What the Best Picture Oscar® Really Tells Us
A tale of two movies.
Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Among those who make their living watching movies and writing about them, there seems to be a consensus that it is a matter of the gravest moment. The King’s Speech appears likely to win the Best Picture Oscar on February 27 rather than The Social Network, and this, they believe, will prove to be a calamitous cultural event.
The Facebook movie won almost every award given out by critics’ groups, but The King’s Speech has dominated the prizes given out by the associations that work in the film trade, and members of those associations also vote for the Academy Award, so the portents for the stuttering movie are very favorable.
The Oscar mavens are heartsick about this. The cinema, they fear, is at a tipping point. People watch movies less, as they are diverted to other fare; The Social Network is the kind of film that could save it from irrelevance. It is a picture about the way we live now, about our times, about young people, about the compromises and choices they make. The King’s Speech, they sigh, is a cautious, careful, crowd-pleasing costumer that gazes back into a glorified past in which nincompoop royals with the petty defects of the young struggle while wearing nice costumes. Its triumph at the Oscars will be a stake in the heart of adventurous Hollywood.
This is what happens when you take movies, and the awards they generate, far too seriously: You imagine they are important in themselves when they are not. They are entertainments, and at times, how the viewing public treats them offers us some clues as to the general condition of the popular culture and the nation encompassing it. Neither one of these movies has that kind of significance, and neither one deserves to be considered anything more than a clever entertainment.
As it happens, The Social Network and The King’s Speech have nearly identical virtues and flaws. They are extraordinarily well made and well conceived, and manage to convert two extremely boring subjects—the building of a website in one case, and elocution lessons in the other—into surprisingly gripping and dramatic fare. They are written glibly and with polish, and directed with snap and sizzle. One cannot praise the acting in them highly enough.
Yet they’re both arrant nonsense. The King’s Speech tosses the jagged history of Britain in the 1930s into a blender and converts it into a tasty smoothie with a fine and sweet finish. It even concludes with England having embarked on a terrifying war against a military power far superior to it—and yet its king is bouncing jauntily to the applause of his underlings because he got through a radio broadcast discussing the impending horror without stuttering. It’s depressing to think people who know so little about the period are going to have their perceptions of it formed by this picture.
For its part, The Social Network is a two-hour act of character assassination against Mark Zuckerberg based on the bitter claims of rival young people who don’t actually deserve any credit for the creation of the phenomenon the movie depicts. And far from being a tribute to the ingenuity and cleverness of the young, The Social Network is actually a generational assault by a compulsively holier-than-thou 49-year-old writer (Aaron Sorkin) on the supposed soullessness of the young. You can almost imagine Sorkin wagging his finger at Zuckerberg and saying, “You whippersnapper, get off my virtual lawn.”
Still, it is interesting that the battle for the Oscar has come down to these two pictures, because the one way in which they differ is their fundamental perspective on humanity. The King’s Speech is a tale of three good, brave, self-sacrificing people—the title character, his devoted wife, and the speech therapist to whom they both turn. The Social Network is a movie about driven, greedy, solipsistic people who are motivated by status anxiety, power hunger, and sex.
The Social Network is awash in anger. It begins with a girl denouncing her Harvard boyfriend in incredibly harsh and cruel terms because he belittles her school, Boston University. “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster,” she says, and then calls him a nasty name. This is Sorkin’s modus operandi as a writer; he creates mini-climaxes in every scene by having people yell at each other. The movie is full of confrontational moments of a kind that almost never happen in real life. No matter how realistic director David Fincher thinks The Social Network is, it’s just a standard-issue overheated melodrama. It makes its audience feel good by making them feel that they’re better than that jerk Mark Zuckerberg, even if he did make a billion dollars before his 25th birthday.
The King’s Speech makes its audience feel good by asking it to share in the triumph of George VI, and with the concomitant triumph of his therapist Lionel Logue in helping the king save the monarchy through the hard work and bravery needed to overcome his verbal affliction. These are men you end up admiring. The Social Network is about a man you ought to admire far more—Zuckerberg has changed the world, after all—but whom Fincher and Sorkin give you permission to look down upon scornfully.
So the contest for the Oscar, which will probably be decided by the time you read these words, is less about the future of cinema versus its past, or the young versus the old, than about a movie that works hard to make you think well of its characters as opposed to a movie that directs you to think the worst.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
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