The Social Network: A Contemporary Citizen Kane?

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Everyone seems to be saying The Social Network is the defining movie of our generation and today’s version of Citizen Kane. After reading countless articles in praise of the film I finally got around to seeing it the other day, and I can say that while it is definitely the best movie I’ve seen in theatres in a long time, the Kane question is a bit more murky.

To start with the similarities, both Zuckerberg and Kane are brilliant, ultra-wealthy and influential world-famous celebrities who rise to unimaginable heights: Zuckerberg transcends the life-style of a scorned computer nerd at Harvard and changes the world with Facebook, while Kane leaves his poor parents for a life of lavish riches and ultimately becomes obsessed with his newspaper and his political ambitions. As they become more absorbed in their quest for self-aggrandizement both protagonists betray their closest friend—Mark deceives Eduardo into signing away his share of the company, and Kane fires Jedediah for writing a brutally honest review of Susan Alexander’s miserable performance— and, arguably, lose their soul, as both are left with a haunting, inscrutable sense of bitter loneliness and emptiness. The last thing to be said is that neither character is driven by money. What really motivates them is one of the tricky and fascinating questions that drive each movie.

But here’s the real difference between The Social Network, which is undoubtedly excellent, and Kane, which is immortal. A huge reason why we find Zuckerberg such a compelling character is because we know what he has brought to the world: Facebook has impacted almost everyone’s life in one way or another. As such, the main reason why he holds our attention is often not because he does or says anything particularly memorable or shocking in each scene (though, to be sure, he has his moments). In truth, it is the fact that he is the guy who created Facebook that makes his story epic.

Kane, on the other hand, remains fascinating even to today’s audience— most of whom are unaware that his life is loosely based on that of William Randolph Hearst (for full story check out The Battle Over Citizen Kane, a fine documentary)— because of how he behaves. Remember, Zuckerberg’s movie is called The Social Network, while Kane’s film is called Citizen Kane: the former is just as much about Facebook and the entrepreneurial spirit that brought it to life as it is about its protagonist, while the latter is more exclusively concerned with its main character, who is himself the prime subject of every scene. As such, The Social Network features no thematic equivalent to Rosebud, nor any awesome one-liners comparable to Kane’s growl that people will think “what I tell them to think.”

In fact, Zuckerberg doesn’t change at all over the course of the film, which is what makes the movie so ironically clever: in the concluding scene he’ still the shabbily-clad asshole-wannabe who uses people and continues to crave simple acceptance. The only difference is, now he’s a billionaire who has reshaped the way millions of people interact; and the film’s charm lies in the fact that such an achievement has apparently brought no genuine happiness with it. True, Zuckerberg gets to gloat about his genius and creativity in front his former friend and Winkelvoss rivals, but all he really yearns for is a friendship with the girl who leaves him at the beginning of the story.

Kane, however, undergoes a transformation worthy of Shakespeare. His is the epic American story because it encapsulates all the unavoidable pitfalls of fame and power and capitalism. Kane is so complex that he is at once described by Jedediah as “swine” and “brutal” and yet as possessing “a generous mind” and “some private sort of greatness.”

As a child he immediately sniffs out the sinister aspect of Mr. Thatcher, who embodies excess and greed, and strikes him with his sled, which bears the name Rosebud. And as a young man Kane aspires to use his newspaper, “The Inquirer,” to protect the needy and underprivileged by exposing the commonplace swindles and crimes that permeate Wall Street. But as he ages, his youthful ideals of reporting the news honestly without allowing special interests to interfere get supplanted by his obsessive drive to shape the news and, by extension, the world, to accord with his selfish desires. He runs for public office because he wants to convince “the people” that he loves them so much that they ought to love him back, as Jed puts it in a moment of drunken candor and lucidity; he builds Xanadu so he can create the illusion of control, “an absolute monarchy;” and he bullies Susan Alexander into singing to show up his enemies and take the quotes off of their characterization of her as a “singer.” All this leaves him with utter emptiness. He insatiably uses his money to buy endless collections of statues and paintings and build the never finished Xanadu, and he has no friends or family. When he dies his last word, Rosebud, reflects his pitiful yearning for the simplicity and innocence of childhood.

But another crucial distinction between Kane and Zuckerberg is that the former is more explicitly self-aware: at one point in his old age he remarks to his manager Bernstein and Mr. Thatcher that “if I hadn’t been very rich, I might been a really great man.” And then, in reply to Thatcher’s question of what he would have liked to have been come the chilling words: “everything you hate.” We never get this kind of confession out of Zuckerberg, and that is perhaps because his movie is more focused on the unapologetic, uncompromising nature of successful entrepreneurship than the sheer complexity of an individual character.

As such, in the discussion of how deserving The Social Network is of a comparison to Kane, it’s helpful to ask yourself what you care about more: plot or character. The magic of Zuckerberg’s story lies in the way Fincher and Sorkin dramatize the phenomenon of Facebook and how it impacts the people who create it, while the greatness of Kane’s narrative consists of Orson Welles’ depiction of a brilliant and bizarre personality. I say The Social Network is merely “excellent” while Kane is “immortal” because a novel or a film can only be as great as its protagonist is compelling, and it is usually character-driven plots that remain eternally relevant and powerful. To illustrate my point through Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, is a beautiful play about the nature of love, but it can never be regarded as highly as Hamlet, in which the Bard arguably delineates his most complicated and beloved character. Consequently, even though Zuckerberg is indeed mysterious and complex, he wouldn’t be worth watching if he hadn’t founded Facebook, whereas Kane would be the stuff of poetry even if he had not preoccupied himself with “The Inquirer.”

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A recent graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I consider myself a student of Melville and Shakespeare. Particularly, my fascination with Moby Dick has sparked a broader interest in many fields such as politics, history, science, economics, etc, since that novel deals with disparate disciplines and issues in an encyclopedic, yet accessible manner.

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