Summers seems willing to friend Facebook movie

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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Lawrence Summers was secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, top White House economic adviser in the Obama administration, and the colorful and controversial president of Harvard University. But yesterday, when Summers delivered a speech about economic policy to local business executives, the question on everyone’s mind was: What did he think of the movie?

The movie, of course, is “The Social Network,’’ the critically acclaimed film about the founding of Facebook, in which Summers is portrayed as an impatient and unsympathetic administrator who dismisses complaints from two wealthy twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, that a fellow student, Mark Zuckerberg, has pilfered their idea for a social networking site.

Asked about the short but memorable scene yesterday, Summers said it was “fairly accurate.’’

“I’ve been told that the Winklevii say that the movie is wrong,’’ Summers said, using what has become a popular shorthand for the preppy pair. “Making adjustments for cinematic license . . . I would say the movie was fairly accurate.’’

Summers told the executives at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce luncheon that he was first introduced to Facebook around 2004 or 2005, while preparing a speech to welcome Harvard freshmen to campus.

“A young guy who worked for me wrote me a line . . . something about friending people on Facebook, and I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ ’’ Summers recalled. “And he said, ‘Larry, just say this, and they’ll think you’re cool and they’ll laugh.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re going to lose your job if I say this and they don’t laugh.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s not that much of a privilege to work for you anyway, so you say it.’ So I said it and they all broke up. . . . And that was my introduction to Facebook.’’

The film depicts Summers as completely unhelpful to the Winklevoss twins when they bring him their grievance against Zuckerberg.

“Yes, everyone at Harvard is inventing something,’’ the Summers character says to the twins in the movie. “Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job, so I’ll suggest again that the two of you come up with a new new project.’’

Even so, Summers said that the twins now claim, “Larry Summers wasn’t nearly as nice to us as is portrayed in the movie.’’

Smiling as he described his real-life reputation, and his portrayal in the film, Summers went on, “I’ve read somewhere, on occasion, that people think I can be arrogant. And, uh, I can’t imagine why. And if that is so, I probably was on that occasion.’’

Summers noted only one substantive objection to the film. His character, played by Hollywood producer Douglas Urbanski, asked his assistant in the movie to “punch me in the face,’’ apparently to wake him up or assure him of the reality of the meeting with the Winklevosses.

That, Summers said, never happened. “I surely did not tell anyone to punch me in the face,’’ he said.

To bolster his recollection, Summers introduced Colleen Richards Powell, who used to work for him on student affairs issues at Harvard. He described her as a “movie celebrity,’’ because the movie depicts her as his assistant, who witnesses him brushing off the Winklevosses.

Powell stood up at the luncheon and vouched that in reality, Summers had actually been nicer to the twins, who went on to sue Zuckerberg.

“I can honestly say he was not that arrogant,’’ Powell said of Summers. “He didn’t give them what they wanted, which was to legally penalize Mark Zuckerberg . . . He was not mean to them.’’

Summers, who is now back in Cambridge teaching at Harvard, was grateful for the backup. “You didn’t have to say that,’’ he said.

“The Social Network,’’ which won Oscars for writing, editing, and music, was not the only movie in which Summers was a character last year. Summers also was featured — often unflatteringly — in an Oscar-winning documentary, “Inside Job,’’ a critical examination of the global financial crisis.

Tracy Jan can be reached at