The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Will 'The Social Network' spark the return of (gasp) Hollywood dramas?

September 16, 2010 | 12:04 pm

Jesse_eisenberg Imagine my good luck. As I was leaving a screening of "The Social Network" Wednesday night, I bumped into a young woman who had been at Harvard at exactly the same time as Mark Zuckerberg, the hero (or should I say antihero) of the David Fincher-directed and Aaron Sorkin-written movie about the creation of Facebook. Since one of the big issues swirling around the film is whether it represents an accurate portrayal of Zuckerberg and his meteoric rise to Internet stardom, I asked the woman if the the Zuckerberg she saw on screen--portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg--was the genuine article.

Absolutely, she said. From her vantage point as a fellow student, the film perfectly captured the whole heady time when Facebook cut a broad swath through the Harvard community. But what about Zuckerberg, who is portrayed in the film as a socially inept, borderline sociopath. Was he really that, well, unpleasant? And what about the Winklevoss twins, the hunky rowing team stars who claimed that Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook? It seemed so utterly unlikely that they could have ever crossed paths with a world-class nerd like Zuckerberg.

Ah, she said. That's Harvard. You'd be amazed what a diverse assortment of people were all there, mixing it up with each other. The movie really caught the feel of the place, she said.

So when it comes to authenticity, let's give "The Social Network" an A. Without getting into review territory, the other thing that really struck me about the film--which opens Oct. 1--is that it's exactly the kind of picture that movie studios are terrified to make these days. It's an adult drama -- with a capital D. It expects its audience to follow a complex dramatic storyline, make moral judgments about its characters and decide for themselves where their sympathies lie. Of course, as anyone who has watched his TV shows can attest, that is classic Aaron Sorkin. But it's certainly refreshing to see real drama up on the big screen again.

For veteran Sorkin watchers, the other fascinating element is how much the film has in common with "The Farnsworth Invention," a script Sorkin wrote a number of years ago that he adapted into a Broadway play. Like "The Social Network," "Farnsworth Invention" revolves around a heated dispute over the invention of a new technology. With "Social Network," it's Facebook. With "Farnsworth," it's TV. The play, which ran on Broadway for three months in late 2007 and early 2008, was about the patent battle between a geeky young inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth (clearly a dramatic first cousin to Zuckerberg) and RCA tycoon David Sarnoff over the technology that led to the creation of television broadcasting.

Of course, Farnsworth was a forgotten figure in TV history. No one can say that about Zuckerberg. He  might be totally appalled by the way he is portrayed in "The Social Network," but he's certainly going to have his moment in the spotlight when this movie arrives, since the film's unsentimental portrayal of a young man's burning ambitions is sure to be the subject of heated debate for months to come. 

Photo: Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Joseph Mazzello in "The Social Network." Credit: Merrick Morton / Columbia Pictures