The Big Picture

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

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 

Comments () | Archives (8)

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Zuckerberg and Eisenberg put a face on the "face-book"

Most people with an opinion one way or another still find Zuckerberg to be an insufferable little punk.

The problem with this whole article is the notion that the Eisenberg-Sorkin version of Zuckerberg "came off as an icy, girl-crazed social misfit" and so this was, somehow, something Zuckerberg had to recover from.

With all due respect, maybe you're missing the nuance. I found Eisenberg's portrayal to be little different from what you'd expect any talented actor would do with any other complex hero, or even a few anti-heroes.

While the onscreen version of Zuckerberg wasn't exactly my first pick to be my best friend, he did come across as a determined, focused, hardworking, complex and sharp young guy who was gradually learning the ways of the world, even if he was also an "icy, girl-crazed, social misfit." If those positive attributes are part of the deal, then I'd sooner see far more icy, girl-crazed social misfits in the world - and I suspect millions of viewers walked out with the same conclusion.

(PS: I love your paper, but the blaring video ads on the side of screen w/ no volume toggle aren't making it easy to show my love. I'll promise to watch every ad in future if you promise not to deafen me when I do)

It's really not that unusual: The Social Network is not a character assassination. The Zuckerberg in the movie wasn't necessarily sympathetic in traditional terms, but he was neither villain nor anti-villain of the movie. He was the hero.

This is a sophisticated movie, so he's a hero that makes choices that we may disagree with, and he's a hero that presumes he's so repellent that he rarely bothers to try anything else. But he's the guy we're rooting for. When a lawyer asks whether he deserves Zuckerberg's full attention, his response -- "you have some of my attention, you have the minimum amount..." -- is a response we're supposed to cheer, and I did. When he says "if you were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook", the film assumes we're going to agree (except for the actual Winklevoss twins and the actual Divya Narendra, everyone watching does).

I walked into the movie hearing that this movie would completely tear Mark Zuckerberg to shreds. It doesn't, it doesn't even try to. If anything, The Social Network makes a solid case that without Zuckerberg's megalomania, we simply wouldn't have Facebook.

So the question really isn't "how did Mark Zuckerberg's image survive 'The Social Network'" but how come anyone thought it wouldn't? Or to put it another way, it's like asking how Jake La Motta survived "Raging Bull", how did Patton survive "Patton", how did Mozart survive "Amadeus"? If you make a great movie that doesn't shy away from the flaws of fascinating people, people will embrace both the film and its subject.

He came off as girl-crazed? Did you see a different Social Network than I did? He came off as girl-indifferent which is why he talks AT his girlfriend in the film's beginning rather than with her. He seems less interested in girls for the relationship aspect and is more into them as objects wrothy of his judgment and (be)rating. And this makes sense given his past failures with them. Hence the technology focus on girls rather than real-life interaction. Hence the self-absorption and success-begetting-success rather than walking away and selling out after initial success like his buddy Eduardo wants to do. Hence his focus on the business and the learning rather than the partying and groupies.

Hollywood is in the business of illusions, so although they seemed to "tear" him down in the film, they found it useful to "build" him up out of gratitude so they can (potentially) win the Oscar. So which is th reality? MZ is their gravy train, the raison d'etre of the whole movie. The same thing is happening with those two Boston boxers in reference to The Fighter. All of the sudden, they are hob-nobbing with Hollywood A-listers, and I wouldn't go see that film if you paid me. It looks like a snooze-fest, intense performances notwithstanding. Anyway, as a person of color, I find working class Irish from Boston might be detrimental to my health.

Thanks for this piece. Sorkin's saccharine-coated acceptance speech at the Globes made me want to hurl.

The Social Network Movie is basically a character study of a guy without a friend, especially a female one, and why, who can only attract virtual acquaintances to be his friends by using his talent to get strangers he mostly doesn't want to know to admire him.

Say that within ten seconds and it's a line in the movie.


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