Suzanne Fields / February 25, 2011

The King vs. the Geek

“If you want to send a message,” Samuel Goldwyn famously told his screenwriters, “go to Western Union.” He was determined that his movies would be about entertainment, not politics. Now you would have better luck trying to send a message by Pony Express, since the telegram has gone the way of buggy whips and high-button shoes. But via cell phone, e-mail or Twitter, the old movie mogul’s point is still a valid caution.

The movies nominated for the Academy Awards on Sunday are mostly about entertainment – hot buttered popcorn, not hot-button politics. Two of the leading contenders for best picture, “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” say more about changing mores and manners than about the price of oil or how to rein in out-of-control government spending. The revolution in how we communicate with one another is told in the stories of two men separated by nearly a century, one a college kid and the other a king, both flawed but triumphant in confrontation with the world.

“If you want to send a message,” Samuel Goldwyn famously told his screenwriters, “go to Western Union.” He was determined that his movies would be about entertainment, not politics. Now you would have better luck trying to send a message by Pony Express, since the telegram has gone the way of buggy whips and high-button shoes. But via cell phone, e-mail or Twitter, the old movie mogul’s point is still a valid caution.

The movies nominated for the Academy Awards on Sunday are mostly about entertainment – hot buttered popcorn, not hot-button politics. Two of the leading contenders for best picture, “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” say more about changing mores and manners than about the price of oil or how to rein in out-of-control government spending. The revolution in how we communicate with one another is told in the stories of two men separated by nearly a century, one a college kid and the other a king, both flawed but triumphant in confrontation with the world.

In very different ways and in very different times, King George VI, “Bertie” to his royal friends, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, are emblematic of their time and place: “the king vs. the geek.”

“The King’s Speech” is a costume drama set in that innocent time shortly before World War II, and is a bit glib for anyone who remembers or knows much of the history of the time. But knocking the British throne when handsome Prince William and pretty Kate Middleton are preparing for their nuptials is work for a churl. This is a movie, as Joe Queenan observes in the Wall Street Journal, “that the public is officially forbidden to dislike.” The king is as miserable as a commoner with the affliction of stuttering, which not only afflicts his sense of self, but renders him unlikely to inspire the British in a time of approaching war.

Disabled by nature, he also had the bad luck to stand second in line to a flashy (and somewhat goofy) playboy brother who gives up the throne for the love of a twice-divorced minor-league Baltimore socialite. Riding to Bertie’s rescue is Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist who breaks down the social distance between uncommon commoner and would-be king. Lionel shows Bertie that he doesn’t have to practice his rhetoric like Demosthenes, speaking with a mouthful of marbles, but can reach out to his people guided by a robust professional who knows how to teach the King’s English.

Much of the entertainment comes through the dialogue between the ill-at-ease man of propriety and the knock ‘em, sock 'em earthiness of a man of the people. When the king finally finds his voice, he speaks with passionate intensity in a radio address announcing that England has declared war against Nazi Germany.

“The King’s Speech” is about manners and class, and a protagonist who suffers acute psychological pain at being miscast for royal challenges in mid-20th-century England. Flash forward to “The Social Network,” which is about ethics, class and money in 21st-century America. It begins at an elite university where the protagonist is intellectually brilliant, but is as flawed in his communication skills as the speechless king of England. Zuckerberg’s world, circumscribed by Harvard Yard, initially separates the rich and privileged from the vulgar middle class, too.

If the 19-year-old college sophomore has a problem communicating with girls, he also has a problem with the social stratification at Harvard. The Jewish boy’s arrogance is grounded in a sense of social inferiority, and it’s an irony of the movie – reel life, not real life – that Facebook, the social network, was created by a man who can’t strike a comfortable intimacy with women.

In the movie scenario, the young Zuckerberg ruthlessly takes on the handsome and old-money Winklevoss twins and steals their idea. He expands their idea and becomes a billionaire, but he can’t compete in ethical civility and athletic attractiveness on their decidedly uneven playing field. Facebook becomes a great equalizer, but its originator is never at home with himself, whether hiding in a hoodie at Harvard or trying to look like a serious billionaire in his lawyer’s office while being deposed to answer lawsuits. One reviewer describes him as a “functional prince of dysfunction.”

He’s as exaggerated as the celluloid interpretation of William Randolph Hearst in “Citizen Kane,” but “The Social Network” illuminates through a portrayal of one personality the changes in how we all communicate. The traditionalists have lost the high-tech in-your-Facebook struggle to control virtual reality. The director, David Fincher, also directed “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” an imaginative tale about the clock set to moving backward. This time, he’s obsessed with fast forward. Which of these movies you root for Sunday night will probably depend on what medium you use to send your message.

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