Reality Check: Anglo-America On Parade

The King’s Speech and The Social Network in Oscars Contrast

By the time this goes to press, it is likely one of the two films we’ll discuss here will have won the Academy Award for Best Picture; The King’s Speech or The Social Network. Granted, many outside of Hollywood could not give a pack of flying farts, nor do we, particularly. Although the Oscars is the only award show worth watching, an annual fury of unchecked wagering (some larger than others) on the outcomes of Best Costume, Most Likely to Gaffer or some such. My wife is always surprised when I pick six or seven in a row, citing corporate politics and the inner machinations of the studio culture—who is owed what and why someone like say Martin Scorsese can be repeatedly ignored after directing an unmatched string of brilliant, culture-defining films and then win for a piece of shit like The Departed.

It is also an opportune time for me to ratchet up a healthy dose of rage for less dire activities, which has happened on several occasions, not the least of which surrounded the defeat of E.T. at the hands of Gandhi in 1982, when as an apoplectic college student, drunk on a dozen Genesee Cream Ales, I went off the rails and took on half a dorm room of activists.

However, we’re not here to merely discuss Oscar mistakes, but use the timing to discuss two extremely important, if not disparate films, as a consequence of their place of origin and the revealing aspects of their cultures.

Aside from three-word titles beginning with “The,” there is nothing about either The King’s Speech or The Social Network that could be compared. The contrasts however are stark and provide ample insight into the general milieu of which they depict. There is also the interesting inside game of how the awards culture may view the films around the events of its times.

For a good example, one could cite the 1976 Best Picture that the experts had all-but handed to All The President’s Men, for its timely pertinence to the fall-out of Watergate, and other scandals. Judging from the preponderance of left-leaning, Nixon-despising voters, it appeared to the odds makers as a no-brainer. However, it was the individualist, rags-to-riches feel-good Rocky that took the prize, celebrating the nation’s bicentennial in style; erasing our horrors by pasting over it with goose-bumped fantasy.

This, of course, was the polar opposite of the old-fashioned childhood fairy tale of E.T. being dumped in favor of the solemn epic of political strife in Gandhi, two-years into the Reagan era. This made the 1998 Oscars a tough call as the brutal WWII odyssey magnificently told in Saving Private Ryan was beaten by the wryly-poignant Shakespeare In Love. Go figure.

This year, The King’s Speech, a superb tale of overcoming a stigma, both physical and metaphorical, set against the backdrop of Europe at war, has rightfully been the talk of the odds circuit. As timing is everything in handicapping these things, King’s recent release last month helps the cause. The press has been kind and the performances, specifically Colin Firth as the self-flagellating, reluctant King of England, George VI, whose infamous stammer threatens to victimize an empire, are certainly worthy. The Social Network, released in early October of last year, initially fell into “perfect timing” in the “awards season” brief, but has lagged in the shadow of King’s since the New Year. But just in the nick of time, the more recent uprisings in the Middle East, more to the point, Egypt has brought the subject of Facebook and social media in general to the fore. And while King’s deals with a time of enormous upheaval and greatness, overcoming peril both on a personal and national level, the charming/alarming story of Harvard computer geeks on an inebriated vengeance kick exploding into a billion dollar culture shift now trumps it. However, here comes another royal wedding, so…

Ultimately, though, and what I actually set out to dissect this week, is the glaring introspection of stereotypes set in these films’ environments that make for an interesting stand-off at Oscar time; an echo of the British sense of deportment, image and overt social roles versus the infinite American scuffle for fame, riches and personal victory.

Let’s face it, without having to issue a spoiler alert The King’s Speech is eminently English in every way, and not just its setting, cast and history. It reeks of a sense of duty to a greater cause, the respect (obsession) with both visible and hinted caste systems, the tethered subjugation of personal safety for an expected task and the explicit role of gender in a habitually repressed society. The setting and its environs ignite the patrician tension and the subsequent English charm. Without the cultural boundaries and royal expectations, as well as the pressure set upon the mid-20th century man, or the male figure seen as an effective father figure, leader or functioning testosterone machine, especially when confronted by an outside aggressor, we have the story of a whiny dink with a speech impediment.

Now line that up against the world of The Social Network and it’s as if we are watching a different species, much less a different culture; as the characters—youthful, defiant, slyly disingenuous and voraciously creative—work on a sub-level of society, actually going as far as to circumvent, manipulate and eventually obliterate it. Social is uniquely an American film, or at the very least a heaping slice of Americana; with characters exhibiting a feral level of competition, utilizing ingenuity as an act of revenge and, once the cash comes in, unleashing a relentless back-stabbing free-for-all.

The Social Network, as The King’s Speech on the other end of the pond speaks of the image and scope of power, could only be about the power grab in the American experience; substitute Mark Zuckerberg, played with an understated kind of robotic myopia by the young, talented, Jesse Eisenberg, with say Thomas Edison and you’ve got the American Experience and everything that results from it; power, celebrity, riches. Oh, and also backlash, fall-out and comeuppance.

There is nothing subtle in the way these films showcase their cultures. For instance, the use of references and soundtracks; Shakespeare is routinely quoted and classical music beautifully layered in King’s and a bevy of fast-talked, tech-driven jargon and strategically placed hip-hop/rock colors Social. At the end of each film, the melancholia of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in King’s expertly balances the tortured protagonist’s final triumph and the Beatles “Baby You’re a Rich Man” underlines the main character’s ivory tower isolation at the epilogue of Social; both as equally gripping as they are forcefully incongruent.

Both stories are about men, one a middle-aged product of societal station, the other a boy, using wit, skill and aggressive battle tactics to overcome the very same prejudices that make the former character in King’s, well, a king. Even their women respond accordingly to their environments, King’s mothering queen engineering the action, ably played by the gorgeous Helena Bonham Carter, and the parade of young women, opportunistic, manipulative and sometimes outright mad, which come in and out of Social.

Finally, we have the supporting male characters, which act as confidents and spiritual guides in both films. The stalwart, Geoffrey Rush, who plays therapist, Sherpa, and buddy to the king in his time of crisis and the new comer, Justin Timberlake, whose slick-talking, coke-addled contrivances pull the golden goose inside out. The Englishman, refined, if not middle class, a patriarchal substitute, and the American, a rebellious, capitalist rogue, a kindred spirit. It matters little the personalities or their methods, because both main characters do just fine in the end. Well…?

So who will win? Hey, by the time many read this, you’ll know. But, as in the tertiary awards; Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Roles, Director, etc., don’t look for the voters to provide a hint where they believe the audience or the artists are in terms of sentiment, acceptance or comfort. For certain, both films have done well and gotten the lion’s share of rave reviews; American and British.

James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus and Midnight For Cinderella.