A Few Great Men Too Many: Aaron Sorkin Doesn’t Think You Can Handle the Truth
It hasn’t been a great year for Aaron Sorkin.
I mean, it hasn’t been a great year for any of us, really, unless you’re one of the few American citizens who got a $400,000 windfall for doing no useful work, either by winning it on a game show or getting it in donations for killing a black kid.
But aside from the obvious reasons a Democratic Party stalwart like Sorkin might be upset—the 2016 midterms, President Obama’s approval ratings a resounding “meh” compared to the revolutionary fervor of six years ago, and the recent CIA report shouting out loud to the world that yes, indeed, “we tortured some folks”—Sorkin has some personal reasons to be upset. All you have to do to see how upset he is is to read his e-mail, which, thanks to his new nemeses the Guardians of Peace (not to be confused with his old nemeses, who have the same acronym), any of us can do.
Aaron Sorkin is frustrated that his Steve Jobs biopic fell apart. He’s annoyed that given the choice between two books to adapt for his next film project everyone seems to disagree with him which one is better.
He’s definitely fuming mad about the fact that we know about the above situation because journalists have been writing about it. He’s quite upset that people have read him snarking about Michael Fassbender’s junk, that some Asians—by which I mean every other Asian I’ve talked to about this—are upset that he said “There are no Asian movie stars,” oh, and especially that he dissed every actress who’s ever won Best Actress by saying it’s a less meaningful award than Best Actor.
You know what the funny thing is? From what I know from a history of on-again-off-again loving/hating Sorkin, there’s probably two things neck-and-neck for pissing Sorkin off this year—what happened to his fictional treatment of journalism, The Newsroom, and actual journalists in actual newsrooms.
The Newsroom aired its final episode on Sunday, already an eternity ago in news-cycle terms. While not an un-successful show per se—three seasons is never anything to sneeze at in today’s world—it certainly didn’t live up to Sorkinites’ hopes for a sequel to The West Wing.
It certainly didn’t end on the triumphal note The West Wing did. (I can personally recall the sheer wrath with which I was greeted when I was playing video games in the dorm lounge while The West Wing’s series finale was about to air.) The Newsroom has been dogged by relentless criticism since its pilot, to the point where Sorkin, while keeping a happy face on the situation, nonetheless has come out and said it may be the end of his career in television. But even for a widely criticized show it was shocking to see the massive storm of universal opprobrium its penultimate episode, “Oh, Shenandoah,” generated for its incredibly clumsy handling of campus rape right when real newsrooms were being rocked by the Rolling Stone/UVA revelations.
It reached the point where Newsroom writer Alena Smith took to Twitter to describe being kicked out of the writers’ room for objecting to the storyline, apparently mad enough about Sorkin’s misstep to burn her bridges with the man.
The most telling line from her tweets? “You can’t criticize Sorkin without turning into one of his characters,” she said, describing Sorkin casting her in the role of The Newsroom’s Twitter-addicted millennial straw-girl Hallie.
But of course if Sorkin’s critics end up playing the roles of Sorkin’s fictional antagonists, it’s surely even more true that Sorkin ends up in the shoes of his own protagonists—that he’s his own Jed Bartlet, his own Matt Albie, and now his own Will McAvoy.
It’s striking to see how often Sorkin’s stories revolve around the theme of One Man (and yes, it is always a man, and a middle-class intellectual white man to boot) vs. the Anonymous Hordes. People peg it as Aaron Sorkin vs. The Internet because that’s the easiest to make a supercut of but that’s just because the Internet is the easiest tool for the Anonymous Hordes to make their voices heard.
The Anonymous Hordes still suck in every other arena though. Every bad thing that happens to our friends at The Newsroom ultimately happens largely because they’re forced to chase ratings with a viewership composed of stupid Americans who won’t just shut up and listen to the truth. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip failed largely because it was about a comedian who saw his comedy as an earnest crusade to uplift the masses against their will, and we all know there’s nothing more desperately unfunny. (30 Rock succeeded where Studio 60 failed because Tina Fey understood there is no one more totally beholden to their audience, no one less able to afford even the tiniest shred of dignity, than someone being paid to make them laugh.)
And The West Wing? Where do we start with The West Wing? It was essentially a show about a world where the team working to dismantle and steamroll all opposition to the agenda of the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, was always right because this was a magical messiah president who was himself always right.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the show did a great deal to create a generation of Reasonable Democrats who fought tooth and nail for Hope and Change in 2008 and then went on to explain to the rest of us why it’s Reasonable for the Obama Administration to ignore all protest of drone strikes (much like those obnoxious protesters who Just Don’t Understand the Issues on the show) or to ruthlessly use the Espionage Act to suppress whistleblowers (what would C.J. do?).
If only people didn’t feel the need to weigh in on issues and disrupt the president’s critical agenda when the president is obviously right, whether they be legislators or the U.S. Poet Laureate or special prosecutors or even God. If only people would just leave him alone.
See the proto-West Wing, the 1995 film The American President, where the climactic, triumphal moment is the president saying he will ignore all political deal-making in order to massively slash fossil fuels and enact comprehensive gun control, even personally going door to door to “get every gun” if necessary. See how this leads to thunderous, bipartisan applause, which, as actual American President Barack Obama noted, is not how it would go down in real life. See how, symbolically, the film treats President Shepherd’s courage to ignore the naysayers and push tough legislation to his courage to ignore the ethical concerns involved in dating a beautiful female lobbyist who is telling him what legislation to push—even though in the latter case the naysayers are obviously right.
And see how this translates into Sorkin’s offscreen life. How he wrote an episode of The West Wing bashing muumuu-wearing, chain-smoking Internet losers and telling Josh Lyman to just ignore them after the website Television Without Pity called him out on screwing over one of his own writers. How said writer, Rick Cleveland, showed up as an unflattering parody, Ricky Tahoe, in his next show, a show about a genius showrunner forced by the exigencies of TV production to work with lesser talents who ruin all his ideas and hang him out to dry in public.
It’s only gotten worse. Now thanks to the miracle of Twitter Sorkin’s angry colleagues can call him out in real-time, as soon as an episode airs, rather than waiting for a scandal to come to a slow boil. Now thanks to the eternal memory of the Internet and the apparently porous security of corporate email servers Sorkin doesn’t just have to deal with blowback from his public statements but also his private ones, be they merely embarrassing or horrifically, skin-crawlingly sexist.
No wonder so much of his stance seems to be about pining for an older, simpler era when the media was more top-down than bottom-up, when crowds of angry Internet people—including female people, brown people, non-American people and people who happen to be people you’ve personally screwed over in the writers’ room—couldn’t make something into a story just because they felt like it.
No wonder so much of The Newsroom seems to be about lauding ACN less for what they do cover and more for not covering “tragedy porn” or “outrage porn,” and taking shots at other, lesser, non-fictional outlets for doing so. ACN stands stalwart in refusing to allow the plebs to hijack their Old Media power for New Media concerns, be it in their dismissive attitude toward Occupy Wall Street protesters or to college students who want to come out on TV.
Consider how some of the biggest stories of recent years have been about presidential candidates or corporate executives having their overheard remarks caught and publicized. Consider how one of the major stories of The Newsroom Season 3 is Maggie overhearing an EPA official making damning remarks against the president, refusing to publicize them and—there’s that Sorkin wish-fulfillment again—being given The Real Story as a reward for good behavior.
If only we didn’t live in this chaotic tumult of voices constantly warring for attention. If only we lived in the era when Walter Cronkite—featuring prominently in The Newsroom’s opening credits—could simply decide for us which stories were of serious concern and which were scurrilous, frivolous gossip. If only we had a Cronkite now to make it clear that February 1968 was the moment we had permission to be against the Vietnam War and still be considered serious-minded mainstream intellectuals, as opposed to the confusion over Iraq and Afghanistan we enjoy today.
No one is saying that all coverage is worthy and that there isn’t a lot of pernicious noise in the media today. No one, for instance, is saying that the right thing to do would be to dump the dox of the Sony leaked emails everywhere and let everyone do what they want with all of it. There are serious arguments over what to do when emails get leaked, or conversations get overheard, or formerly private events go viral.
And no, a black-and-white revelation that what we’ve always suspected is true—female actors are systematically paid substantially less than their male counterparts—is not on the same level as The Pentagon Papers, but Sorkin firmly declares it doesn’t rise to the level of “wrongdoing” in the “public interest” at all. Who gets to make this bold pronouncement on our behalf? A guy with hiring and firing power over actresses who, it turns out, doesn’t think women in acting are on average as good as men. Awesome.
The most insulting thing about “Oh, Shenandoah” was this denial of agency to anyone who’s not one of Sorkin’s Great Men. It wasn’t just that Don held the incredibly blinkered opinion that the rape victim he was interviewing was wrong to publicize her allegations in the absence of a court verdict. It was that he forcibly prevented her from doing so—lied to his boss that he couldn’t find her, sabotaged the on-air confrontation with her rapist she desperately wanted because said confrontation went against his better judgment, which mattered more than hers.
This is a running theme, that we are unable to make these important decisions, and shouldn’t. The rape reporting service described in “Oh, Shenandoah” is cavalierly equated to a TMZ-style celebrity stalking app, the same way Sorkin equates serious questions about systematic bias in Hollywood with using the leaks to mock Hollywood has-beens. Hallie’s evangelism of the flexibility and authenticity of New Media is punctured by her destroying her entire career by making one bad tweet (you know, as those silly girls on social media are always doing, in Sorkin’s world).
The U.S. Poet Laureate should shut up and not air her dirty laundry against President Bartlett’s land mine treaty in public. Matt Albie’s girlfriend Harriet Hayes should take his sage advice about the media and not ruin her reputation with a lingerie shoot (a situation eerily reminiscent of Sorkin’s own relationship with Kristin Chenoweth). There’s always a Great Man giving sage advice to some naive ingénue that is unwisely ignored—who, coincidentally, seems quite a lot of the time to be a woman.
In reality the Great Men of history have gotten quite a lot of things wrong. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president to whom Josiah Bartlett is most often compared, enacted the New Deal and beat Hitler, sure, great. He also unjustly imprisoned over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to no real end other than jingoism and racism, and did so with the total complicity of the Great Men in the news media. Great Men like Walter Cronkite treated Jim Crow and lynchings as business as usual in America, nothing worth talking about, until the populist tactics of civil rights leaders forced them to pay attention, with different tools but the same motives as the “hashtag activists” shouting in our faces about rape, torture, and police brutality today. (The ones with any claim to actual greatness, like Cronkite, were the ones who were willing to listen when something pierced through their bubble of privilege instead of sneering about “agitators” and “rabble-rousers.”)
The defining moment of The Newsroom continues to be its opening moments in the pilot—Sorkin knows how to write a good hook—and Will McAvoy’s public meltdown over how America isn’t the greatest country in the world “anymore.” The obvious rejoinder comes from Louis C.K.: a time machine to any supposedly lost era of American greatness wouldn’t be all that useful if you weren’t white—or straight, or male. Any time when we were the “greatest country in the world” that McAvoy could be thinking of would probably be a time when sodomy was a crime, black people couldn’t vote, and the law said spousal rape didn’t exist.
The modern era, warts and all, is for those of us who don’t have that white male privilege still the best era we’ve got. And it’s become that way because of people standing up and making noise and disrupting the boundaries of what Great Men of the time thought was reasonable and politic to discuss.
That’s not to say standing up and making noise is inherently virtuous. A lot of those people were wrong, sometimes vilely and atrociously wrong. A lot of those people were well-meaning but really, really screwed up. But here’s the thing if you call yourself a democrat, and a liberal—we all get the chance to screw up. Living in the chaotic mess of everyone’s flaws and failures—from the Weather Underground to the John Birch Society, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street—instead of suffering under the flaws and failures and self-serving prejudices of the few white guys who get to be in charge, is what democracy and liberalism are all about.
Sometimes democracy and liberalism are about speaking up about the great issues, like a massive foreign war. Sometimes they’re about smaller issues that tie into the great ones, like a single black teenager being shot by a cop in a suburb of St. Louis, or a single male celebrity getting away with rape for decades, or even a media corporation that doesn’t commit any obvious clear-cut misconduct but still systematically treats its female talent like crap. Sometimes it’s even about issues as small as a single, self-important screenwriter/showrunner who uses his talent and his bully pulpit to be a jerk to the people he claims to be defending.
I don’t want this to be all about a Sorkin hatefest. As my fellow on-again-off-again loving/hating Sorkin hobbyists—and there’s a lot of us online—would agree, the frustrating thing about him is that he can be better than this. The best moments in all of his shows were ones where his characters showed self-awareness, self-criticism, nuance, when he was able to admit that his Great Men could go too far—Jed Bartlet’s conflict with his conscience in the person of Toby Ziegler, Charlie Wilson in Charlie Wilson’s War wondering what he’s wrought by arming the mujahedeen.
Maybe it’s because he’s more comfortable hanging out with characters he doesn’t like for the duration of a feature film than a whole TV series. Or maybe it’s because with institutions that he feels no loyalty to, like Silicon Valley or the military, the glossy veneer of the Great Man more easily comes off to reveal the hubris beneath.
But my two favorite of Sorkin’s works are The Social Network and his very first big break, A Few Good Men, because they are complex portraits of men who are sympathetic and, yes, arguably Great in their own way—Jack Nicholson’s Nathan Jessup and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg—who end up becoming monsters because unlimited power, unchecked by humility or external control, corrupts without limitation.
Isn’t it ironic, then? Sorkin’s first big climax, the moment with which he revealed the depths to which his antihero had sunk, the moment meant to make us lose all faith in him, was the line “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”
And now, for three seasons of The Newsroom, arguably for much of The West Wing with its ambiguous approval of the games the White House staff play with the media, and most recently in his New York Times op-ed, here’s that same man repeatedly telling us, in all earnestness, that he does not, in fact, think we can handle the truth.
Well, for better or for worse, this genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The Newsroom is over, newsrooms as we traditionally understand them are rapidly declining, and New Media is here to stay. White, upper-middle-class, Ivy-League educated white men, however Great they are, are falling out of power.
We want the truth. And, whether or not you think we can handle it, we’re getting it.