David Fincher’s The Social Network is clearly this generation’s answer to the 1976 film, Network. I don’t mean that in a disingenuous “quote on the DVD cover” sort of way, rather in the sense that the two films are incredibly similar in theme and subject matter. Network was written by the prolific screenwriter, playwright and novelist, Paddy Chayefsky, whose notoriety is similar to that of Aaron Sorkin, who penned The Social Network and other great pieces of American writing such as the film A Few Good Men and the television series, The West Wing. His screenplay for The Social Network will surely give Sorkin a chance to join the ranks of other great Oscar-winning writers like Chayefsky for Best Screenplay.

The similarities between the two films don’t stop at the creative writing talent behind their production. Along with the talented casts in both ‘Network’ films, the parallels between the story, themes and era are uncanny.

Network, directed by Sydney Lumet, was about a fundamental change in the transmission of information and mass communication. It was about the generation of news media veterans and their concern and distrust of the changes in the way the news was being delivered and their inability to cope with those changes.

The Social Network is the inverse of this idea; it is a movie about the younger generation responsible for changing the world, but perhaps not being mature enough to fully grasp what that change will mean for the future. Both ‘Network’ movies are complicated films, but the perspective of the old and young generations regarding massive shifts in cultural views and attitudes are their heart and soul.

In Network the younger generation is represented by Faye Dunaway’s character, Diana Christensen, who is beginning to get her foothold in the world of broadcast media during the 1970s. During this time, the American corporate environment was undergoing serious, fundamental changes because of Nixon-era deregulation legislation. In obviously oversimplified terms, broadcast news was evolving into the for-profit, ratings driven empire that it has become today.

At the end of an adulterous affair between Diana and the main character, Max Schumacher, played by William Holden, Max realizes that while he still loves Diana, he will never be able to fully understand her. Max, who is older and has become obsolete in the new, fast-paced world of broadcast news, sees that Diana’s generation is in control now. He believes she is incapable grasping the ramifications of her new order in the world of media. Towards the end of the film he says to her, in perhaps Network’s penultimate piece of dialogue, “You need me. You need me badly. Because I’m your last contact with human reality. I love you. And that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.” He goes on to say,

[…] You’re television incarnate, Diana–indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same      to you      as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana.  Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure and pain and love.

This is what Max thinks about an entire generation raised on Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Maybe things weren’t as bleak as all that. The older generation often maintains a “hell in a hand-basket” world view. But still, just imagine those things being said about the current internet generation and you will understand what The Social Network is trying to say.

The Social Network posits a question: when Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, was he like a grandmaster of chess, carefully crafting a change in the fundamental way our society communicates and interacts with each other or is he just an emotionally immature yet brilliant young man who wants to lash out at the world and the woman who scorned him? But really, how could he understand what he was doing? Like Diana Christensen, he is a product of his generation, a young mind detached from reality. Coming of age in the video games, computers, and internet generation; he really is not much different from Diana: a young mind in a position of power.

Interestingly enough, the film seems to present the audience with two views of Zuckerberg and gives them equal weight. The character of Sean Parker says in the film, “We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re gonna live on the internet!” It seems like a simple statement, made in jest, but it is nevertheless a loaded one. It implies a complete social re-ordering that is perhaps already taking place.

But, it’s all just made up though, right? There are plenty of real world examples of what these prophetic movies were and are saying. In Network, Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch (who won an Oscar for his performance posthumously), is hard not to imagine as some sort of vision of Glenn Beck when watching his performance.

After a mental breakdown, Beale was exploited by the new, sink or swim business model and became the network’s golden goose, saying (shouting) the most outrageous things in order to draw in viewers and increase ratings. The difference between Beale and Beck seems to be in what they say: harsh, subversive truths and dangerous misinformation. Which one says what–that is for you to decide.

As for the real world examples of how Facebook changes everything; it may be too soon to tell. But, ask yourself, how often do you meet a new acquaintance and not also become Facebook friends? How much do you rely on the internet for day-to-day activities and communication? Everyone should sit down and really think about how much the internet has changed the world in a relatively short time.

People will be discussing The Social Network for many years and decades to come. It’s possible that on a long enough timeline, “living on the internet,” will be more than a euphemism in a clever line of dialogue in some ancient, 2D movie.

Network and The Social Network are both self-aware, zeitgeist films. They are about both effect and affect—how we affect and change the world when we’re young and the effect the world can have on us as we age and mature. However, at their core, these films are human stories featuring a wide range of emotional complexity. Even people who change the world are just that: people. This is presented in one of the most perfect endings to a film since Citizen Kane as Zuckerberg sits at his computer clicking his refresh button every few seconds, waiting for his lost love to accept his friend request.


One Comment on “Network(s)”

  1. […] thing is, I wrote this piece about a month or so after seeing The Social Network for the first time. In it I compare the two […]

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