Aaron Sorkin’s hero complex

The West Wing

The big news from the interview that Aaron Sorkin did for Hero Summit was the surprisingly detailed amount of information he gave about how the Steve Jobs movie that he’s writing would play out, for obvious reasons. (It’s actually kind of disappointing, since I was basically hoping for a sequel to Pirates of Silicon Valley.) But what struck me the most was a throwaway remark he makes when the interviewer asks him how he might have written Mitt Romney’s concession speech.

“In my world, Romney wouldn’t have given a concession speech,” Sorkin replies. “I could’ve had him win.”

He never explains exactly what he means, but goes on to suggest that in his version of the campaign, Romney would have been the sort of bold truth-teller who stands up to the extremes in his party and makes an appeal for common decency. And it’s probably the most telling moment in the interview, because it kind of perfectly captures the style and limitations of Sorkin’s writing.

A little earlier, Sorkin protested at length that he doesn’t really follow politics, notwithstanding most of the stuff he writes about. But the idea gets a lot more believable if you consider that his writing really doesn’t spend much time worrying about the process of government. During his four years writing The West Wing, the show focused mostly on media relations, foreign crises and debates that vanished as soon as the episode ended. The Bartlet administration never really had a coherent governing philosophy or legislative agenda; its major accomplishments amounted to vetoing a bill to repeal the estate tax and appointing Edward James Olmos to the Supreme Court. But that wasn’t the point of the show; the point of the show was to show members of government as earnest, hardworking people who were trying really hard to do…something. What exactly they were doing mattered less than who they were.

He’s taking a similar approach with The Newsroom, and it’s even more transparent this time around. Will McAvoy seems to view good journalism as lecturing whoever’s within earshot about whatever’s on his mind; the part of the business that focuses on actually gathering information and discovering the truth always happens offscreen. What’s more, all the characters’ jobs, backgrounds and interests seem to be in constant flux based on whatever the episode requires of them: Elliot Hirsch goes from being an empty suit news anchor who claims to be happy as an empty suit news anchor to a foreign correspondent who can’t wait to hit the streets of Egypt essentially because Aaron Sorkin had a story to tell. And nobody really needs to do any reporting, because stories usually just drop into their hands.

It makes sense. Sorkin presents himself as someone who thinks in broad strokes, which is something that can get lost on account of how intricate his writing gets. It’s why his stories pivot on grand romantic gestures and profound one-liners, and really why they’re so fun to watch. But he also doesn’t really engage with the problem that’s been getting him in trouble, which is that he seems to think he can understand a character without understanding the world they live in.

During my time as a reporter, I came to think of journalism as having two modes, one that’s focused on people and one that’s focused on issues. Sorkin seems to find a weird fusion of the two: He writes about a lot of issues, but they don’t ever make much of a difference because his stories are about people. So he wrote a movie about the founder of Facebook that said next to nothing about the Internet (or about Mark Zuckerberg, for that matter). And in each of Obama’s presidential campaigns, he penned a couple imaginary conversations featuring Jed Bartlet delivering cathartic exhortations that Obama should “GET ANGRIER!” and saying very little about Obama’s actual presidency.

There probably isn’t any single writer who had a bigger influence on my own storytelling style than Aaron Sorkin did. Sports Night and The West Wing were two of the only shows I’d regularly watch during my younger years without cable. (Since our TV could just barely pick up NBC, I effectively got to experience The West Wing as a radio play.) And he’s found a masterful  way of blending character and exposition, creating a scene around a discussion that’s full of telling moments even if the viewer knows nothing about the subject in question. So it’s funny how different our outlooks really are.

His approach works because he knows how to make a story feel compelling on a human level, along with the classic entertainer’s mantra that he shouldn’t let the facts get in the way. The problem is that once you’ve seen this movie a few times, it starts to get old. And without a clear sense of the world around his characters, the whole thing starts to break down.

I haven’t really developed a coherent philosophy for my own writing, and I’ve won about 100% fewer awards for it, so there you go. But as much as I like thought experiments (and idealism!), if I were writing the story of this campaign, I’d be less interested in inventing a version of Mitt Romney who can win the election than I’d be in exploring why he didn’t.

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