ByTravis Ryan, writer at Creators.co
Classic film and chocolate milk enthusiast. https://travisryanfilm.com/
Travis Ryan

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seemed to be the driving philosophy behind The Social Network, a high point of director David Fincher's career that told the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Fans of classic cinema will find the film strangely familiar, however, drawing unquestionable inspiration from Orson Welles's magnum opus, the 1941 drama Citizen Kane. What makes these films so similar, and how have they both achieved such high praise in the film community? Today we compare these to try and find some unifying threads.

A Reflective Structure

Orson Welles had full creative control over his film: producing, writing, directing, and starring in the picture. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
Orson Welles had full creative control over his film: producing, writing, directing, and starring in the picture. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

It's no secret that The Social Network's script, perhaps the masterpiece of acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, is modeled heavily after the story of Citizen Kane. As the latter film seems to suggest, the closest we can get to understanding a man's life is through the accounts of those around him. While Welles uses journalists to uncover the story of Kane's life, scrambling to find the meaning of Kane's last words, Sorkin uses lawyers. Zuckerberg faced several legal proceedings after found success, several of them spearheaded by former friends that Zuckerberg had wronged along the way. The Social Network uses these proceedings as a framing device to explore Zuckerberg's character with impressive depth.

Why tell a story like this? Simply because we already know the ending. Charles Foster Kane was inspired by real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, a powerful figure in the 1940s with whom audiences would have been very familiar. The Social Network was an ever more familiar story; audiences knew from the start that they were about to see a lot of people get "Zuckerberged." By beginning at the end of the story, we get preconceptions out of the way, and the audience is no longer several steps ahead of the filmmaker. We can instead explore the most important thing about these movies: the character.

Greatness And Isolation

Mark Zuckerberg emerges the most powerful character in The Social Network, but at the cost of his personal relationships. 'The Social Network' [Credit: Columbia Pictures]
Mark Zuckerberg emerges the most powerful character in The Social Network, but at the cost of his personal relationships. 'The Social Network' [Credit: Columbia Pictures]

Perhaps The Social Network's tagline puts it best: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Both Kane and Zuckerberg begin their rise to greatness with a powerful asset: other people. Kane is able to inspire his fellow journalists and charm the women around him as he builds his newspaper empire and social network, while Zuckerberg relies on his best friend Eduardo to maintain the business end of Facebook. As they venture deeper into greatness, however, our heroes lose sight of the people who once admired them, the same people that helped them rise to the top.

Both characters end up existing in a horribly ironic state of isolation. Kane builds a newspaper empire that spreads his message all across the country, and he constructs the most extravagant estate the world has ever known. Zuckerberg goes a step further, connecting millions of humans in new ways through the Internet and manufacturing a community in which the world could socialize like never before. However, both men are hopelessly alone, having pushed away the only meaningful relationships they had.

A Hollow Triumph

Citizen Kane opens with a somber scene: The death of its protagonist. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
Citizen Kane opens with a somber scene: The death of its protagonist. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

In the end, our heroes conquer all physical obstacles. Kane and Zuckerberg are fabulously wealthy, having built a legacy that solidifies their place in history. They look around at all they've accomplished, but they feel broken, worse off than when they started. It seems too late for them to right their wrongs, and they realize they've gained nothing they truly wanted.

In the case of Kane, he has lost his childhood. As evident by the film's final image (and several hints throughout the story), Kane could only find fulfillment in the innocence he once knew, before he was ripped from his home and placed on a horrific track to greatness. In The Social Network, Zuckerberg's "Rosebud" is Erica, the one that got away. From the very beginning, we wonder if Mark will ever overcome his flaws of character and find a meaningful connection. While he finds greatness in a more tangible sense through the spread of Facebook, the answer (unfortunately) is no.

'Citizen Kane' was innovative for many reasons, perhaps most importantly for popularizing the slow clap. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
'Citizen Kane' was innovative for many reasons, perhaps most importantly for popularizing the slow clap. 'Citizen Kane' [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Orson Welles devised a cinematic masterpiece with Citizen Kane, and over 70 years later, we're still learning learning from its lessons, not only for its impressive cinematography but for its timeless themes of power and the lack of fulfillment that it brings. The Social Network clearly takes heavy inspiration from Welles, and David Fincher pays homage to Welles throughout the film to achieve his end result. There's nothing wrong with learning from the best, and if we're lucky, we can expect films in the future to do the same.

Is The Social Network a modern classic? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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