Is 'The Social Network,' the new film about the creation of Facebook, the kind of movie that defines a generation?
It's already being talked about that way. Though Cinematical gives reasons why not, as scripted by 'West Wing' creator Aaron Sorkin and directed by 'Fight Club's' David Fincher, 'The Social Network' does seem to grasp the social revolution still being wrought by the Internet -- the sense of being connected and alone at the same time, the voluntary relinquishing of any sphere of personal privacy, the ability to sculpt and mold a constantly evolving public identity and the notion of cyberspace as a cool college party that everyone wants to attend.
But while the movie seems to understand those concepts, it's not really about them. It's more about the specific group of individuals present at the birth of a transformative idea, and how they fought to take credit for (and reap the profits from) that idea. It's not clear whether the Facebook generation, 500 million strong, will actually identify with this select group of backbiting Harvard elitists, or whether there's anything unique to this generation about this seemingly universal story of friendship, loyalty, class, inspiration, money, betrayal and sex.
To create a generation-defining movie, it helps to have broadly representative characters. Read the list that follows of 10 movies that defined their generations, and see if you think 'The Social Network' deserves a post on that wall.
'Forrest Gump' (1994)
The Baby Boomers have spent more time defining their own generation than perhaps any other age bracket has, which is why they're represented four times on this list. Of those films, 'Forrest Gump' may be the most all-encompassing, since Forrest (Tom Hanks) and Jenny's (Robin Wright Penn) life journeys touch upon virtually every milestone of that generation's historical experience: the JFK assassination, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, protest, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, Watergate, various '70s fads (the smiley face emblem, the jogging craze), yuppiedom and AIDS. It's probably not going to be the last generation-defining movie in the Boomer cycle, but it does seem to offer a final benediction: If you were a Boomer who followed Forrest's path, doing what you were told and respecting authority, good for you; and if you followed Jenny's path and experimented with drugs and promiscuity and hippiedom, well, you're forgiven.
'Reality Bites' (1994)
One defining characteristic of some generations is that they resent being defined. Nonetheless, 'Reality Bites' seemed to capture that paradox and many others about Gen X -- the earnestness coupled with suspicion of earnestness, the ironic love of unlovable pop culture trash, the sexual casualness combined with the fear of AIDS and the sense of entitlement joined with the dread of being the first generation to be worse off than their parents. With its romantic plot that forces idealistic Winona Ryder to choose between clueless yuppie Ben Stiller and bitter slacker Ethan Hawke, few Gen Xers would willingly claim this movie, but they're stuck with it.
'Boyz 'N the Hood' (1991)
Hollywood's blinders about race mean that generation-defining movies tend to be awfully white. It took a 21-year-old African-American filmmaker named John Singleton to change that with this portrait of his own generation of young black men. Singleton's street-level view of his own south central Los Angeles community may have been as myopic as any other filmmaker's, yet it seemed to speak for a whole age group of inner-city men: raised on hip-hop, pessimistic about their futures, and very much in need of role models to point the way out of a vicious cycle of poverty, broken families and gang violence. For those outside Singleton's world, 'Hood' may have been a wake-up call; for insiders, it was a manifesto.
'The Breakfast Club' (1985)
Here's another generation-defining movie about Gen Xers who hate being defined. Indeed, the movie's teen archetypes may seem timeless and resonant to high schoolers for generations to come. But the slang, fashion and music peg 'Breakfast Club' squarely to the mid-'80s. John Hughes was 34 when he wrote this movie, but if you were an '80s teen, trying to find (or break out of) your place in the social hierarchy and beginning to question the seemingly arbitrary rules laid down by your parents, Hughes seemed to be inside your head and speaking in your voice.
'The Big Chill' (1983)
The Baby Boom's 15-year college reunion movie. The film's seven friends represent a variety of types, but what they all have in common is lost idealism and squandered opportunities. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan seems to be satirizing his peers, but his touch is so light and gentle that he ends up forgiving them all anyway. After all, you can't blame these folks for abandoning their radicalism and selling out because it's a cold, cruel world out there (hence the title), one you can survive only with the help of old friends and a soundtrack full of classic Motown nuggets.
'Saturday Night Fever' (1977)
Certainly the defining movie of the disco era, complete with a definitive Bee Gees soundtrack and iconic performances by John Travolta and his white polyester suit. True, not everybody could dance like him, but plenty of people his age saw disco as an escape from a workaday world of economic stagnation, a portal to a more glamorous life. In the case of Travolta's Tony Manero, the disco is where he learns that, to become a mature adult, he'll have to leave behind the rigid tribal codes of his Brooklyn upbringing, and that he'll have to treat women as equal partners off the dance floor as well as on.
'Easy Rider' (1969)
It's not every generation-defining film that's recognized as such instantly upon its release, but that was clearly the case with 'Easy Rider,' a movie that's inseparable from the era of its creation. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's motorcycle quest to find the true America puts them face to face with flower children, commune dwellers, and violent backlash against the Boomer counterculture. Fonda's character is self-consciously iconic (he calls himself Captain America), and his rueful line, "We blew it," suggests a whole generation (even a whole nation) recognizing that it was already failing to live up to its promise.
'The Graduate' (1967)
'The Graduate' is one of those movies that everyone recalls as being definitive of its era yet, seen today, doesn't seem to be about the '60s at all. (Other movies like this: 'Cool Hand Luke,' 'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Vanishing Point,' 'Two-Lane Blacktop' and 'M*A*S*H.') After all, Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock is thoroughly apolitical, apparently unconcerned about being sent to Vietnam, and uninterested in protest, drugs or rock. He is interested in sex, but he's introduced to the sexual revolution by someone his parents' age. Still, Boomers identified with Benjamin because of his vaguely ant-authoritarian vibe and his sense that, whatever he was going to do, it would be a rejection of the insincere, artificial, hollow values of his parents and their generation. ("One word: 'plastics.'"). Still, even director Mike Nichols seemed to recognize that Ben and Elaine's (Katharine Ross) youthful rebellion would be short-lived; asked what happens to the couple after they escape at the end of the movie, Nichols said, "They become their parents."
'Rebel Without a Cause' (1955)
That title -- and James Dean in the title role -- pretty much defined the teenage experience for all time. Still, his Jim Stark also belongs specifically to the 1950s and to the generation that first embraced rock 'n' roll and rejected the sterile, stultifying suburban dream that their parents had struggled to build for them. Caught in a confusing miasma of hormones, budding sexuality, mixed messages from adults, and their own self-destructive impulses, Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) try to redefine family as something more nurturing and less materialistic, but their effort is doomed by an uncaring, ignorant adult world. Maybe it's the nature of all generational movies to end with failure, or at least lowered, redefined expectations for success.
'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)
An epic, at once sprawling and intimate, that depicts a representative swath of the Greatest Generation, both the veterans and the women on the home front, as they grapple with the central issue of their contemporary lives in 1946: how to readjust to normal civilian life after World War II. The men learn that battlefield valor is not enough to get by on in a world that regards them more as damaged goods or bad credit risks than as heroes, while the women realize that the men to whom they'd pledged their loyalty are volatile, wounded souls with dim prospects. Despite an upbeat ending, the movie feels uncompromisingly realistic (especially in the performance of Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who lost both hands in the war) about the difficulties facing a generation forged by struggle in an America determined to forget the horrors of the recent past. As in every other movie on this list, the characters learn they have to rely on their peers in order to confront challenges that earlier generations can't be expected to understand.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.