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Why Does the Truth Matter in “The King’s Speech?”

Why Does the Truth Matter in "The King's Speech?" (photo)

And why doesn't it seem to matter in "The Social Network?"

I’ve talked to a lot of people about “The Social Network.” I’ve met people who didn’t like it because they felt it didn’t tell them enough about Facebook. I’ve met people who didn’t like it because they didn’t think it lived up to the hype or their expectations. But I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like “The Social Network” because it was untruthful. For whatever reason, it’s just not a big deal to most viewers. Oh sure, they may be curious about where director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin contorted the facts to serve their needs as filmmakers. But very few people looked at the truth, compared it to the movie, and said “this invalidates the film.”

Which is why I’m a bit confused by the growing controversy around “The Social Network”‘s biggest competitor at next month’s Academy Awards, “The King’s Speech.” Most of it surrounds this article by Christopher Hitchens for Slate. Entitled “Churchill Didn’t Say That,” Hitchens details the various ways in which the film, about King George VI (Colin Firth) and his battle to overcome his speech impediment on the eve of World War II, strays from the historical record. According to Hitchens, the film, directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, is particularly inaccurate in its depiction of Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and the King as longtime allies. In fact, Churchill was extremely loyal to George VI’s predecessor, Edward VIII. Further, while the film implies that George VI immediately rallied England to defeat the Germans after his coronation, he actually supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s strategy of appeasement for as long as he could. Hitchens writes:

“The king himself, even after the Nazi armies had struck deep north into Scandinavia and clear across the low countries to France, did not wish to accept Chamberlain’s resignation. He ‘told him how grossly unfairly he had been treated, and that I was genuinely sorry.’ Discussing a successor, the king wrote that “‘, of course, suggested [Lord] Halifax.’ It was explained to him that this arch-appeaser would not do and that anyway a wartime coalition could hardly be led by an unelected member of the House of Lords. Unimpressed, the king told his diary that he couldn’t get used to the idea of Churchill as prime minister and had greeted the defeated Halifax to tell him that he wished he had been chosen instead. All this can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.”

To be fair, Hitchens does note that “The King’s Speech” is “an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot.” But he also says that it constitutes “a major desecration of the historical record.” But why does that matter in the case of this film and not in the case of “The Social Network?”

Maybe the liberties Fincher and Sorkin took don’t constitute “major” desecrations. Maybe they avoided some blowback by working a commentary on the ambiguous nature of history and memory into the structure of their screenplay. But they didn’t exactly make a documentary either. In the film, their version of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is motivated to create Facebook for two reasons: his desire to join one of Harvard’s elite clubs, and to stick it to Erica (Rooney Mara), a girl who dumped him. But according to David Kirkpatrick, author of “The Facebook Effect,” the real Zuckerberg, “was uninterested in the clubs. Instead, he had concluded that sharing and transparency would redefine the Internet and was determined to experiment with software that exemplified his ideas. He also wanted to respond to widespread student dissatisfaction that Harvard had not put online its paper “facebook,” with photos of freshmen.” “The Social Network” ends, quite powerfully, with a shot of Zuckerberg — I am about to spoil the end of “The Social Network” here, people — obsessing over Erica’s Facebook page. But by that point in time Zuckerberg was already dating his longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan, who is not mentioned once in Fincher and Sorkin’s version.

I’m not bringing these things up to condemn “The Social Network” but to observe its similarities to “The King’s Speech,” which is being condemned. In both cases, the changes are primarily omissions, and specifically omissions designed to refine and “movie-ize” their lead character’s motivations. Mark Zuckerberg might have just started Facebook because he was a smart, forward-thinking nerd, but there’s no movie there if he did. Making him a loveless dork crystallizes his need to belong and his inability to connect with the people around him, which is a perfect movie-ized reason to start a website about social connections. King George VI’s journey to overcome his speech impediment is inspiring, but it’s not truly dramatic without a climactic test — hence condensing (and movie-izing) the period between his coronation (May 12, 1937) and England’s declaration of war against Germany (September 3, 1939).

I’m not necessarily saying that makes what Hooper and Seidler (or Fincher and Sorkin) did okay. But you can’t have it both ways. If Sorkin can shape the truth as he sees fit to tell a story, then so can Seidler. You can’t pick and choose which one is an outrage based on whether or not you liked the movie.

And I do suspect “The Social Network” has gotten a bit of a pass because people love the movie so much, and because people like and respect Aaron Sorkin. I think Sorkin’s also been smart in the way he’s addressed the issue in the press. Although he’s said New York Magazine Magazine, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”

And that’s the party line I’ve seen repeated in most articles and reviews about the film: the movie isn’t trying to be a definitive historical record of Facebook and Zuckerberg, so to hold it to that standard is unfair, like judging a drama by how often it makes you laugh out loud. Seidler hasn’t given as many interviews, hasn’t made his intentions as clear, and maybe as a result, has not been given as much benefit of the doubt.

Now you might say that there’s also a moral difference between erasing a man’s girlfriend and erasing a man’s sympathy of Nazis. But it’s not as if “The King’s Speech” is pro-Nazi; it’s clearly and bluntly anti-Nazi. If Hooper and Seidler erased George VI’s dealings with Chamberlain and Hitler and made absolutely no mention of England’s political realities at the time, pretended the Nazis didn’t exist, you might have something. Though I’m not offended or outraged by either movie, I think the changes made in “The Social Network” are a lot more potentially serious because those people are still alive, and their existence can (and, I suspect, will) be inexorably changed by the versions of themselves millions of people watch onscreen.

Mostly I would hope that in 2011 we’re not so naive as viewers as to believe that what we see in a docudrama is the entire truth. We should have learned by now that the finer details of history are always sacrificed for the broad needs of drama.

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