Some movies are symphonies. The Godfather comes to mind. Some movies are jazz. John Coltrane or Miles Davis. Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. Sometimes a movie is so quiet and intense it brings no music to mind. The Coen’s No Country for Old Men. David Fincher’s The Social Network? It’s Stairway to Heaven. It’s a film mapped out perfectly, with layers of rhythm, each added onto until it builds to a climax like no other. Like the band Led Zeppelin when they recorded Stairway to Heaven, every element is operating at a perfect 10. Here, the music — Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross cradling the film throughout, ever present, never overbearing, never intrusive or manipulative – full collaborators. That’s John Bonham on drums. Next you have the actors — Jessie Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg as king asshole (“Because you go to BU.”), with his upright spine and his perpetual, “I’m smarter than you” sneer. Contrast that with the vulnerable, sensitive human that is Andrew Garfield (“Sean, how old are they?”), the ridiculous showman that is Justin Timberlake (“Drop the THE. Just Facebook. It’s cleaner.”) and the foppish old-money Winklevei played perfectly times two by Armie Hammer. The actors? They’re John Paul Jones.
Of the four Oscars the film won, Aaron Sorkin’s screen adaptation was one of them. His script is tight, flawless, funny, prophetic, sad. Who knew what would become of our culture in the grip of social networking, Facebook above all — it has changed our culture. It is a mutation in our evolution. We must address and confront this from now on. You never say goodbye to people, they hover in your Facebook feed — an amalgam of your memory of them and the persona they’ve decided to show the world. Sorkin turned Mark Zuckerberg into the Wizard of Oz, giving the friendless friends, making the ugly beautiful, making the unpopular popular, turning stalking into normal social behavior. And the dialogue? If people were really paying attention, this would be the most quotable movie of the last twenty years. Sorkin? He’s Robert Plant.
Finally, there is one overriding vision that holds Stairway to Heaven together and it’s the one thing that makes The Social Network, working with all of the other elements, the masterpiece that it is. Director David Fincher? He’s Jimmy Page. Of course, working closely with Fincher were Oscar winning editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter. Fincher insisting again and again that they pare down and reshape the film to make it as lean as possible. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s deep browns, shifting light, faces in shadow. The result there is a perfect film. You can watch it over and over again, as I have done, and you will not find a single mistake. But The Social Network would not be the masterpiece that it is if it was just a perfect film, which it is.
Stairway to Heaven would be a boring song if all it did was built momentum to a climax with flawless collaborative masterwork. But the thrill of Stairway to Heaven, and the thrill of The Social Network, is where it takes you while watching it. You might not notice Jimmy Page’s guitar until the big solo but it is there throughout, masterfully holding the film together while the drums and Plant get all of the attention in the beginning.
But when Page starts in your heart stops. How could anyone play that good? How could anyone master the form so completely as to deliver what has to be among the most memorable guitar solos in rock history? It’s an inexplicable thing. Fincher’s eye controls The Social Network in the same way. We watch him tell this story with rhythm. By the end of it, you remember where it started and where it ended. This film sends you away with a bittersweet smile on your face as Mark Zuckerberg hits refresh and refresh and refresh. The song starts, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”
The entire film flips back on itself and you realize what it’s about, what social networking is about, what illusion and pretense, what shyness and vulnerability are about. The Social Network soars in its exactness but it never loses sight of how this little pisher, and the tech industry run by guys just like him, carefully exacted his revenge on a culture that rejected him. Is it the real Mark Zuckerberg? Why would anyone ask that question. It’s a work of art not a documentary.
The Social Network dazzled the critics and became the film to beat. It wasn’t until after the Golden Globes that The King’s Speech moved ahead in the race by winning the PGA, the DGA, and the Oscar for Picture and Director. No one was ready to let go of David Fincher winning what he deserved to win. I remember my fellow gurus shaking their head, no way. I did the math, built the charts and there was no way, heading into the race that Tom Hooper was going to lose either the DGA or the Oscar. It didn’t happen that way then. You didn’t have an agreed-upon split like as we saw last year in the post-Argo Oscar world. Once Ben Affleck was left off the ticket altogether, only then have voters seen fit to split, as they did last year. Were these two films headed for Oscar now, I bet Fincher would take it.
Then again, the heart wants what it wants and SOME MOVIES YOU FEEL.
The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech showdown reveals what the Oscars are really about. They aren’t rewarding Miss Right, but Miss Right Now — and they are all about perception. “No, we don’t want to award The Social Network because we didn’t like that guy. He was an asshole.” It didn’t matter if the Fincher/Sorkin Zuckerberg wasn’t an asshole, but just “trying really hard to be one.” When you had a stuttering King George overcoming that stutter with the help of Geoffrey Rush? Forget about it. It made people cry. It made their heart sing. More importantly, it flew under the radar and didn’t make itself a target. The film was won not with bloggers and critics but with private parties and handshakes.
Even now, though, you can talk to just about anyone and ask them if they liked that movie and they will all say yes. Best Picture isn’t about cinematic greatness. If it were, Vertigo and Citizen Kane would have won Best Picture. So would Raging Bull, Goodfellas, All the Presidents Men — the list goes on and on. In some ways the Oscar race is a short step up from the People’s Choice Awards and believe me, likability goes farther than genius with voters. Always has, always will.
It was a heartbreaking year, to be sure. But there is really no point in trashing The King’s Speech. Winning an Oscar wasn’t going to make The Social Network a better film. Winning the Oscar for the King’s Speech does tell a story about a year in the Oscar race where industry voters turned away from the right now and nestled comfortably into the past, a time we understood so much better, a time that didn’t poke at our tender spots but rather soothed them. The King’s Speech was a drastic shift from 2009’s winner, The Hurt Locker. It would be followed by The Artist’s win, and then Argo — each a comfortable, comforting versions of our past, marinating in nostalgia. That’s the industry for you.
It is going to take a few years for the critics and bloggers to abandon what it felt like to put all of their might behind a film and that effort falter. Before the big guilds started to go the other way, The Social Network had received more awards heading into the race than literally any film in Oscar history.
But once that blow fades away, the films remain. You will watch The King’s Speech and feel the same way you did when you saw it the first time. What a touching story of friendship from British filmmakers. But watching The Social Network is to see the kind of artistry that puts American cinema at the forefront. How an industry could give Aaron Sorkin, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter the Oscar and not reward Fincher — who made and went unrewarded for Fight Club, Benjamin Button and Zodiac, a pioneer of digital filmmaking who is the gold standard for the kind of great director America can still produce — can only really be chalked up to the old line from Postcards from the Edge. They want you to be good, just not better than they are.
See, I can forgive the actors — maybe even the producers — for not choosing The Social Network. But I’ll never understand the DGA choosing Tom Hooper over David Fincher. The directors are the ones we count on, the only branch other than editors, who really are supposed care about great cinema. But these days it seems like it doesn’t matter if you’re a producer or an actor or an Academy member. You are part of a consensus and that consensus decides.
So you heard a lot of “it was good but it wasn’t THAT good.” We call that frontrunner’s syndrome. Voters like to put their vote behind someone they think needs it. The poor children in India. The pretty tall female director making history. That nice and humble British dude who directed John Adams but more importantly, the stuttering king! It’s much harder to ask thousands of people to vote with any other organ, least of all their brains. So if you write about the Oscars, remember that. The vote always has to be FOR someone they pity. No one is ever going to pity the talented David Fincher. We will just stand back, breathless when he starts to play.
We will be recording our personal impressions of this thing some time over the weekend.