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Aaron Sorkin’s Romantically Wonky Imagination

From the moment we meet news anchor Will McAvoy in the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” there are signs that a Sorkin monologue is brewing: a flicker of anger in the eyes, a twitch of facial muscles, a cloud of moral indignation settling in. McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is sitting on a panel at Northwestern, and two talking heads are firing partisan flak at each other from the chairs to his left and his right. A blond co-ed in the audience stands up to ask him a question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” And he’s off.  “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” McAvoy says. He cites our life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, and median household income. America, it seems, is not the greatest country in the world. But here the music swells: “It sure used to be.” 

The Sorkin sermon is by now one of our most recognizable cinematic tropes. It is a eulogy for lapsed American values, a one-man Greek chorus passing thunderous judgment on the action and pointing the way toward a nobler path. It is also a kind of verbal bonfire for the social vices—anti-intellectualism, commercialism, materialism—that Sorkin deplores. The subject hardly matters; the cultural stakes are always high. “I got into this because I like getting people to like sports, and I’ve turned into a P.R. man for punks and thugs,” says a disillusioned anchor on Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” his sitcom from the mid-’90s. Then there was the tirade in the pilot of the fatally self-serious “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” during which a producer fumed, “This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network.” And the speeches of “The West Wing” make up a canon all their own, each one a homily to Sorkin’s brand of liberal wishful thinking—President Bartlet in the Oval Office, for instance, describing the moon landing as “the time when our eyes looked toward the heavens, and with outstretched fingers we touched the face of God.” 

Bartlet was about as credible a vehicle for Sorkinian oratory as they come: brainy and dignified and armed with just enough real-world power to justify the preachiness. But there is no way around how ridiculous it feels to watch a cable news anchor build toward apoplexy in a lecture about our country’s moral decay. “We [once] reached for the stars, acted like men,” McAvoy tells the crowd at Northwestern. “We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it.” It plays like a bad Sorkin parody.

For Sorkin, though, there is no greater claim to moral authority than intellect, regardless of how smug and mean you are in the name of ideological evangelism. Will McAvoy is a relentless jerk. He can’t take a woman out to drinks without pointing out the holes in her character. “I’m on a mission to civilize,” he says repeatedly. In Sorkin’s universe, even this is held up as a kind of virtue. He is a jerk, but he is a passionate jerk, a jerk with a cause. 

But Sorkin’s idealism has two strains. If the first has to do with morality and human potential, the second is more concrete: the romance of smoothly functioning systems. In 2001, Sorkin told The New York Times that “The West Wing” is designed to imitate “just enough the sounds and appearance of reality.” His shows are not just liberal fantasies but workplace fantasies. In his hallways and boardrooms, every conversation seems steroidally enhanced. These are people whose neurons are always fully firing, who never have a dull or lazy moment. Sorkin slings data points like so many CGI laser beams. The dreaminess of his political illusions is offset by the specificity of his wonkiness. And his idealism is most appealing when applied not to sermons and rants but to organizations and institutions—in this case, the newsroom itself. 

WILL MCAVOY, SO the backstory goes, is “the Jay Leno of news anchors.” He has spent most of his career studiously offending no one, occupying a bland and predictable middle-of-the-road on a cable network called ACN. He is so afraid of alienating his audience that he refuses to take even the gentlest political stand. But then an ex-girlfriend mysteriously appears in the audience at Northwestern, and he snaps. It makes minimal sense that a nonpartisan ratings-obsessed anchor would spontaneously combust under some light probing from a panel moderator. But combust he does, and the network is left to pick up the pieces.  

Fortunately his boss is an affable drunk with old-school journalistic sensibilities. Network president Charlie (a charming Sam Waterston) wants only for Will to produce his best work, ratings be damned. So when Will returns to the job after a mandatory vacation, he learns that much of his staff has jumped ship—but Charlie has hired Will’s ex-girlfriend as his executive producer. This is MacKenzie McHale, a former war correspondent and the idealistic idealist to Will’s crusty idealist. Poor Mac has some of the airiest monologues, with lines like “Be the leader, Will. Be the moral center of this show. Be the integrity.” But she inspires Will to be a better journalist, just as Charlie intended, and sexual tension ensues. 

ACN, of course, is an endlessly exciting place to work. Breaking news events seem to happen hourly. (Sorkin sets “The Newsroom” in the recent past, so we see the team piece together familiar sequences such as the B.P. oil spill and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.) Will and Mac’s romantic drama plays out like theater-in-the-round in the newsroom. The battle between conscience and commercialism, between substance and showmanship, rages daily. Mac and Will electrify the newsroom with communal passion and purpose. “Who are we?” McAvoy asks when announcing the new editorial direction of his show. “We are the media elite.”  

It certainly sounds like satire, and in the hands of another screenwriter, it would be. In most onscreen portrayals of cable news, cynicism about the enterprise runs deep. The shadow that looms largest in “The Newsroom” belongs to Network’s Howard Beale, whose “mad as hell” outbursts set the tone for McAvoy’s opening screed. But when Beale takes a stand to denounce the injustices and hypocrisies of his age, he does not look like the smartest guy in the room; he looks like the craziest. The institution around him is exploitative and cruel, a moral black hole.

Not so with ACN. “The Newsroom” attacks what Sorkin has called the “Larry King-ization of everything”: the cultural drift toward cheap entertainment instead of hard news, the emphasis on human interest and sentiment over context and clarity. But this particular newsroom, of course, is doing its best against the cultural current. Despite commercial pressures, despite the obstructionism of greedy suits, any system Sorkin examines—the army, the government, a baseball team, a newsroom—will ultimately prove itself noble and vital and greater than the sum of its imperfect parts. The main thrill of “The Newsroom” lies in seeing talent and passion, intelligently wielded, produce slick and beautiful results. 

So Sorkin’s idealism works best when applied on the ground, not to high-flown speeches but to the inner workings of places and systems. Even the famous Sorkin walk-and-talk makes an office seem like a machine that is always in motion, its human components busily functioning as they deal with their assorted internal dramas. “Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” A Few Good Men, Moneyball, The Social Network, and “The Newsroom” all take the precise mechanics of subcultures and burnish them to a high shine. We are left to admire the intuition and expertise of the players, their preternatural skill at pulling off the daily magic of whatever it is they do. In “The Newsroom,” the moment in which the BP oil spill report comes together on air is spellbinding: when all the right sources are on record and the footage is rolling and the whole tragic mess is suddenly clear—this, far more than any rhetorical poetry, is what gives the show its occasional power.

It also helps that in a culture of irony, Sorkin’s earnestness seems strangely counterintuitive and new. Compare it to HBO’s “Veep,” created by Armando Iannucci, which inflates Washington’s inefficiencies into a kind of bureaucratic bloopers reel. “Veep” is “The West Wing” turned on its head: Instead of a sense of intelligent design in government there is only the chaos of colliding egos. Iannucci dismantles institutions; Sorkin polishes the gears and tightens the screws. 

Of course, Iannucci means to be funny and Sorkin, for the most part, does not. But even here—where so much is overwrought to the point of self-satire—there is something attractive about the intensity and the sincerity of Sorkin’s vision. “The Newsroom” could be a much better show. It could pull a few punches, restrain its message, subdue its noisy themes. Sorkin does not need his sermons to peddle his idealism. He should have more faith in the simple, nerdy charms of the newsroom itself.

Laura Bennett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.