“Loyalty, Empire, Betrayal & Revenge” A Thematic and Stylistic Study of The Godfather and The Social Network.

Academic paper by William Conlin.
Written for Roger Durling’s Summer 2011 Introduction to Film Class.

A young man takes actions into his own hands. He creates an empire larger than he ever imagined. His closest and most trusted allies betray him. He seeks revenge… Without names or additional details, these sentences easily describe both The Godfather, one of the greatest films ever made, and The Social Network, which will soon undoubtedly be looked at in the same light. Through careful study of thematic elements within the two films and detailed analysis of three mirroring scenes, focusing on mise-en-scene, these two cinematic masterpieces will be compared and contrasted.

Both The Godfather and The Social Network maintain a realistic approach to the world in which the characters live. As most know, The Social Network is a detailed dramatization of actual events while The Godfather deals more broadly with the mafia wars of the 1940’s-1950’s. By making these films with a sense of realism, the filmmakers make the audience more aware that the drama they are watching on the screen is actually unfolding in real life and thus enhances the viewing experience.

Thematically, both films deal with loyalty and betrayal, featuring the development of an empire as the backdrop. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone spends a significant portion of his life trying to remain out of his family’s business but is forced to take matters in his own hands when his father is nearly killed. Subsequently, once Michael has risen to power himself he has to deal with disloyalty from some of his most trusted friends and family. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin create “The Facebook” and watch it explode into a worldwide phenomenon. In their naivety, they end up betraying each other, but Mark’s alliance with Sean Parker leads to a betrayal of far greater proportion.

With betrayal, usually comes revenge. In The Godfather, the theme of revenge plays from the opening frame, a close up of Bonasera begging Vito Corleone to kill the men who attacked his daughter, to the last scene in which Connie Corleone confronts Michael about the death of her husband. As the film progresses Michael savagely seeks revenge for the attack on his father, the murder of his brother and the advances of the other crime families of New York. In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg feels betrayed by Eduardo Saverin when his bank account is frozen, causing Facebook to briefly cease service. By this point, Facebook has become a part of Zuckerberg’s soul and Saverin’s actions infuriate Zuckerberg to the point that he positions his closest friend for total destruction. Equally, throughout the film Eduardo and The Winklevoss Twins play out the idea of “revenge through the courts”. The use of lawyers in both films show that retribution can be a business as well.

To explore the stylistic aspects of these films, the first scenes being examined are (appropriately) the first scenes of both films. Both The Godfather and The Social Network are shot in low-key lighting. The settings are often dark and moody as illustrated by Vito Corleone’s office and the Harvard area bar in which Mark and Erica are talking. Although it is a bright, sunny day and there is a wedding taking place outside, Vito Corleone’s office looks as though it’s the middle of the night. Cinematographer Gordon Willis keeps the lighting so dark that the viewer can’t even see Vito’s eyes for most of the scene. Without being as blatant, in The Social Network, Jeff Cronenweth keeps everything muted. With cross key lighting and darkened backgrounds the crowded bar recedes into the distance and one feels like Mark and Erica are talking in an empty room. In both scenes, although there is definitely a dominant character present, the eye levels are matched. Unlike later scenes in both films, this “equal footing” allows the viewer to see that the dominant character doesn’t need the high ground to overpower the weaker.

Continuing to look at the mise-en-scene while examining the business theme, the meeting between all the crime families in The Godfather and the deposition scenes from The Social Network will be explored. As the meeting scene in The Godfather begins, the viewer is immediately made to feel uncomfortable. The camera slowly dollies from right to left, countering the western idea that left to right is the correct way of looking at things. Once the meeting has begun shots often incorporate three people, which also makes the audience uncomfortable (two’s company, three’s a crowd).

In The Social Network, during the deposition scenes, depending on where Zuckerberg’s moral character is standing with the audience he is positioned in either a comfortable spot or an uncomfortable spot. By making Zuckerberg the focal point of the scene the eye moves from the other characters back to him. During scenes in which he is being looked at negatively, Zuckerberg is positioned on the far left so the eye moves from right to left. The same effect seen in The Godfather is achieved without the use of a dolly. Equally more important, as Zuckerberg is never looked at as being completely morally just, when he is positioned on the right-hand side of the screen he is usually at the bottom of the frame, symbolizing weakness and placing him at the end of the content curve. Lack of colors play an important role in both films as well. Though somewhat present, both films give a somewhat desaturated view of the world. Whereas warm colors usually comfort people, the browns of the law offices in The Social Network seem to suck the life out of those present. At the same time, in The Godfather, the dominant color is grey.

During the aforementioned scenes in both films, lawyers act as a sort of “devil’s advocate”, a consistent reminder that in the end, it’s all about business. Sitting directly behind Vito Corleone is Tom Hagen while Sy sits to the right of Mark Zuckerberg, constantly reminding him of his place in the proceedings. In both films there is also a sense of cynicism coming from the two sides of the law. The lawyers look at their clients as children while the clients look at the lawyers as leeches.

The final scenes being examined regard revenge. In The Godfather, we will be looking at Michael’s visit to his brother in law Carlo before having him killed and in The Social Network we will look at Eduardo’s discovery and reaction to the fact that he’s been diluted to a minor shareholder. Although both scenes deal with the same topic, the way in which the two play out are far apart. With The Godfather the low-key lighting is maintained through the scene. It’s a bright day outside but in the room with Michael and Carlo it’s dark and moody. In The Social Network however, the low-key style is briefly removed with the setting of the bright new Facebook office.

The key difference between these scenes is the positioning of the characters. With The Godfather Michael (taking his revenge and command of the scene) is positioned in a higher plane than Carlo, who is weak and sad. Carlo is also positioned at the bottom right of the frame and drops down even lower at one point, symbolizing his impending death.

On the other hand, in The Social Network Mark (who has just taken his revenge on Eduardo) is in the lower-left position and Eduardo has the high ground. This shows that although Mark has taken his revenge, he is still weak and this act has made Eduardo even stronger. Like with the business sequences discussed earlier, in these two scenes Tom Hagen and Sean Parker act as the “devil’s advocates” and the uncomfortable third person in the medium shots.

Though it may be a few years before it is critically looked at as one of the greatest films of all time, I think The Social Network will someday adorn Hollywood’s best lists along with The Godfather. Coppolla and Fincher are masters of their craft and time will only heighten their stature. Their work remains timely, engaging and intriguing. The themes dealt with in these films, no matter how dark they are, prove to be universal and through a careful understanding of the motivation, delivery through mise-en-scene and interpretation of these works, the viewer can reach a new level of appreciation for the filmmaking and film-watching process.

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