From "Selma" to "Social Network," stop complaining when historical fiction plays loose with facts
"I think it’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley — building stuff. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things." - Mark Zuckerberg on The Social Network
One of the most hated movies in Silicon Valley, particularly among those who have been around the scene for a while, is unquestionably The Social Network. Not only does it invent out of whole cloth the reasons Zuckerberg launched "The Facebook" -- the Erica Albright character who dumps him and haunts him throughout the film is pure fiction -- it also paints Zuckerberg's decision to oust co-founder Eduardo Saverin as far more cruel and unwarranted than most journalistic reports suggest.
Zuckerberg may have pulled what Sean Parker called "dirty tricks" to wrest control of the company away from Saverin. But the depiction of Saverin as an innocent lamb crushed by Zuckerberg's cold capitalism is a gross overstatement. The guy kind of had it coming. Furthermore, many who knew Zuckerberg personally during this period say that Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of him as a fast-talking sociopath bears little resemblance to the real man.
The natural retort to these complaints is, "What did you expect?" For decades, films that cover far more significant historical events -- more on that in a second -- have also made far more egregious distortions to the truth. And yet, The Social Network has found a unique spot in the canon of things-the-Valley-hates; in part because it made launching a startup look like one big party, arguably attracting a herd of fake "wantrapreneurs" to the Valley; and in part because screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, with his signature sneering arrogance, referred to the film as "absolute non-fiction."
This year, another critically-acclaimed film has attracted an even broader and more vicious backlash for its supposed historical inaccuracies: Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
Critics of the film, which documents Martin Luther King's efforts to convince President Johnson to put his executive muscle behind the Voting Rights Act, cover a wide spectrum of intellectual to faux-intellectual prowess; from bonafide LBJ historians to the armchair ramblings of newspaper op-ed columnists. Grantland's Mark Harris collects some of the most heated responses to the film, which is said to have "fill[ed] the screen with falsehoods” and “tarnishes Johnson’s legacy [in order] to exalt King’s.” These claims are overstated, but not ungrounded. The film does suggest that Johnson approved J. Edgar Hoover's blackmail attempts against King -- an accusation that, while not indisputably false, has no basis in fact either.
But the other major complaint lobbed at DuVernay's version of events is less warranted: that it unfairly casts Johnson as "hostile" to civil rights, simply because he is shown lacking King's eagerness to move forward on the Voting Rights Act -- a stance the film clearly frames as a political calculation, and not borne out of any "hostility" to Civil Rights.
Nevertheless, historians like Princeton's Julian Zelizer are peeved that DuVernay does "not capture in this film how committed [Johnson] was … to this issue and to this cause." Yet that's about as far as critics can take their anti-Selma argument in good faith. The J. Edgar Hoover scene notwithstanding, at worst, Selma represents an error of omission as opposed to factual inaccuracy. Basically, presidential scholars are just butt-hurt that the film chooses to focus on the heroics of King and his grassroots organizers -- who all actually put their lives on the line -- as opposed to the heroics of President Johnson who, despite playing an instrumental role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, never had to fear getting his skull cracked by riot police. And which narrative do you suppose resonates more strongly with today's racially-charged climate?
But even if Selma's lapses in accuracy were as glaring as The Social Network's, I would agree with Grantland's Harris that it simply shouldn't matter. The Social Network is only nominally a film about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. It is really about social anxiety and how the Internet both distracts from and feeds on our need to be accepted. The film famously ends with Eisenberg refreshing his Facebook page to see if Erica has accepted his friend request. The scene may be a lie, but it beautifully underscores the fragile sense of self-worth felt by many in this digital generation and the desire to connect and belong, however superficially, that websites like Facebook supposedly promise (and usually fail) to fulfill. That is an extraordinarily timely and emotionally resonant theme, and one that a simple, faithful adaptation of the facts surrounding the building of Facebook could never offer.
As for Selma, its duty is to honoring the men and women who risked their lives, and not just their political capital, fighting for Civil Rights, and so it's no wonder that Johnson's role is arguably minimized. Yes, the film could have lingered more on Johnson's passion for the Civil Rights movement. But part of why Selma succeeds while so many other films about earth-moving historical events do not, is that it never stretches itself thin, focusing primarily on just a few individuals on the ground and telling that story as faithfully as possible.
If you want to learn the truth -- and let's not forget that historians and journalists take their own liberties, either through omission or by relying on biased sources -- then read a book or watch a documentary. But if you want to learn something about human nature -- and are willing to take for granted that in "historical fiction" a director's loyalties lie with "fiction" first and "history" second -- then watch a movie like The Social Network. Or Selma. Or The Imitation Game. Or American Sniper (I hear the fake baby is a gas). And just because some viewers are naive enough to blindly believe in Hollywood's fictionalized versions of events, that doesn't mean directors shouldn't be discouraged from taking liberties in order to tell a powerful narrative.
Don't forget that later this year when you line up to see the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic which, considering it's written by Sorkin again, is likely to be about as faithful to reality as Guardians of the Galaxy.