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Aaron Sorkin's Lightweight Moral Gravity

And what's right about 'Burning Bush'

Melissa Moseley/HBO

HBO is happy to have "The Newsroom" back for a second season, and anyone who admires Aaron Sorkin half as much as he does will be pleased, too. It’s an entertainment, like a film by Capra or Hawks, lit up with Sorkin’s cockeyed faith in the antique news business. Amid the sharp talk, the handsome people, and the ingeniously interwoven storylines, Sorkin’s delight in his own skill embraces a fanciful newsroom where so many engaging characters—the best, the brightest, and the most eccentric—are stars. So Will McAvoy is an Edward R. Murrow for today who has difficulty putting his pants on, and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) can save an on-air crisis in seconds, and isn’t she wearing a new bra as she hurries back and forth—isn’t it emotion in motion? I wouldn’t miss “The Newsroom.” But I resist the suggestion that it has much to do with our world and our need to know. Just as “The West Wing” was Sorkin imagining himself president, “The Newsroom” is his chance to think it might be fun to run a news show.

But HBO seems less certain about what to do with a mini-series called “Burning Bush,” made for HBO by Agnieszka Holland, in Czech, about the case of Jan Palach. You may not know that name, but I’ll bet Will McAvoy could give you chapter and verse. On January 16, 1969, the twenty-year-old Palach, a student of history and political economy, used gasoline to set light to himself in Wenceslas Square in Prague. He had burns on 80 percent of his body before bystanders smothered the flames, and he died three days later. He left a note protesting the Soviet invasion of August 1968, intended to extinguish the “Prague Spring.” Palach called for the end of censorship, the closure of the Soviet newspaper Zpráva, and a general strike. His action implied that he was just first in a group that would all set fire to themselves. There were some other burnings, but it seems likely that the group plan was a myth. Still, “Burning Bush” makes “The Newsroom” look like indulged kids playing at All the President’s Men. If HBO wants their hit show, so be it. But they could take a chance on the real demoralization of Eastern Europe in 1969. After all, it has several resemblances to our America now.

But you may never see “Burning Bush”—not if you weren’t at the recent festival of Karlovy Vary, or in Prague for the television premiere—so I should spell it out for you. Notice first that Palach does not really appear. We see the young man, and then a whirl of flames in a reflective window. In the hospital, we observe the white muslin trying to protect him. Instead, we see the distraught mother and some student friends, and then we meet the lawyer, Dagmar Burešová, who reluctantly takes the case that is the action of the film. In the attempt to evade or to distort Palach’s gesture, the authorities spread the report that he was crazy—isn’t it insane to oppose the modern state? One blackguard (a Czech who was previously a KGB informer) voiced this slur and the Palach family sued him for libel. Dr. Burešová is the lawyer who decides to take their case, though she knows the remote chance of success and the guaranteed reprisals.

Petr Stach as Jiří Palach; Tatiana Pauhofová as Dagmar Burešová

Agnieszka Holland is Polish by birth, the child of journalists. She lost grandparents in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her father died in mysterious circumstances when she was thirteen, after police interrogation. She went to Prague to study film, and was there for the famous spring. Later she spent six weeks in prison, and acquired fluent Czech. So she knew the city re-created in “Burning Bush”: the squat cars, the cramped flats, the cobbled alleys, the desolate rural railway stations, the grim simplicity of life, the grace in a cup of coffee, and the attention drawn to anything other than drab, gray costume. With that anonymous clothing goes the pinched guarded faces of many Czechs, accustomed to instability, dread, and the lack of hope. What prompted Palach was less a need for particular reform than the overall despair of the country. He sacrificed himself. The lawyer in the film is the only movie-like person on view in that she is played by an attractive actress, Tatiana Pauhofová. That casting may be excessive, or HBO’s longing for something good to look at. As it happens, the actress is outstanding, but we do have to buy into the equation between her looks and her virtue. It is worth knowing that Dr. Dagmar Burešová was a real person who became minister for justice under Václav Havel.

“Burning Bush” comes in three episodes, over three hours in all, in drained color, newsreel intercut with the drama, and with a gallery of haunted faces. It re-creates an occupied country, and a recent past of great hardship and worse fears. That’s the great contrast it makes with “The Newsroom,” in which the journalists are cute and aglow with the self-delight of actors who are employed. (If you ever want to have a lost soul in a film, find an unemployed actor. But the moment you hire him, he’ll brighten up.)

I suspect Aaron Sorkin believes that “The Newsroom” is on the cutting edge of our conscience, as well as being a captivating fifty-two minutes once a week. In this second series, there promises to be an extended arc in which Will and his newsroom (in ardent pursuit of ugly truths) get into legal troubles. But Sorkin is drawn to those face-saving plot devices. So in “The Newsroom” he frets and fusses over whether Will and MacKenzie should be married (in the way of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday) without ever realizing the way marriage (that concluding institution) is now beyond defense or beside the point. Sorkin believes that politics are personal. He has a point, and it is surely the code by which the American movie has existed. Thus, in The Social Network, which he wrote, there is a gossipy eagerness for Mark Zuckerberg the indolent scoundrel, but none at all in the complications and demoralizations brought about by the universe of Facebook.

So Will’s program agonizes over whether to acknowledge the Casey Anthony trial, and never notices that America at large prefers to know more about “tot mom” than about Iran, Afghanistan, or the banking crisis. Will and MacKenzie are beautiful stars above the news, with the merry turmoil of their lives. You can trace this ethos back to the noir heroics of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (with an assist from Jason Robards Jr.) saving the Constitution. That was a slice from the old pie that started with Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper as Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds. But the Constitution now seems like a board game manipulated by the hallowed few whose task it was to protect and preserve it.

So turning to “Burning Bush” is to go back in time and to come forward in sensibility. It refers to a bush on fire, but never consumed or dying: an expression of Palach’s legacy. Holland, who has worked in many countries with honor, knows enough to realize how far we keep slipping toward the indifference and the ruthlessness and the helplessness that are destroying our political culture. Perhaps that sounds alarmist when, like Will, we can relax in our spacious apartments listening to cool rock, sipping a single malt, and brooding on our love lives. We can seem like enviable figures in advertisements, but we are dogged by ghosts of our former selves.

Whereas Agnieszka Holland has made Europa Europa, In Darkness, and a version of Washington Square, while also doing a fine job with episodes of “The Wire” and the pilot of “Treme,” both HBO creations. The America that goes to the Middle East more with hardware than local languages is supposedly aggravated by having to read subtitles for the Czech language. Is it asking too much for us to know anything about Czech history—a Masaryk is mentioned in “Burning Bush”—or about the significance of a Jan Palach? There are scenes in the new “Newsroom” where Neal (Dev Patel) goes to an Occupy Wall Street meeting and gets to talking with a pretty young woman, except that she declines to be a leader or to be political, because in America “occupy” is a vacant lifestyle, not a sacrifice. “The Newsroom,” more than it knows, but in ways it cannot hide, concerns a country and a communications system at the end of their tether. “Burning Bush” is about a society that was desperate, or numb, and had to decide between the two. At the very least, we deserve to see both. (For anyone concerned, I believe that “Burning Bush” will play on a large screen at an American film festival in the next few months.)

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.