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The geek's guide to 'The Social Network' and 'Catfish'

The new Facebook movies are fun, but also brain candy for the tech savvy.

October 2, 2010 08:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Two of the best movies currently in theaters are about Facebook: one you're going to hear a lot about, Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, which opened this week nationwide; and one that you may never hear about outside this column, an indie documentary called Catfish, which had a limited theatrical release Sept. 17 but most people will watch on DVD.

Technically inclined people such as IT professionals, developers, gadget freaks, power users -- you know, you and me -- usually dread mainstream blockbusters that center on technology and computers.

The reason is that Hollywood doesn't care enough about us as a demographic to get the facts right. Movies about technology, computers, hacking and Silicon Valley are usually dumbed down and facts fabricated in order to pander to public discomfort with technology.

On the silver screen, e-mail and chat interfaces tend to have giant buttons and text windows and user interfaces that don't exist in the real world. Hackers and law enforcement people perform feats of cyberintrusion and tracking that simply can't be done. And the actors' explanations for how they accomplish things with networks and computers make us cringe.

But not in The Social Network. The movie treats technical subjects with care and respect, and even appreciation. During an all-night hackathon early in The Social Network, the Mark Zuckerberg character cracks university servers to gather photos of female students for an Ivy League version of "Hot or Not." During one scene, the actor references GNU Wget (a file retrieval utility) and Emacs (a type of text editor), Apache, Mozilla and Perl. This isn't your typical Hollywood tech mumbo-jumbo, but the real thing.

And the movie doesn't shrink from savvy references to the minutiae of business contracts or the unmistakable vibe of Sand Hill Road (the district of Silicon Valley where much of the venture capital companies are located). The two venture capitalists in the film don't even seem like actors, but real VCs plucked right out of Palo Alto.

The Social Network is Mark Zuckerberg's struggle to invent The Next Big Thing. It is above all a movie about invention, and about who gets to take credit for intellectual property in a world where every idea is a mashup. You have to admit: That's a fascinating and refreshingly rare topic for a Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie is also about the age-old conflict between the jocks and the nerds. But it handles this familiar theme with nuance and humanity, and without resorting to tired cliches.

I would even go so far as to say that it's Shakespearean in its ability to satisfy both sophisticated and unsophisticated audiences with dead-on inside-baseball humor, and also gags about college life that everyone can relate to.

The Social Network is a great movie, even if you know what they're talking about.

Catfish

Catfish is an "accidental documentary" that never would have been interesting enough for theaters if not for a series of events beyond the control of the filmmakers.

I won't spoil the movie here, but I do recommend that you see it before someone else does. The movie's value lies almost entirely in the surprise ending.



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