When someone is referred to as a genius, it too often also means that everything he does is genius or that if I can’t see what’s good about something that person did, I must be the stupid one. The latter statement, in fact, is how directors like David Lynch and Lars von Trier get actresses to do crazy things for them.
Aaron Sorkin is a genius. But let’s ask the real question: What’s in it for us?
We last saw Aaron Sorkin in a The West Wing episode, a show he had created and had written all but one of the episodes in its first four seasons. With Bartlet’s daughter kidnapped, the Democratic President resigned temporarily, ceding power to the Republican Speaker of the House, played by John Goodman. In that meeting, Goodman chided Bartlet’s staff, and Bartlet stood up for them. Cutting Bartlet short, Goodman looked at him, and said, “You’re relieved, Mr. President.”
It was certainly among the top ten most memorable television moments.
With that, and with Bartlet’s daughter still kidnapped, Aaron Sorkin left the series, which ran for four more years.
In The West Wing Sorkin coddled us with great actors, characters who are unabashedly intelligent and well-read, an unpredictable plot that makes us think we just watched a two-hour movie, good drama, good comedy (there are usually more funnies in a Sorkin drama than there are in a half-hour sitcom), all with a fast-paced intelligent dialogue, usually about things that actually matters.
Dialogues like that are hard to find in any Hollywood product, since the prevalent wisdom is that it’s a turn-off for the audience. But the truth is that Sorkin’s writing was ripe with talk about policy even as the ratings got higher and higher. The reason it didn’t get old was because Sorkin made sure that even a discussion about the census was, at the end of the day, about people.
The most extreme example of something prevalent wisdom says should never work on television was in an episode called ‘Arctic Radar’, when Toby and Will Bailey had a write-off. Yes, that’s right, a write-off! Can you imagine two people sitting down and silently reading each others’ scripts as compelling TV? Sorkin made it work.
In fact, he chose a venue that was perfect for it: every subject in the universe could wind up on the President’s desk. What it comes down to is something as ancient as the Greek tragedies: Big events are happening somewhere off-screen or off-stage, while our characters sit in a room and talk about it, debate, and decide what to do – all in a compelling way. When the story is done right, talking about the action is as powerful as seeing the action. That’s why the special effects were cheaper back in 500 B.C.
Not only did Sorkin not resort to special effects in The West Wing, he insisted on talking about problematic issues intelligently, while never resorting to sex, violence, or even a mini-skirt. And he still got good ratings. Imagine that.
Now imagine something else. Imagine a writer who believes he can change the world by showing us the beauty of what he sees. Take, for example, the power of friendship. The two main characters in Sports Night were best friends, who supported each other through tough times. In The West Wing one recalls the time Bartlet was about to reveal the fact that he had lied to the American people and everybody’s life was about to turn into a living hell. Bartlet sat his aide Charlie down, and said: “I’m confident in your loyalty to me. I’m confident in your love for me. But if you lie to protect me, if you lie just once, if you lie just a little, if you lie because you can’t stand what’s happening to me and the people making it happen, if you ever, ever lie... you’re finished with me. Do you understand?”
That is how you write love.
In the first episode of Studio 60, we see the friendship of Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford respectively) two friends who know each other from forever-ago, know their faults and worship their talents. Now here’s the trick: What does a friend do to lift a friend when he is completely on the ropes? He gives him responsibility.
After he hears that Whitford had fallen off the wagon for the first time in 11 years, after listening to his friend, after offering to help, to go on a vacation, after making sure he’s fine, Perry brings him back by gently laying the responsibility on his friend’s shoulders: “Forget that. But it’s going to be our show now. And only one of us can screw up at a time. And I think we both know that most of the time it’s going to be me. You’re the big shoulders.”
A friend says ‘Save me’, and the other friend now has to put on the human mask, get off the floor, and save him. And that’s how he is saved, as well. It’s a male-friendship thing, because men like to pull themselves out of trouble by putting on masks. And, boy, it works. In real life and on television, when written by someone who has experienced it more than once. It’s a motif that appears throughout Sorkin’s writing, and now that his two characters are such good friends, perhaps we’ll explore it again and again.
There is one more element to Sorkin’s writing that is revealed in everything he does: He wants to do some good, and he believes in his audience’s ability to achieve it. When he tackles things he thinks are wrong, he does not simply criticize, he criticizes constructively. He does not just topple, he helps us build, by showing us how things could be done.
Sorkin seems to believe he can fix at least part of the world. Not through hubris, but through persuasion, and by showing us that we are capable of something better and more beautiful than what we have achieved so far.
There are many examples, but certainly one of the most touching is his 9/11 speech. In the second episode of the West Wing’s fourth season, terrorists put some bombs under bleachers in a university, and the bombs go off. Everyone is horrified, of course, and the President gives a speech that day. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t the speech Sorkin wishes Bush had given after 9/11 about the tragedy and about the firefighters. Sorkin uses his supreme talent to find exactly what the American people needed to hear then and probably still need to hear now. He is giving us his version of the 9/11 speech with Martin Sheen’s delivery:
“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of its own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke, an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago in Kensington State University. Three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition when, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. ... Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. When every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge we look up and we’re reminded that our capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.”
Sorkin believes that writing can affect change, that writing can move mountains. That it can blow the roof. That it can make us better people. That it can make us cry and make us laugh. That art, when done right, makes us better people.