Films that speak to the here and now

Indies find the edge | Capturing the zeitgeist of 2010 | Restorative uplift during trying times | Polanski and Oscar: Is it personal?

Leading up to the October opening of “The Social Network,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin crisscrossed the country, screening the film for college students and answering questions afterward. And, without fail, in each college town, he noticed the same thing while he was waiting in the back of the theater for the movie to end.

“The moment the credits started rolling, you saw a sea of BlackBerrys come out,” Sorkin says. “The students were texting their friends about the movie, checking their email, maybe checking the sports scores … who knows. But not a one of them was talking to the person right next to them.”

Though Sorkin maintains that “The Social Network” isn’t about Facebook, he doesn’t dispute the movie’s potent take on the way people interact in the 21st century and the chatter that it has generated. It’s one of several films this year — “The Kids Are All Right,” “Fair Game” and “Inside Job” among them — that speaks to the here and now, reflecting the collective mindset in much the same way “The Hurt Locker” and “Up In the Air” did last year.

“Fair Game” takes an unflinching look at the events surrounding the identification of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent in 2003. Though the episode happened several years ago, “Fair Game” director Doug Liman believes it remains relevant to the current political landscape.

“The film is about abuse of power by the White House,” Liman says. “I remember talking to (activist) Daniel Ellsberg shortly after Obama was elected and he said, ‘You watch. There’s no way Obama is going to relinquish the power that Bush and Cheney amassed in the White House.’ Turns out he was right.”

Naomi Watts stars as Plame and Sean Penn as Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose New York Times op-ed piece questioning the factual basis of the Iraq War led to Plame’s outing. “Fair Game’s” premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May constituted a splashy affair, with Plame and Wilson on hand to support the movie, though Liman will be the first to say that the source material presented a “lay-up” opportunity with the European press.

Liman says he has no political agenda for the film other than “telling the truth and setting the historical record straight.” Liman’s father, Arthur, served as chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra hearings.

“I believe that remembering what happened makes us less likely to repeat it,” Liman says. “The reality is, George Bush’s memoirs are coming out the same day as our movie. I can’t speak to the truth of what he wrote, but I know we got our story exactly right.”

The abuse of power is also a theme running through “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s incendiary analysis of the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown. Ferguson’s last documentary, “No End In Sight,” examined Bush’s policy in Iraq immediately following the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. With “Inside Job,” he traces the history of the current economic malaise, arguing that the deregulation of the financial industry that began under Ronald Reagan led to a culture of “out-of-control” investment and lending.

Critics have praised the film for its thoroughness and Ferguson for his ability to clearly explain how destructive practices like collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps led to financial ruin. Ferguson made millions as the founder of the one of the Internet’s earliest software companies, so he’s not against commerce — just unfettered avarice.

“Finance is something too important to be left to the financiers,” Ferguson says, arguing that little has changed since Barack Obama became president. “Obama had a historically unique and historically important opportunity about this, and he really blew it. That means that change is going to be a much slower process, and it’s going to have to come from the ground up.”

Ferguson hopes his film provides people with the impulse to take action.

“The civil rights movement and environmental movement didn’t see results overnight,” he says. “But they did see results. I’m optimistic.”

The politics of “The Kids Are All Right” exist more in between the lines than Ferguson’s muckraking, but come across as equally subversive. The film focuses on a lesbian couple whose two teenaged children were conceived through artificial insemination. The son, now 15, wants to meet the sperm donor, a decision that produces numerous complications that test the fragile bonds of what might be considered a truly modern family.

What’s striking about Lisa Cholodenko’s movie, which she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, is the knowing normalcy with which she presents the domestic situation.

“The issue of gayness is irrelevant at this point,” says Cholodenko, who came up with the idea for the film while she and her domestic partner were talking about having a child. “We’re all weird and normal in the same ways.”

“It’s subversive because everybody’s wringing their hands and this whole thing with Proposition 8,” Cholodenko adds. “And I’m just saying, ‘Look how ludicrous it is that people are still making this difficult, that we’re still in some bizarre dark age.’ We wanted to hold that up and say, ‘Here it is. It’s totally normal. It’s not threatening, and it’s happening whether you want it to happen or not. Why all the political sturm and drang?’ ”

The politics of “The Social Network” are purely personal. The story of Facebook’s almost-accidental invention and creator Mark Zuckerberg’s “Citizen Kane”-like trajectory plays as either cautionary tale or inspirational business saga — or maybe a little of both.

“How you see it probably depends on whether you’re older or younger than 25,” Sorkin says. The writer isn’t about to reveal which side of the divide he falls on. “We encourage those arguments in the parking lot,” Sorkin says, laughing.

But the film’s final image of Zuckerberg “friending” the woman who dumped him in the movie’s opening scene and then refreshing his computer screen every few seconds to see if she has responded leaves little room for interpretation. Here’s the most connected man in the world, a figure known as a “rock star” in Silicon Valley, and, yet, he feels alone and empty.

“Mark invented something he needed — he invented a way to reinvent himself,” Sorkin says of Zuckerberg. “That’s what people are doing when they’re making a wall post. You read a post that says, ‘Girls night out with five chocolate desserts. Better hit the gym tomorrow.’ That’s someone reinventing themselves as Ally McBeal. It’s done for the sake of performance.”

Sorkin isn’t necessarily critiquing that performance. As a screenwriter behind the rapid-fire personas of TV shows like “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” and such films as “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he identifies with the satisfaction that comes from witnessing almost impossibly witty and lucid exchanges between characters. At the same time, he sees a clear distinction between his job and what he calls “sincere human contact.”

“One of the things that makes Facebook so popular is that people get to create an avatar and do a rewrite and polish on their own personalities,” Sorkin says. “But the properties of people and the properties of characters have very little to do with each other. If you’re choosing to be a character instead of a person, you’re making a big choice.”

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