[note]This is an article written by Christopher Correa – we invite anyone who would like to take the time to write an essay defending the King’s Speech as the Best Film of 2010 – you can write to Chris by clicking here.[/note]
The Oscar winner for Best Picture of the year (then called Outstanding Motion Picture) 70 years ago was “How Green Was My Valley,” a novelistic, traditional piece about a well-intentioned man in the United Kingdom who reflects on his life’s trials and tribulations. It’s remarkable for being willfully unremarkable‚Äîand it’s infamous for besting two nontraditional, visionary movies also in the running for Best Picture of 1941: “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane.”
In just a few short weeks, another traditional film with its heart on its sleeve‚Äîthis one also about a well-intentioned man in the United Kingdom who must overcome his own trials and tribulations‚Äîis poised to receive top honors from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ahead of nine untraditional and visionary movies in the running for Best Picture this year.
“The King’s Speech” is notable in many ways, but maybe most particularly for its slavish adherence to the Traditional Best Picture stencil. “The Social Network,” by comparison, is notable in many ways, but maybe most particularly for its disavowal of the Oscar prototype in pursuit of something closer to the state of the art. Or so one might think.
Let’s take another look at 1941. The protagonist of “How Green was My Valley” is written with sentimentality in mind, and was beloved by that year’s Academy voters for exuding that quality. Try and recall the name of the film’s protagonist, though. How indelibly has his portrait been tattooed onto the cinematic‚Äîand cultural‚Äîidiom? Now try and limit the myriad sights, sounds, and emotions that come to mind when you read the words Charles Foster Kane. I immediately conjure an ashen whisper of “Rosebud” wafting past the lips of a psychologically and physically calcified man. Countless pop cultural references to Welles’s character suggest that the film resonates on more than a simply technical level.
Now to 2011. The estimable Oscar blogger Tom O’Neill recently wrote, “As great, brilliant and daring as “The Social Network” is ‚Äì and it is all of those things ‚Äì it has no heart. Essentially, it’s a movie about young weasels screwing each other as they blunder through launching a media revolution. “‘the King’s Speech,'” he continues, “is all heart. Viewers are inevitably swept up in its tear-jerker story of a reluctant king, who is not equal to his crown. He can’t even utter a simple sentence without stammering. How can he possibly address his subjects and rally them to fight the Nazis?”
Taking the premises of both films as described by O’Neill, the latter hardly sounds like the stuff of feelings. Rather, the “inevitability” of viewers being “swept up” by a “tear-jerker” plot sounds like a positively manipulating experience, cursory and rote. Throw in the World War II trope and that about sums up the kind of traditional movie designed to perform at awards ceremonies the way a vintage car does at a strip-mall auto show. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and there’s nothing wrong with that. “The Social Network,” on the other hand, both embalms and heralds modern day (though timeless) human instincts and the passion for discovery, which destroyed and invigorated the lives of Facebook’s founding fathers much the way hunger for identity through power motivated and crushed Charles Foster Kane.
Maybe the makers of “The Social Network” should consider O’Neill’s classification (which is shared by many, by the way) a compliment: The heart’s sole purpose is to sustain its cold, calculated rhythms so that a body can operate; the brain is the true receptor and conductor of emotion and feeling. And nobody’s arguing that David Fincher’s film has no brain.
Still, Oscar has always had some trouble choosing between heart and mind.
I’ve heard the reasons against “The Social Network” winning best picture for years now. Only, in 2005 it was called “reasons why ‚ÄòCapote’ and ‚ÄòGoodnight and Good Luck’ won’t win,” in 2001 it was “reasons why ‚ÄòThe Lord of the Rings’ and ‚ÄòGosford Park’ won’t win” and in 2000, “reasons why ‚ÄòTraffic’ won’t win.”
This is hardly a recent phenomenon. The broad-stroked “Titanic” beat out the diffuse “L.A. Confidential”; emotionally ostentatious “The English Patient” surpassed criminally clever “Fargo”; And the dunderheaded “Braveheart” outdistanced “Apollo 13” and skewered “Babe.” History reveals that more intellectually creative films lose to those that are easier to digest.
The Best Picture winner that first caused me to question Oscar’s palatability was “Forrest Gump,” which oversimplified and reduced a lifetime of racism, equal rights, wars, and disease by suggesting that the balance of said history hung on the unwitting achievements by a sub-mental white male who always came away unscathed. (Jenny, the movie implies, dies of a sexually transmitted disease that both Forrest and their son miraculously avoid and everyone in Forrest’s platoon but him gets shot to Swiss cheese, for example.) I watched “Gump” trump the groundbreaking “Pulp Fiction” and walked away more confused than bothered. “Gump” is a tear-jerking crowd-pleaser; “Pulp” is decidedly not. I started analyzing previous years and came away with similar results:
‚Ä¢ “Dances with Wolves” was deemed better than “Goodfellas.”
‚Ä¢ Alredy Uhry’s pleasantly wispy “Driving Miss Daisy” beat the originality and whimsy of “Field of Dreams,” and the sobering solemnity of “My Left Foot” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”
‚Ä¢ The mundane “Chariots of Fire” outran “Reds” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
‚Ä¢ “Ordinary People” knocked out “Raging Bull.”
‚Ä¢¬† Then there’s the granddaddy of Readers Digest Best Pictures winners: “Rocky.” It hardly lights a candle to the complexity and depth of “Network,” “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver,” but it took home the top prize on Oscar night.
Orson Welles and his latter-day disciples may have been ready to take cinematic risks, but the Academy rarely rewarded such efforts. Well, that was then, this is now.
Lately, things have been different. Oscar today is a bit bolder and has more sophisticated tastes than he has in the past. Since 2006, the Best Picture winner has been intricate and muscular (“The Departed”), stark and elliptical (“No Country for Old Men”), the stuff of fever dreams (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and altogether bleak (“The Hurt Locker”). Perhaps “brilliant and daring” may be the watchwords on Academy voters’ minds this year. “The King’s Speech” has been heralded for covering all the bases needed to be classified as awards bait, but consider “The Social Network’s” own status as a contender.
Aaron Sorkin’s script, while written in bursts of verbal pointillism and chock-a-block with fascinating, often arcane technology jargon, is one of those rare chronicles that manage to bridge the gap between allegory and timeliness, bombarding the viewer by the sterile sounds of the computer lab while it illuminates a larger story of social change. Oscar loves Big Ideas movies.
Then there’s symbolism. What is the mark left by “The King’s Speech?” An artful stammer (which, let’s face it, the wonderful Colin Firth’s fellow countryman and frequent costar Hugh Grant has cornered the market on since “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) does not a phenom make. An episode of “The Simpsons” parodying “The Departed” duplicated the final image in Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture winner and punctuated it with a delicious zinger: A rodent manifests from out of frame and scuttles by; Ralph Wiggum pops up and declares, “The rat symbolizes obviousness!”
Iconography resides throughout “The Social Network.” There’s the Henley Royal Regatta race, tarted up by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s sonically warbly rendition of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” There’s the editing that volleys the viewer between the staid brick fortresses of the Ivy League and the open frontiers of Northern California. There’s the Winklevoss twins, clad in their Harvard crimson reds, their English cut suits, and Windsor-knotted ties, representing East Coast plutocracy juxtaposed against Napster founder Sean Parker’s casual, self-made man of the wild West Coast. There’s that dialogue, a salvo of erudite boilerplate designed not to express a character’s thoughts or emotions, but instead to direct attention away from them. And there’s David Fincher’s meticulousness.
Fincher has made a career out of filming iconographic images that, until “The Social Network,” have been an inch deep and a mile wide, like college dorm room posters come to waking life. “Seven” is little more than luxuriant atmospherics masking an almost adolescent sense of grandeur that drowns characters we almost care about in glamorously gothic grotesquerie. “The Game” is chicly malicious, albeit diet Hitchcock. “Fight Club” is a kohl-eyed parlor trick with an eleventh-hour twist out of M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre, yet it smarmily slapped the hands that paid to see it‚Äîand it has no clue how to conclude so it chaotically puts itself out of its own sardonic misery. “Zodiac” is fastidiously intelligent entertainment, arthouse by way of grindhouse. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is “Forrest Gump” remade as a Ralph Lauren commercial.
Even at their most banal, Fincher’s films have the visceral down pat. But patness is hardly worth remembering. “The Social Network” boils down the essences of his previous work into something that sticks to the mind long after viewing. It’s not an invective against Facebook, nor is it a tribute to Mark Zuckerberg, the most interesting man of the hour according to some magazines. It is about the human spirit the way “Citizen Kane” is. If Welles’s film is about the difficulty of interpreting a life shrouded in megalomania and warped by media, Fincher’s film is about the same topic in a post-Second Life era. In Welles’s film a character announces that a man isn’t necessarily the sum of his achievements, possessions or actions, but that something deeper must drive him. In Fincher’s film, Zuckerberg’s persona is informed and shaped by a succession of people who were close to him. These various points of view are imbued with people’s particular prejudices, and like a Facebook profile, the recollections are ultimately ambiguous and unreliable. Both films are also haunted by the myth of the pursuit of the American Dream, which is alternately depicted as frustrating, desirable, knotty and isolating.
Aside from “The King’s Speech” being British and starring Geoffrey Rush‚Äîwho is always a good hire if you want awards guilds to take notice of your movie‚Äîit’s a good movie that aspires (and more damagingly, assumes) to be a great one. “The Social Network” is a good movie, built so well by its committee of seemingly disparate architects, it transcends its source material, its genre and its medium so as to become great.
When Oscar wakes up and makes an appearance on his big day this year, I wonder which iteration of him we’ll be likely to see. If it’s going to be a repeat of that ceremony seven decades ago, I take heart in the fact that a Best Picture Academy Award doesn’t define a movie, but a movie can define a medium and an era.
I get the feeling, though, that he’s going to surprise us. What do you think?