Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  – but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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