Fact or fiction? Facebook film the latest "truth" tale

NEW YORK (Reuters) - They say Hollywood never lets the truth get in the way of a good story and while a new movie about Facebook has left some critics wondering if its story is fact or fiction, audiences are unlikely to care.

Actor Jesse Eisenberg arrives at the premiere of "The Social Network" in New York, September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

“The Social Network,” which hits U.S. cinemas on Friday, has been scoring early critical raves and even Oscar buzz, yet its claim on depicting the true story of the birth of the hugely popular social networking website is drawn from a book that was slammed for its reporting methods.

Just like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” was criticized as taking liberties with historical facts in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, “Social Network” by director David Fincher follows a long line of Hollywood films that have caused controversy for their creative depictions of real-life characters and for scenes of events that never happened.

But in an age where viewers demand reality TV, knowing it is often missing elements of the truth, audiences may care less about authenticity than ever before, film experts said.

“We blur the line between reality and fiction so much recently on television and in movies that screenwriters and authors taking liberties to dream up something dramatic and interesting is okay,” said Deadline Hollywood columnist and film critic Pete Hammond.

“The Social Network” tells how Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was transformed from a socially awkward, arrogant student at Harvard University with girl troubles to largely creating the social networking website that currently has more than 500 million members and is worth tens of billions.

Besides questions about the book on which it is based -- Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” -- stirring the debate is that Zuckerberg did not cooperate with the film.

“A lot of it is fiction,” he told Oprah Winfrey last week on her TV talk show. “This is my life, so I know it is not that dramatic.”

But the film’s makers argue the movie is basically true, told from three perspectives: that of Zuckerberg, his former good friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and former classmates at Harvard, brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss.

It shows scenes of depositions taken from lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg by Saverin and the Winklevoss twins. Both lawsuits resulted in large settlements.

Sorkin told Reuters even though it is “is based on the book,” he did his own research and said the movie had been “vetted within an inch of its life by a team of lawyers.”

“They only care that I am not saying anything that is untrue and defamatory,” he said. “When the truth is in dispute, we make that clear as well.”


Movies that have the cooperation of their subjects -- such as box office hits “The Blind Side” and “Erin Brockovich” -- face little controversy. In fact, both movies won Oscars for stars Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts, respectively.

And lawsuits against films for falsely claiming they are based on true stories are hard to prove. Two years ago a judge dismissed a $55 million (34 million pound) lawsuit filed by former DEA agents against the movie studio that made “American Gangster.”

Even when the story or characters are in dispute, some audiences understand movies are embellishing, experts said.

“Most audiences are savvy enough to know that in the moviemaking process, some facts get ironed out into half-truths, and fictions are added to spruce up the narrative arc,” said Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. “But some people still feel that if it’s up there on screen, it must be 100 percent true. I feel sorry for them.”

Other films have faced similar debate entering Hollywood’s awards season, including “A Beautiful Mind,” and “The Hurricane.” Their luck with award voters has been mixed.

“The Hurricane” (1999), about boxer Rubin Carter who was wrongly imprisoned for murder, earned only one Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington but he lost. “Beautiful Mind” (2001), which told of brilliant mathematician who falls victim to mental illness, won four Oscars including best film.

Hammond noted early raves for “Social Network” could help it with Academy Award voters. The New York Times called it a “weirdly funny, exhilarating, alarming and fictionalized look at the man behind the social-media phenomenon Facebook,” while Variety said it was “penetrating,” “terrifically entertaining,” and labelled it an Oscar contender.

“The debate about the movie has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art,” raved The New Yorker, saying Fincher had shown “delicacy and precision.”

Fincher told Reuters the movie was about grand themes, and he pushed to get the film made and released before it was dated. “I love the idea of old-world business and ethics as epitomized by Harvard and the Information Age as epitomized by this rapidly prototyped Internet creation that happened in a dorm room fuelled by Red Bull,” he said. “That was delicious.”

To save future debate over fact vs. fiction in Hollywood, Musto suggested movies should add a statement at the beginning or end that some scenes, facts or characters “were fudged.”

“Good luck getting them to add that, though,” he said.

Additional reporting by Edith Honan, editing by Bob Tourtellotte