biopics

When you attack Mark Zuckerberg, surely you don’t mean the guy from ‘The Social Network’?

Biopics can distort perceptions for good, as is proven by the negative press on the Facebook founder.

A few days ago, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg pledged 99% of the company’s shares in his and his wife Priscilla Chan’s names to charity. The occasion was the birth of his daughter, Maxima. Had it been someone else, such a gesture on the part of one of the richest individuals on Earth would have been welcomed and celebrated. But in Zuckerberg’s case, the announcement was met with criticism. The manner in which he was mocked and chastised seemed as though many of the reactions were targetting the version of the technology giant created by the 2010 movie The Social Network rather than a real person.

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Thanks to its depiction of Zuckerberg as a cold, ruthless and self-serving narcissist, the Aaron Sorkin scripted-film has changed the way Zuckerberg is seen in real life in spite of factual inaccuracies, such as showing him to be a spurned lover when he created Facebook even though he was dating the woman he would go on to marry. The impact of Zuckerberg’s act of charity was lost in the technicality of the decision. (A caveat stipulates that unlike a traditional fund, this amount would be invested in profit-making companies that were involved in developing innovations.)

The shadow of doubt over Zuckerberg’s actions goes beyond the purview of his personal space. When he changed his display picture to support Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India drive during the latter’s US visit, Zuckerberg was accused of using Digital India to promote his free Internet access mission and, in the bargain, destroying net neutrality.

Yet another Sorkin-scripted biopic of a technological guru, Steve Jobs, has also been questioned for its authenticity.

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Popular cinema often takes liberties to distort history in order to heighten the drama or transform heroes into superheroes. Such flights of fancy can be seen in Pearl Harbor (2001), which used fictionalised characters situated within a real event. The two heroes are shown bringing down more Japanese planes than in reality and flying to Japan to bomb Tokyo even though there is no record of such a mission.

A line passed off as a statement made by a Japanese admiral has, in fact, been lifted from Tora! Tora! Tora!, another movie about the same attack: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

It’s not like such factual inaccuracies are a thing of the recent past. Made just two decades after the real event on which it was based, Battle of the Bulge (1965) bungled history to such an extent that it infuriated former American President, Dwight D Eisenhower, who also happened to be the Allied Commander during WWII. Among numerous goofs, the film was shot in temperate Spain as opposed to the bitterly cold locales of Belgium where the battle took place. Newer Korean War-era tanks were used instead of the real Tiger and Sherman tanks.

Writers and filmmakers often look for elements within characters that can be exaggerated in the interests of a compelling story. For David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson had ready reference material from the book of the same title by Pierre Boulle. However, the lead character, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), underwent a significant rewrite. The film is set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and shows Nicholson pushing his men towards building a bridge that would aid the Imperial Army’s plans. However, the book suggests that the real officer wasn’t as obsessed about pleasing the Japanese as he was in keeping his men alive and their spirit intact.

Such a shift is relatively harmless compared to what James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) did to a certain William Murdoch. Barring a resemblance to the name, the character of the first officer was completely changed by Cameron. The real-life hero who went down with the ship after helping hundreds of people is depicted as an unstable and heartless man who kills two people and takes a bribe from a rich passenger in exchange for a spot on a lifeboat.

We infer certain truths about real people from films based upon their lives and selectively infuse our own perceptions into the process. In Mark Zuckerberg’s case, thanks to scripted reality, we readily buy into Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of how the man who created the greatest social platform is incapable of making or maintaining friends.

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