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The Social Network Effect

Posted on the 02 November 2011 by Lucasmcmillan @LucasMcMillan

Margin Call

The Social Network was a really good movie, but the odds were heavily stacked against it. It was a good movie that somehow made courtroom depositions and hushed nerds planted in front of computers edge-of-your-seat thrilling. It was wildly unlikely and surprisingly entertaining. This was a movie that had been disparagingly referred to as “that Facebook movie” for months, a movie that was being scripted by Aaron Sorkin, a man last responsible for the self-important and atrocious NBC “comedy” Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But all these doubts about The Social Network screeched to a halt when the trailer came out. Lord, that trailer. Set to an acapella version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” the trailer would be a work of art even if the movie it was ostensibly promoting never came out.

The Social Network was also a quiet box office hit; when the dust settled, it had earned a robust $224,920,315 worldwide. Those are the kind of numbers put up by a flagging action franchise, not a movie about a software-programming nerd with a sociopathic streak. Its creeping sense of dread, paranoia and greed somehow tapped into the cultural zeitgeist and flourished there. The unholy alliance of cold, clinical director David Fincher (best known for such feel-good hits as Fight Club and Seven) and bloated, arrogant screenwriter Sorkin somehow found something special.

Hollywood immediately wanted to capture this cultural lightning in a bottle again. The once-in-a-lifetime circumstances that led to The Social Network‘s runaway success were pinned down, and pale carbon copies were made. A blueprint for Social Network-esque movies was created.

  • Step one: find a subject that is so boring (and preferably ripped from the headlines) that you can’t imagine sitting through a movie about it.
  • Step two: attach highly unlikely creative talent to the project.
  • Step three: drench it in atmosphere and ambient music to distract the viewer from the fact that they’re watching a movie about income tax returns.

First there was Moneyball, a movie based on the story of the Oakland A’s baseball team circa 2002. The team and their wildcard/maverick/freethinking manager Billy Beane used statistical models and analysis to find washed-up/cheap players that mathematically could and should still produce. This was a movie about future risk projections and advanced sabermetric number crunching.

This movie closely followed the aforementioned Social Network blueprint. They certainly found a subject that’s boring and borderline incomprehensible to the layman, even knowledgeable baseball fans. Highly unlikely talent was attached; Steven Soderbergh was originally slated to direct and Brad Pitt starred as manager Billy Beane. As for step three, a movie about aging jocks sitting in dark conference rooms and poring over spreadsheets was filmed with the utmost weight and artfulness.

And now we have Margin Call.

Margin Call deals with one 24-hour time period in a Lehman Brothers-ish investment banking firm in early 2008 on the eve of the financial collapse. The movie deals heavily with mortgage backed securities and financial over-leverage. It stars Kevin Spacey (who has been in what feels like a million of these office-intrigue movies), Zachary “I’m Spock” Quinto and a dude from freaking Gossip Girl. It’s filmed in the moody, tight and claustrophobic style becoming the norm in these movies.

Both Moneyball and Margin Call sound really fucking boring, but they’re probably fine. Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic about this new wave of brainy, detached filmmaking. Hollywood increasingly refuses to talk down to the audience like we’re a bunch of rowdy children. It’s great that there’s an intellectual antidote out there for the Transformers franchise.

But I think The Social Network had a certain one-of-a-kind brilliance that these other movies are foolish to attempt to recapture. That ludicrously specific blueprint I laid out above shouldn’t be followed so closely. The Social Network was the exception to the rule; it shouldn’t become the rule of heady filmmaking. Hollywood can tell us whip-smart stories without going so far in the opposite direction that they’re almost daring us to like the movie.

I mean, how many films about risk analysis and sabermetric future projections will you see? There’s a happy medium to be found between intellectualism and entertainment; we shouldn’t have to pick one or the other.


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