The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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What's really behind the 'Social Network' love fest with Mark Zuckerberg?

February 3, 2011 |  2:26 pm

Jesse_eisenberg It seems pretty clear by now that "The Social Network," which was supposed to be a PR disaster for Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, has turned out to be something of a godsend for his media reputation. Like most people in the press, after I saw an early screening of the film, I thought it was curtains for Zuckerberg, who, as portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, came off as an icy, girl-crazed social misfit. Instead, the film has done wonders for his public image, with Zuckerberg appearing hipper than ever, not only turning up on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend but earning the imprimatur of being TIme magazine's Person of the Year, complete with the kind of gushily laudatory profile that's usually reserved for, ahem, hot young movie stars.

What happened? Danielle Berrin offers a shrewd take on Zuckerberg's turnaround in a new blog post at her Hollywood Jew blog in the Jewish Journal, arguing that the change was inspired by our annual outburst of Oscar mania. Here's part of what she has to say:

Oh what a difference an awards season makes. In the five months since opening, the film has lapped up box office success and critical acclaim, and, along the way, Zuckerberg’s image has undergone elaborate transformation. The once Machiavellian Harvard student has become the philanthropic humanitarian.... What began as a negative spin on Zuckerberg and his haughty conquer-the-world attitude had transformed into the most celebratory and useful publicity both Zuckerberg and his company have seen since Facebook’s founding. And to think, all it took was a little Oscar buzz. OK, a lot of Oscar buzz. The past few months of award-winning and Oscar campaigning have done more than cement the genius of the film’s cast and creators. Because of the spotlight cast on Zuckerberg, the young entrepreneur has had a chance to prove he isn’t the socially inept anti-hero portrayed by Eisenberg, but, rather, a benevolent titan of the digital age.

As Berrin also notes, by the time Aaron Sorkin was making his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, the sharp-tongued writer sounded like, well, someone polishing off a showbiz magazine puff job. As Sorkin breathlessly put it: “I want to say to Mark Zuckerberg tonight. Rooney Mara’s character makes a prediction at the beginning of the movie. She was wrong. You turned out to be a great entrepreneur, a visionary and an incredible altruist.”

My theory is that all this kumbaya tub-thumping wasn't just a spontaneous outpouring of awards-season good cheer. It was more likely the product of shrewd Oscar-season strategizing. Sorkin and "Social Network" producer Scott Rudin were forging this rapprochement for one reason and one reason only--they believe that having an appearance of harmony between the film and its subject will help "Social Network's" Oscar chances. If Zuckerberg was still running around, bitching and moaning about his portrayal, as he was doing around the time of the film's release last fall, it would inspire a new round of inflammatory media hit pieces about the film's veracity, stories that could only do damage to the film's Oscar chances.

As long as Zuckerberg looks like he's made his peace with the filmmakers, the media has little cause to churn out more stories wondering why the character in the film bears so little resemblance to the real Zuckerberg. Oscar controversies about Hollywood taking license with its portrayal of real-life characters are always driven by media gadflies. The only reason anyone is buzzing about "The King's Speech" romanticizing its depiction of King George VI is because Christopher Hitchens wrote a barbed piece in Slate slagging the film for airbrushing the royal family's unfortunate fondness for Nazi Germany.

Rudin, who is, next to Harvey Weinstein, the shrewdest of Oscar tummlers, has quieted the "Social Network" media storm by killing Zuckerberg with kindness. If Zuckerberg remains silent, basking in all this acclaim, the media will leave "Social Network" and find a new target to pester. As the old proverb goes, the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.   

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Mark Zuckerberg, left, with Jesse Eisenberg, appearing on "Saturday Night Live."  Credit: Dana Edelson / NBC 

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