Ann Hornaday reviews 'The Social Network' and 'Waiting for "Superman" '
Friday, October 1, 2010
It's a testament to Mark Zuckerberg's cultural omnipotence -- or at least omnipresence -- that he's commanded a starring role in two movies he's not even in.
The 26-year-old Facebook founder hovers like a precocious eminence grise over two movies opening Friday: He's the inspiration behind "The Social Network," Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's smart, absorbing drama about Zuckerberg's invention of the site while a Harvard sophomore. And with his recent foray into school reform, Zuckerberg has intersected with the world of "Waiting for 'Superman,' " Davis Guggenheim's equally engaging, emotionally devastating documentary about the American education system.
On paper, the films couldn't be more different. "The Social Network," which features Jesse Eisenberg in a subtle, deceivingly deadpan performance as the gifted but emotionally blank Zuckerberg, is a work of fiction inspired by fact. A classic Hollywood tale of youthful ambition, passion and betrayal, it is that rare movie where the hero is also the villain.
Audiences will recognize Zuckerberg's quirky genius and single-minded passion as the stuff of cinematic archetype. But he's also as remote, ruthless and flat-lined as any cold-eyed killer. What's more, in his snarky sarcasm, he represents just the kind of ironic distance and alienation that makes idealism or belief in anything virtually impossible. "Is this real?" he asks a girl who breaks up with him in the movie's electrifying opening scene.
Thus spake the avatar of the digital natives, for whom skepticism is a reflex, and authenticity is as notional as privacy itself. Along with his wunderkind mentor, Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), he sees privacy as a quaint relic of the past. And Zuckerberg hasn't just erased the boundary between public and private. With 500 million Facebook subscribers on his network and an estimated $7 billion net worth, he's also effectively erased once-bright lines between professional and personal, inauthentic and real -- indeed, the past and present themselves.
Zuckerberg has taken understandable issue with "The Social Network" for his portrayal, in which he's driven not just by intellectual curiosity and outlaw spirit, but also by sexual insecurity and latent class resentment. But, as one character observes in the film, every creation myth needs a devil. It's a lesson Guggenheim took to heart in making "Waiting for 'Superman,' " in which the filmmaker -- who won an Oscar for his 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" -- threads the audience through a broken education system, with his own cast of good guys and bad guys. (Full disclosure: Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is on the board of Facebook. One more disclosure: I am friends with Guggenheim's sister.)
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is valorized as the plucky outsider, unafraid to speak truth to power. Geoffrey Canada is the classic charismatic savior, the Harlem charter schools he created a beacon of hope in a system mired in self-serving bureaucratic inertia. The Lex Luthor of the piece, American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten, is demonized as a force of protectionism and retrograde union intransigence. (Unfortunately, "Waiting for 'Superman' " was finished too early to note this year's groundbreaking teachers' contract in Washington, not to mention Wednesday's proposed agreement in Baltimore, which, if ratified, will be the most progressive in the country.)
"Waiting for 'Superman' " had just opened in New York and Los Angeles last week when, unexpectedly and off-screen, Zuckerberg swooped in like the superhero of the title to donate $100 million to the Newark public schools. If the timing was intended to soften Zuckerberg's image in the light of "The Social Network" (he announced his donation the day the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival), his gesture was still hailed by many as a boon for a troubled city's schools.
The truth is, such shock-and-awe philanthropy is no panacea for struggling schools -- it may even be deleterious, some critics maintain -- just as every charter school isn't 100 percent effective, every traditional public school isn't a "failure factory" and unions aren't monolithic obstacles to change. But if viewers can harbor misgivings about some of the most reductive messages in "Waiting for 'Superman,' " they can still be grateful for the way it breathes emotional life into an issue too often depicted in terms of political catfights or policy-paper wonk-speak.
And one can still respond to the film's most galvanizing moments, as Guggenheim traces the efforts of five families to get their children into highly coveted charter schools. When they finally get to the lotteries that will determine who gets in, the scenes form an unforgettable tableau of hope, heartbreak and the cruelty of a system that hinges on the random fall of a numbered ball or a billionaire's largesse.
That's when filmgoers will find themselves asking not "Is this real?" but "Who are we?" And that's precisely the question that makes both "The Social Network" and "Waiting for 'Superman' " so valuable.
As portraits -- and indictments -- of their eras, both films transcend their immediate subjects, inviting viewers to grapple, perhaps uncomfortably, with their own collective and individual values. And, albeit in radically different ways, they make similar pleas for engagement in an age of connections that multiply without deepening. Everyone's a hero on their Facebook page. But as more of life gets reduced to ephemeral content, the toughest questions still come down to character.
The Social Network
(122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and profanity.
Waiting for "Superman"
(111 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema) is rated PG for references to drug abuse and troubled families.