Making a drama out of a crisis

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

After ‘The West Wing’ it’s hard to believe Aaron Sorkin when he says that his new series, ‘The Newsroom’, is just a romcom. It has enough of his trademark liberal idealism to keep his right-wing detractors busy, writes MICK HEANEY

IN THE SPRING of 2010,after spending a month working on an idea for a new drama series, Aaron Sorkin was ready to throw in the towel. The American screenwriter was determined that the fictional journalists in his new show, set in a cable-news network, would deal with real events, the better to re-create the spirit of crusading intelligence that imbued The West Wing, his best-known series. But having spent months researching his subject on the floor of the news channel MSNBC, an unhappy Sorkin had been unable to crack the dilemma: how can you use real news if you don’t know what it is going to be when the show is on the air?

“I didn’t think I was going to solve this problem. I was honestly an hour away, if not minutes away, from making the decision not to do this show,” says Sorkin. “And while I was thinking all this I just happened to be staring blankly at a television monitor in the newsroom [with a feed of] an underwater camera showing oil spilling out of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. [It was] day 55 of the oil spill, and they had a spill cam. And I looked at it and went, hang on, why does the show have to take place today? I understand when we say period piece we usually mean 100 years ago, but why can’t you do a period piece that’s two years ago?”

Sorkin’s eureka moment paved the way for The Newsroom, his first television series in five years. By setting his new drama in the recent past he not only figured out a solution to his problem but also got “some really fun storytelling tools to work with”. This approach captures the appeal of Sorkin’s best script work, from The West Wing to The Social Network: his ability to combine high-minded subject matter with the bottom line of entertaining as wide an audience as possible.

Sure enough, the infamous BP spill features in the first episode of The Newsroom, which starts on Sky Atlantic next month. But while the show is peppered with jeremiads about the decline of television news, it is also marked by zippy exchanges and charismatic characters, most notably its two main protagonists, a grumpily disillusioned anchorman named Will McEvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, and a zealously driven Anglo-American producer, Mackenzie MacHale, played by Emily Mortimer. As Sorkin tells it, The Newsroom is, at bottom, a “romantic workplace comedy”.

“We shoot our show at stage 7 of Sunset Gower studios, and there’s a plaque outside that stage reminding you that’s where The Monkees was shot,” he says. “My intentions and my goals are exactly the same as theirs were: I want you to have fun watching this show, that’s all. I’m not an activist, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, I’m not trying to persuade you, teach you, preach to you, anything like that.”

TO ANYONE FAMILIARwith the socially aware themes that drove The West Wing this may sound a tad jarring, if not disingenuous. But just as his shows straddle the smart and the accessible, so in conversation Sorkin veers between studied self-deprecation and highly opinionated fluency.

Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel suite, he exudes the easy confidence of a writer whose career has been studded with glittering successes, from his first play and subsequent debut film script, A Few Good Men, to his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network. He even sports a glowing tan to match. “When our mothers told us to wear sunscreen they may have been right,” he says. “Also, when you spend a year completely indoors writing and then you step out into the southern California sun, this happens in two days.”

Sorkin’s achievements have not only required hard work; they have also come at a cost. Most obviously, there were the drug problems that afflicted him in the 1990s. More prosaically, there is the ongoing struggle to produce good work: “For me at least, writing goes badly much more often than it goes well.”

Despite his recent run of celluloid hits, from Charlie Wilson’s War to Moneyball, his CV is not an unblemished record of triumph. His last television series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes drama about a live TV comedy-sketch show, fizzled out after one season in 2007.

Then there is Sorkin’s progressive political viewpoint, which he says causes right-wing opponents to dismiss his shows as “liberal hogwash, only they use worse language”. It is no coincidence his new series is on HBO, a subscription channel with a culture of risk-taking: he thinks it unlikely that NBC, the commercial network that commissioned The West Wing in 1999, would make such a show now.

The Newsroom is unlikely to change the prejudices of his detractors, starting as it does with an agonised speech by Daniels’s character about how the US is no longer the greatest country in the world but still has the potential to be so. It is an arresting if grandstanding scene that sets the tone for the show’s theme about the disappearance of journalistic standards in the modern US. But for Sorkin this is not preachiness.

“Idealism is different. I’m crazy about idealism. I’m so idealistic that I wrote about a Democratic administration in the White House that was able to get things done. And this show was written with the exact same spirit.”

SORKIN’S NEW VENTUREdoes not resemble only its predecessor in its unabashed spirit of romantic idealism. Although The Newsroom is produced by HBO, the channel responsible for such ground-breaking dramas as The Sopranos and The Wire, it has the feel and pace of a mainstream network-television drama, albeit a supremely well-crafted one.

From its cast of instantly engaging characters, such as Sam Waterson’s hard-drinking yet benevolently patrician executive, to its old-fashioned narrative arc and ultimately optimistic outlook, The Newsroom owes little to the darkly pioneering shows on which HBO has built its formidable reputation.

Instead the show is driven by the highly polished homilies and hyperarticulate exchanges that have long been Sorkin’s trademarks. This signature style presents challenges even for a cast as experienced as that in The Newsroom. “Every two weeks you get 85 pages of brand new [script] and, looking at it, [you think,] Oh, Jesus,” says Daniels. “It’s not a mountain of dialogue, it’s a mountain range, it’s just relentless. But you don’t want Aaron Sorkin to pull back because the actor can’t handle it, so you work hard.”

If Sorkin’s work pushes actors, it also seems to inspire them. English-born Mortimer was drawn by the screenwriter’s vision of “how difficult it is to be idealistic, but how it’s important”, seeing her role as a “completely ridiculous and mad” mouthpiece for this particularly American ethos. But she was also attracted by the primacy of the writer in Sorkin’s shows. “I think I was very intrigued by that because of my dad,” she says, referring to her father, the late author John Mortimer.

“Aaron is the puppet master of the whole thing. I don’t think he really lets any of the other writers write a word of dialogue,” says Mortimer. “He’s there all day, every day, watching the first rehearsal off camera and then on camera for each scene, giving us notes. So it really is his baby.”

Sorkin’s hands-on involvement has helped to create high expectations. Even in Hollywood, the centre of the movie industry, more billboards seem to be advertising The Newsroom than cinema blockbusters. It remains to be seen whether the show can deliver on such hype: the reviews surrounding its HBO premiere have been largely lukewarm. After its US debut, on Sunday, Newsweek asked, “Is Sorkin’s show a flop?”

“That’s the cost of doing business,” says Sorkin. “Now with bloggers there are thousands of critics. And people who aren’t fans of mine tend to be very vocal about it.”

Whatever happens, Sorkin is not about to change his high-minded approach to appease the naysayers. His new show is, he says, “a plea for intelligence not to be regarded as a bad thing.

“And I’m able to say that because I don’t have much intelligence. I want to listen to people who are smarter than I am, because I think in a democracy it works best. We arrive at the best ideas when we can hear the best form of two competing arguments debated.”

The more he protests, the less convincing this self-portrayal sounds: he is no more a moderately-informed regular Joe than The Newsroom is a mere romantic comedy. For someone who has long sought to bring intellect and insight to mass entertainment – from the White House staff of The West Wing and the Facebook founders of The Social Network to the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, whose biography he is adapting for the big screen – Sorkin is oddly keen to play down his own gifts.

“I happened to grow up with people who are a lot smarter than I am, and I really enjoyed the sound of intelligence. I don’t possess it myself, but I possess the ability to imitate it phonetically.”

In the end, it seems, Sorkin is happy to let his work do the talking. “What you’re seeing is exactly as I intended, the best version of what I could do, of what I intended, without trying to please others.”

A few good lines: Sorkin's soundbites

A Few Good Men (1992)

In the court martial of two US marines accused of killing a fellow soldier, Tom Cruise’s prosecutor, Lt Kaffee, faces down Jack Nicholson’s hard-bitten Col Jessop in the witness box, causing him to crack. “You want answers?” Jessop asks angrily. “I want the truth,” Kaffee replies. “You can’t handle the truth,” thunders Nicholson’s character. Overnight, a movie cliche was born.

The West Wing (2001)

Often named by fans as the best episode, the season-two finale, Two Cathedrals, was packed with political and personal twists. But the bravura centrepiece is the anguished soliloquy in which President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) admonishes God for the woes besetting him and his country, ending with a long flourish – in Latin.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Sorkin’s witty side can get overlooked. After a misfiring meeting with the Pakistani leadership to discuss the war against the USSR in Afghanistan, Tom Hanks’s eponymous US congressman is in reflective mood. “You know you've reached rock bottom,” he says ruefully, “when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.”

The Social Network (2010)

At a Harvard hearing to rule on who came up with the original idea for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) comes out with a typically Sorkinesque zinger to settle the dispute: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

The Newsroom starts on Sky Atlantic on July 10th

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