Movies based on or inspired by real life events are commonplace, but every once in awhile one comes along that taps into something so current it hits a raw nerve with the public. This week sees the release of such a film, David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” based around the founding of the Facebook website, which — at over 500 million users and counting — is dominating human interaction the way arguably no device has since the telephone.
Currently at the height of its popularity, Facebook has been an accelerator pad for public discourse, and Fincher’s film and its depiction of founder Mark Zuckerberg (the world’s youngest billionaire) is less a biopic than a document of history still being written. Whether Zuckerberg and his website will still have the sway it has today five years from now is anybody’s guess, but we’re going to take a look back at other timely films that tapped into the zeitgeist like no others have.
Just last year Katherine Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” made waves by presenting the current Iraq War through the prism of an explosives disposal unit led by a hot-dogging bomb diffuser who may be motivated less by duty than by an adrenaline addiction that could cost him and the rest of his unit their lives. Unlike other failed Iraq War films like “Redacted” or “Stop-Loss,” Bigelow’s film won accolades (and Oscars) for the way it served as a snapshot of the war rather than a political diatribe, and allowed viewers to come to their own conclusions about the nature of it all.
While it does not specifically revolve around the war, “Syriana“’s bird’s-eye view of the geopolitics surrounding the oil industry sparked a great deal of discussion about our relationship to the Middle East. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan used the same hyperlink techniques he employed when he wrote “Traffic,” combing multiple overlapping story lines illustrating how American business interests, the CIA, Persian Gulf politics and radical Islamic fundamentalism all combine into a destructive powder keg of oil dependency. The script was adapted from two books written by former CIA intelligence officer Robert Baer, and George Clooney won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Bob Barnes, who is based on Baer.
For 2007’s “Charlie Wilson’s War,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who also wrote the script for “The Social Network”) and director Mike Nichols told the story of a real-life congressman who sparked the largest covert CIA operation in history to supply weapons to Afghan freedom fighters in the mid-1980s. Through these efforts the mujaheddin was able to defeat the Soviet occupation, a major victory during the tail end of the Cold War. Though Wilson was able to appropriate a billion dollars for the effort, he finds himself unable to raise even a million to rebuild schools there afterward. The film’s coda implies that our post-victory neglect of the region fueled discontent towards America that ultimately resulted in the terrorism of 9/11 and our ongoing struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The final quote onscreen, from Wilson himself, reads: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world … and then we fucked up the endgame.”
Mike Nichols had previously tapped into a political current with “Primary Colors,” a fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s race to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1992. Based on Joe Klein’s controversial bestseller, the film’s Clinton stand-in Jack Stanton is portrayed as a shrewd, charismatic politician who is also a philanderer whose past indiscretions come back to haunt him on the campaign trail. This echoed the scandal surrounding Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, with the President having held his famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” press conference only a month before “Colors” bowed in theaters in March of 1998.
Around the same time, another picture would open: Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog,” which mined similar territory and, while totally fictional, proved eerily prescient. The film, which involved a US President dealing with a sex scandal and his team’s efforts to distract the public from it with a phony Albanian war, was recalled frequently when Clinton launched three military strikes against Iraq in 1998. The media accused Clinton of diversion by crying “Wag the Dog,” which has now become synonymous with a “gambling for resurrection” scenario in which a weakened leader uses the threat of war to stay in office. Levinson’s modestly budgeted movie even outstripped the more high-profile “Primary Colors” at the box-office.
“Wag the Dog” may have been a case of inevitable coincidence with all the Presidential scandal in the air, but some films have timing that borders on the frightening. “The China Syndrome” (1979) was a taut thriller based around the idea of a fictional nuclear power plant that comes to the brink of disaster after safety is compromised to save money. “Syndrome” was released a scant 12-days before the infamous Three-Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which a partial core meltdown occurred due to human error and inadequate training. Public outcry over the accident led to “Syndrome” becoming wildly popular, grossing over $50 million, and prompting Johnny Carson to tell producer/star Michael Douglas that he had “one hell of a publicity agent.” Another shocking coincidence was a line in the film in which a scientist explains that a hypothetical China Syndrome incident would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” uninhabitable.
When Robert Altman’s military satire “M*A*S*H” came out in 1970, there were no prominent movies about the escalating war in Vietnam, with the exception of John Wayne’s propagandist “The Green Berets.” Instead, Altman used the Korean War setting of his film to deliberately mirror the anarchy and moral confusion of Vietnam, and struck a major chord with audiences. “M*A*S*H” is notable for many things besides inspiring a long-running TV show, including being the first studio movie to drop an F-bomb, and its pioneering use of overlapping, highly improvised dialogue. The film grossed over $80 million dollars, and trounced Mike Nichols’ similarly themed anti-war film “Catch 22.” After his stunning success, Altman hung a banner in his office that read “Caught 22.”
On the surface 1971’s “Dirty Harry” seems to be a simple affair involving a rule-bending San Francisco cop chasing a sadistic serial killer, but it was made in the midst of an ongoing reign of terror by the Zodiac killer. A killer began a string of Bay Area murders from December 1968 to October of 1969, and sent letters to newspapers calling himself “Zodiac.” The killer Clint Eastwood hunts in “Dirty Harry” is not-so-cleverly disguised as “Scorpio,” but is brought to justice, unlike the actual Zodiac who was never caught and continued sending letters through the mid-seventies. Fittingly, “The Social Network” director David Fincher included this very phenomenon in his 2007 masterpiece “Zodiac,” in which real-life Zodiac investigator and “Dirty Harry” inspiration Dave Toschi is shown watching the film’s premiere in disgust, frustrated in his own lack of progress in the case.
Our final film is a bona-fide classic, “Casablanca.” Who would have guessed this now legendary film was at the time considered a fairly run-of-the-mill production? It was rushed from a spring 1943 release to November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and capture of Casablanca just weeks prior. It went into wide release in January of ’43 on the heels of the Casablanca conference between Churchill and Roosevelt. Although it was initially a moderate grosser, it won Best Picture and went on to a lasting legacy as one of the most cherished, oft-quoted films in movie history.
It is likely that “The Social Network” will resonate with audiences the same way these other films did, and people will look back and marvel at how Fincher and company were able to synthesize this internet generation’s moment in such timely fashion. But, alas, only time will tell.