to say to this generation as opposed to any other. In fact, the film is apparently better received by older people than by the younger generation that it seems to be talking about (with over 55% of the audience on the opening weekend over 25).

Though the movie concerns a modern company, its message is nearly as old as time itself – the story of Zuckerberg has been told and retold through generation from Citizen Kane to Wall Street. This doesn’t diminish Fincher’s accomplishment as a director, he tells the story phenomenally. It is a great film. But there’s nothing new to it.

It’s a story about the cost of success and how money and dreams can divide friends, as well as making the observation that successful people aren’t always very nice. The closest to a modern point that it makes is the observation about how power in the modern age has moved away from the rich and established “old money” towards the geeks and the nerds. But that is hardly something we need to be told in 2010, as this shift was evident as early as the nineties.

Batman didn't take the list of 2008 Best Picture Nominees too well...

The temptation seems to be to associate it with modern times because it involves something hip like Facebook. However, in this world’s constantly evolving technological framework, it’s practically ancient. The seven years between then and now have changed everything. This doesn’t undermine the film in anyway – its message still has power, but that message has always had power. It doesn’t matter if the story was told about the founding of Facebook or the Guttenberg Press, it would still be an incredibly solid piece of work.

So to suggest that if the Academy could show itself to be a modern and socially relevant establishment by giving the movie the Best Picture Oscar is somewhat disingenuous. For all the drugs and sex on screen, the movie is pure Oscar bait – it’s a conservative choice, playing with themes and devices that th Academy has always voted for. Don’t try to sell it as some sort of radical change. This is the same argument that we had last year when Avatar was (briefly) the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, and it was used as an indicator that the Academy was embracing popular tastes and engaging with the mainstream.

Pictures directed by individuals who have previously won or been nominated for the Best Director Oscar (as Cameron and Fincher have) are seldom true “outside” choices and certainly can’t upset the establishment. Just because Avatar made a lot of money and because The Social Network involves the internet doesn’t change that. In fact, framing the debate in such a manner misrepresents the true position. If we really wanted to talk about outside choices, we’d talk about Toy Story 3 or Inception, both films well outside the Academy’s comfort zones but which are every bit as deserving consideration.

The problem with pitching The Social Network as a “film of the now” and suggesting the Academy might embrace it is that… well, the Academy might embrace it. But they won’t be embracing modern movie-goers. They’ll be making a safe choice, and we’ll end up applauding it as something radical. We’ll even praise them for it. However, the fact is that they aren’t reaching out to the mainstream at all, they are making the same old choices, but being praised for them because the movie features a cast under thirty.

The chance for the Academy to embrace the mainstream passed them by two years ago. The Dark Knight was perhaps the defining film of the Bush years, despite never mentioning the President or literally tackling modern politics. It was bold and brave and dared to believe that a huge blockbuster could be something challenging and engaging – and that it could speak to its audience without talking down to them. Instead, the Academy snubbed it and offered superficial reform instead of a genuine attempt to engage with viewers.

I am not the only person who has suggested that Inception might be a far riskier or even timely choice, but also a far more modern film:

Inception speaks to the younger generation in a way that hits them where they live and it confounds their elders in a way that makes them scratch their heads. That’s what generational films do in my opinion. Whether it’s a film like Rebel Without A Cause in the 50’s, Easy Rider in the 60’s or the Breakfast Club in the 80’s. What I do know is the people who will decide these things are 22 year olds like Teddy, not Baby Boomer critics or Gen-X bloggers like myself.

In contrast, The Social Network seems almost establishment. It’s downbeat cynicism might have been more relevant during the later years of the Bush presidency, reinforcing the same core message – in contrast, Inception is actually more embraced by young audiences than by older audiences, dealing with the substance of dreams and hope (quite a timely theme given how “Hope” was pretty much the theme of the last US presidential election) rather than the hard and crushing reality. Inception was not the product of a process cynically intended to garner awards – it was made for regular audiences and shown on wide release, but was no less excellent or ambitious for it.

Hell, the two generations can’t even seem to agree on what The Social Network was actually about:

“When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films,” said Scott Rudin, one of the producers. “The older audiences see Zuckerberg as a tragic figure who comes out of the film with less of himself than when he went in, while young people see him as completely enhanced, a rock star, who did what he needed to do to protect the thing that he had created.”

When the clear implication is that the older viewers have a more complex perspective on the movie (he won – but at what cost?) than those in the generation you are trying to link the film to (he won – yay!), it suggests that perhaps this isn’t a film that speaks to that generation – certainly not to the extent that it can be deemed a movie for (or of) that younger generation.

For a movie to be socially relevant, it needs to be able to reach its audience and grab them by the scruff of the neck and engage with them. In this case, when critics are suggesting it’s a modern and younger film, it needs to speak to those younger viewers in a way that no other film can. I don’t think it does, and I don’t think any of the coverage I’ve read on-line suggests that it does – granted, the box office figures (the film skews older) are the only empirical evidence that I have, but all anecdotal evidence supports my view. If anything, it’s a movie that is “relevant” to the exact same viewers as The King’s Speech or The Black Swan – it’s just as “safe” a choice as any Oscar bait has ever been. It isn’t an upset or a controversial choice.

And, what’s more, the more we talk about it, the more we distract from a much needed discussion of deserving outside choices:

However, true cinematic advancement in the Best Picture field won’t come with a Social Network win. Something like Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller Black Swan or Christopher Nolan’s Inception would mark an actual step forward. Will Nolan get the requisite “he deserved it” Oscar for Batman 3 diminishing its cultural and cinematic significance? And when will one of Aronofsky’s forward-thinking features get the recognition it deserves? Will an animated film ever win Best Picture? Oscar pundits wanting to crank the dial need start pushing films and decisions that truly change the landscape. If this is the stump they’re standing on they need to take a risk in their support.

In all honesty, I could live with a Best Picture Oscar for The Social Network. In fact, I’d be more than happy with it – far less deserving films have taken home the award. And I haven’t even seen the rest of this year’s crop (and, because I live in Ireland, I likely won’t see most of them until after the ceremony). But just don’t attempt to tell me that it’s something that it isn’t.

5 Responses

  1. Solid argument. While I agree with you that The Social Network isn’t as outside a choice as Oscar bloggers would have it seem, it still isn’t in their wheelhouse like The King’s Speech. The them of TSN is familiar, but it features actors not known to the older members and non-linear storytelling. My gut tells me The King’s Speech wins anyway.

    The Dark Knight was absolutely the chance to prove they could go out of their comfort zone and since they didn’t I have no faith that Nolan will receive recognition this year either.

    • Yep. Inception will get a “token” nod. A nomination for Bets Picture without a Best Director nomination, which means it’s certain not to win. And they’ll expect movie geeks to be happy with that. Which is why I though this ten nominations milarkey was a stupid idea from the start.

  2. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a kniving genius that betrayed his only friend. He seems a little more normal and well-adjusted in real life, but still seems very awkward. The movie was really intriguing, and is one of the best movies of the year so far.

  3. after i watched the movie i really ask myself if this guy really is such a big a**hole. I mean if he is, he doesnt deserve to be that rich in my eyes…

  4. Strange this post is totaly unrelated to what I was searching google for, but it was listed on the initial page. I guess your performing something right if Google likes you sufficient to put you around the initial web page of a non associated search.

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