Why “The Social Network” Should Win Best Picture
February 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
There is an unmistakable trend in recent Oscar history of nominating and awarding Best Picture to films that are far from the traditional, crowd-pleasing, sweeping, colorful melodramas commonly associated with the Academy’s highest honor. This new breed of Best Pictures, starting in the mid 2000s, have been predominantly social commentaries: dark, deconstructionist films that are far from optimistic about the human condition, and seem to have a distinct distaste and disregard for the artificial values and sheen of classic, traditional “Hollywood” idealism. It could be said this trend started with Clint Eastwood’s controversial film Million Dollar Baby in 2004, which garnered much media attention for being radically different, both commercially and thematically, than its predecessor, the fantasy colossus Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The public crowning of a relatively little-known film which ended with euthanasia of a disabled woman by Clint Eastwood’s conflicted character raised eyebrows in the political media sphere, a realm which contemporary Hollywood had not proactively provoked to such a degree until then. Suddenly, the Oscars became a politically-charged, socially sensitive celebration of stark realism and controversial issues, abandoning its fancy for glitz and glamour in exchange for brains and a bleeding heart. The Academy seemed to confirm this shift in 2005, when among the nominees were such films as Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Good Night and Good Luck, with the winner being Crash, a polarizing ensemble picture about racial tension in Los Angeles.
In the latter half of the 2000s, perhaps on account of the gradual waning of the Bush presidency, the political aspirations of the Oscars appeared to die down; yet the trend to recognize films that encapsulated a particular aspect or problem of the current zeitgeist remained. The best example of this was last year’s The Hurt Locker, a film widely considered to be the first Iraq War movie to “get it right,” a film that was soft in its political aspirations, yet unflinching in its objective depiction of arguably the most divisive event currently affecting our history. Even so, the film managed to tell a story of universal meaning on a very personal level, a quality to which much of the film’s success is attributed.
Despite the Academy’s notoriously arbitrary criteria for deciding Best Picture (Critic’s choice? People’s choice? The loser from last year that was robbed?), I would like to argue that the Academy’s logical progression of this trend for awarding films of current social significance should naturally lead it to award Best Picture to David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network. No other nominee, if not no other film last year, has created such a perfect microcosm of a generation than the story of Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and the other players in the drama of the founding of Facebook.
“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” -Sean Parker
The birth of the internet generation not only heralded a quantum leap in technology and communication, but it also inspired a whole new cultural, philosophical movement. With the advent of social media, a revolutionary way to communicate was discovered, a way which for the most part was free, uncensored, and anonymous. Generation Y could meet, interact, and organize over the internet, and it could be done under the radar of the “old folks” who, at the time, were nowhere close to understanding the power social media would have over society and culture. The controversies and watershed moments of the Bush presidency following 9/11 gave the internet generation a jump start at political debate, and enabled the youth to use the internet’s “underground” capabilities to complain about the establishment and wave the flag of social justice. Political blogs became replacements for print media, and broadcast news began a desperate attempt to integrate social media into its newsgathering procedures. The Obama campaign brilliantly used this new rebellious strain to garner votes by portraying Obama as sympathetic to Gen Y’s disgust for the Bush administration. Obama was a “cool” and refreshing solution to Republican smoke-and-mirrors and the administration’s paranoia over free information. The internet generation saw a kindred spirit in the Obama campaign: a largely idealistic, populist movement which was all about taking down the materialistic, corporate pragmatism of a Republican dynasty.
At the root of all this political and social change is an underlying philosophy that drives the internet generation’s sentiments against the social norms with which it feels at odds. At its most basic level, it can be traced back to simple rebellion of the young against the old. When the young have discovered something the old have not, and when that thing happens to be a way of changing the rules of the game, the young will inevitably gain a level of hubris over their superiors and elders that drives them to try to prove they are, in fact, smarter than their parents, their government, the rule-makers, etc. When authority goes so far as to break the rules it sets, this effect is magnified, and the young see and grab the opportunity to be the champions of justice when the world that surrounds them is corrupt. Their championing becomes an exercise in trying to outwit the establishment, trying to make themselves who were once considered weak and insignificant play a role in the big leagues.
This effect is brilliantly portrayed in The Social Network when it pinpoints the origin of Mark Zuckerberg’s grand idea. It could be argued that the entire motivation for developing Facebook came from a feeling of social and personal insignificance on the part of Zuckerberg, whose girlfriend breaks up with him at the beginning of the film for being “obsessed” with Harvard final clubs, and whose roommate Eduardo is soon after chosen for initiation by one of said clubs. Zuckerberg channels his pains of jealousy into his programming, in an angry attempt to “distinguish himself” in a world where “social structure is everything.” In the scene of the film where he is explaining to Eduardo his idea for Facebook, he reveals what makes the idea truly attractive: “Eduardo, it’s like a final club except we’re the president.” Zuckerberg is driven by a desire to make something “cooler” than the rest, to break the societal restraints that exclude him from what he views as success.
The plot of the film revolves around Zuckerberg’s constant clash with the world he wants to overturn and revolutionize. The Winklevoss twins are perfect representations of the elitist Harvard social tier that Zuckerberg had previously wanted to join; now, he is able to turn the tables and show them the fragility and worthlessness of their “exclusivity” when pitted against the rest of young society, who join Zuckerberg’s Facebook revolution in droves. Eduardo is a tragic figure of success in the old system, a young person that did not catch on to the rebellion of his generation, and tried to climb the ladder of life through traditional means of business, revenue and pragmatism. Sean Parker is the polar opposite of Eduardo: he embodies every ounce of the Gen Y revolutionary spirit. Zuckerberg is intensely fascinated with Sean Parker’s philosophy, and becomes entirely captivated by its promise of giving the proverbial finger to Madison Avenue, to Harvard, to all the structures of society that are “uncool” by his standards. This vague dichotomy between “cool” and “uncool” is what defines Zuckerberg’s philosophy throughout the film. He wants to be “cool.” He wants to reinvent what it means to be popular. Zuckerberg’s concern is not with money, a fact that frustrates Eduardo to no end. Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to be lucrative, since that would simply make him one of the rest, a part of the system where only profit matters. His concern is with Facebook being “cool,” being different, and holding endless possibilities for upsetting the world of information.
The Social Network perfectly captures this conflict between the free-for-all, populist idealism of Gen Y and the shielded, conservative pragmatism of the old and archaic. It’s a brilliant film that, I believe, is worthy of being called the Citizen Kane of its time, and definitely the Best Picture of 2010. It is filled to the brim with universal themes of friendship, betrayal, human desire, and man’s hunger for power. At the same time, it shows the unique role social media plays in the world today, how it defined a generation, and how it is still speeding that generation towards an uncertain future.