The Oscars: In 'King's Speech' and 'Social Network,' media are the message

Two Best Picture contenders at the Oscars, 'King's Speech' and 'The Social Network,' revolve around the advent of new forms of communication. Why that theme resounds with audiences.

Peter Kramer/AP
A general view of an Oscar statuette at the ribbon cutting of the 'Meet The Oscars' event at Grand Central Station in New York on Feb. 23. What do the two Best Picture contenders at the Oscars, 'The King's Speech' and 'The Social Network,' have in common?

What do "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" – two frontrunners for Best Picture in Sunday's Academy Awards presentation – have in common? Hint: Think communication.

That's right: They are both about the advent of new modes of communication and how that affects individuals and society. “The King’s Speech” paints the portrait of a pre-World War I monarch-to-be confronting the need to address his people via the new medium of radio. “The Social Network” tackles the birth of Facebook – now the most widely used social media tool on the planet, embraced by more than half a billion people.

Together, these movies bracket the mass media era as it arrived and developed over nearly 80 years. Each tells a story about the dreams we invest in these tools, as well as the nightmares they sometimes can be to their users. Much as good science fiction examines the undercurrents of humanity's hopes and fears about rockets and radioisotopes, these two films probe our expectations and anxieties about the delicate art of communication between one human being and another.

IN PICTURES: Oscar nominees 2011

“These two films talk about the possibilities and limitations of new technologies for communication,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, a communications professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Every new medium generates both optimism and pessimism about its impact, she adds. “The King’s Speech” deals with the future monarch’s dread of being sidelined by a piece of machinery that is profoundly changing everyone’s lives. Suddenly, a king is no longer a remote figure, she says, “but expected to be in the living rooms of the nation, able to calm and reassure people during their worst fears.”

A subtext of “The Social Network,” on the other hand, is that a loner and a misfit can find social salvation through a new technology, says Ms. Mackey-Kallis.

She also points to the now-classic message of media theorist Marshall McLuhan: that each major media shift will bring profound social change in its wake. That's certainly played out in recent weeks, as Facebook- and Twitter-armed protesters have upended dictators and organized demonstrations across Middle East. “It’s impossible to watch either of these films now without thinking about the role new media has played in the political changes around the world,” she says.

Of course, the goal of all communication technology is to replicate the gold standard of true communication – the good old-fashioned face-to-face kind. But fascination with new toys often interferes with that goal, says Wheeler Winston Dixon of University of Nebraska, Lincoln, editor of Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

“How many times do you see a group of young people sitting together and they aren’t even talking, but they are madly texting to each other on their cellphones?” he says with a rueful laugh. “It is the illusion of intimacy, not the real thing.”

"The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" each tackles this issue, he says. In “Speech,” the future monarch bemoans the new burden imposed by radio. “It gives the impression to the listener that they know the speaker,” says Mr. Dixon, “just as friending in Facebook gives this illusion of relationship." The final scene of “The Social Network” plays on the audience's fear of having the illusion but not the reality of a relationship as it depicts the founder of Facebook fruitlessly monitoring his own Facebook account in hopes of hearing from an old girlfriend.

Illuminating people's deepest hopes and fears is what good storytelling is about, says Richard Goedkoop, a communications professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Communication is at the heart of what it really means to be human. And although the channels and technology may change, we are all judged and make judgments of others based upon what they say, speak, and write,” he says. Language and communication are universal, he says. “It is not surprising," he adds, "that film would also tackle that reality, since it is a communication medium itself.”

IN PICTURES: Oscar nominees 2011

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