Sorkin about a revolution: Why no one writes geniuses quite like Aaron Sorkin

The creator of ‘The West Wing’ and writer-director of ‘Being the Ricardos’ is known for being schmaltzy and didactic, writes Louis Chilton. So why does everyone keep coming back for more? It’s because he’s doing something that no one else does...

Wednesday 08 December 2021 06:33
<p>Aaron Sorkin and Nicole Kidman on the set of the Lucille Ball biopic ‘Being the Ricardos’ </p>

Aaron Sorkin and Nicole Kidman on the set of the Lucille Ball biopic ‘Being the Ricardos’

Think of an Aaron Sorkin production and several things spring to mind. Zinging dialogue, yes. A cheesy orchestral flourish, perhaps? A fist-pumping denouement? Certainly. The writer-director’s name has almost become an adjective, its own distinct sub-genre. Not Lynchian, or Hitchcockian, but Sorkinian. In Sorkin’s breakthrough film, 1992’s A Few Good Men, there was Tom Cruise vs Jack Nicholson (”You can’t handle the truth!”). There was the rat-a-tat political drama ofThe West Wing, perhaps Sorkin’s crowning achievement. There was Mark Zuckerberg, as played by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, speaking at breakneck speed, his sentences swathed in cold erudition, stressing the importance of "final clubs". And there were the swelling strings at the climax of The Trial of the Chicago 7, when the protesters are acquitted.

While his TV work has been a mixed bag, Sorkin has enjoyed sustained success in the world of cinema. His scripts for Moneyball, The Social Network and Steve Jobs were showered with acclaim (with The Social Network bagging him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), and he made the transition to directing look positively simple. His latest, Being the Ricardos, is another biopic about a genius in her field, focusing on Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) during the making of the seminal 1950s domestic sitcom I Love Lucy. In many ways, the subject matter of Being the Ricardos is fitting for Sorkin, who has more in common with the screenwriters of yore than really any of his contemporaries. His confrontational back-and-forths seem, at their best, like they belong in an Old Hollywood screwball comedy; his penchant for sentimentalism sometimes evokes Frank Capra.

But it would be wrong to paint Sorkin’s work as perfect. Indeed, his entire sensibility is, on some level, doomed to imperfection: the very features that make Sorkin’s writing so distinct are also the cudgel with which he is beaten. The earnestness and idealism that made The West Wing such a crowd-pleasing hit have aged like milk. In the era of Donald Trump’s presidency, the series’ dewy-eyed notions of bipartisanship and trust in the democratic process were rendered thuddingly obsolete. And this same corny pathos has coloured pretty much all of his work to date. Sorkin’s writing is as loud and unabashed in its shortcomings as its virtues. Why is it so easy, therefore, to overlook his flaws? The work succeeds despite itself, because there’s no one else out there really doing what he’s doing.

Though it was TV that really made Sorkin’s name as an auteur, he was unable to replicate the success of The West Wing elsewhere on the medium. Sports Night (1998-2000) was a sitcom set in the offices of a sports programme. An intrusive laugh track throughout the show’s first season showed the importance of metre and rhythm to Sorkin’s patter; the show was cancelled after just two years. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) was a notorious flop, a quick-witted but self-satisfied show-about-a-show following the makers of an SNL-style sketch series. His most recent foray into serialised TV was The Newsroom (2012-2014), another “behind-the-curtain” show about making TV that was openly mocked for its rhetorical heavy handedness and excessive schmaltz. At its best, The Newsroom managed to evoke the righteous tempest of Sorkin’s West Wing work. At its worst – an infamously misjudged episode about the death of Osama Bin Laden springs to mind – it felt like smug neoliberal hokum.  After The Newsroom came to an end, Sorkin told the LA Times that he was “pretty certain” he would not work in TV again. “I’ve had much more failure, as traditionally measured, than success in television,” he said. “I’ve done four shows and only one of them was The West Wing.”

Sorkin has also been chided for recycling dialogue. YouTube compilations have highlighted the (shockingly many) instances of him borrowing not just a phrase or sentence but sometimes whole conversational exchanges from earlier scripts of his. There ought, of course, to be nothing wrong with pilfering from your own repertoire – celebrated musicians do it all the time – but when they’re all juxtaposed one after the other, it all seems rather silly.

The rose-tinted optimism of much of Sorkin’s work sometimes seems to belie what goes on behind the camera. Sorkin famously struggled with a drug addiction in the 1990s, getting sober but relapsing in 2001, when he was arrested at a Los Angeles airport for possession of cannabis, magic mushrooms and crack cocaine. (He has been sober since.) Those who have worked with Sorkin in the past have spoken glowingly of his talents, while acknowledging a certain hard-headedness behind the scenes. The West Wing’s Richard Schiff recalled his audition for Sorkin to Empire, saying: “I had been used to improvising and even in the audition I was feeling free to rearrange Aaron’s words a little bit, as lovely as they were. I didn’t find out until after I got the part how furious Aaron was at me for doing that. They said, ‘He was livid. He did everything in his power not to jump down your throat!’”

Bradley Whitford, meanwhile, who worked with Sorkin on The West Wing and Studio 60, used to joke that “The West Wing was a great show about democracy, run by Kim Jong-Il!”. He has, however, spoken effusively about Sorkin on many occasions. Eddie Redmayne, who worked on Chicago 7, used the word “genius” when discussing his director on The Tonight Show. “The amazing thing about doing Sorkin is he’s just so much brighter than you are,” he said. “His characters are so much brighter than you... you get, momentarily, to have this speed of thought and feel more intelligent.”

Sorkin (centre) with Tony Hale and Nicole Kidman on the set of ‘Being the Ricardos’

Perhaps these strengths are the reason Sorkin has been able to transition so seamlessly into the world of cinema. Smart, witty, arrogant and argumentative characters – the Sorkin archetype, in other words – are always going to be inherently cinematic. (It’s easy to see why Sorkin was drawn to figures like Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs for inspiration) It is also these characteristics which other writers often struggle to write well. In order to make a character seem convincingly “brilliant”, they must win over not just the other characters but the audience. If, say, a line spoken by Jessica Chastain’s wily Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game doesn’t land, if she comes across as simply brash or big-headed, rather than quick and perspicacious, then the whole premise of the film would collapse. Depicting genius on screen is a balancing act, and Sorkin is a veritable Cirque du Soleil performer.

The flipside of this is that so few other screenwriters are capable of emulating Sorkin’s tricks. Part of the reason people are able to forgive his foibles, his didacticism and lazy recycling, is because there is almost no one else out there playing to the same strengths, writing with the same slick conversational rapidity. Who is the next generation’s Sorkin? You’d be hard-pressed to name them.

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The fast schmaltz: Sorkin in his younger days, on the set of ‘The West Wing’ season one

Not everyone is on board with Sorkin’s writing, of course – or his filmmaking. Chicago 7 was lavished with high-profile awards nominations, including six Oscar noms, five Golden Globes (winning for Sorkin’s screenplay) and three Baftas. But some of the reviews were less than impressed, with The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey ranking among the dissenters. In our two-star review, she wrote that Sorkin “reduces a great American injustice into a string of witty repartees”, arguing that the film had “all the moral force of someone who spends their days writing sarcastic replies to Trump’s tweets, while he tears down democracy piece by piece”.

Being the Ricardos has already attracted its share of doubters, too, with people preemptively criticising the casting of Kidman and Bardem for failing to capture the likeness and spirit of the real Ball and Arnaz. But early responses from critics have been roundly positive. It’s more than likely that you’ll hear Being the Ricardos mentioned a lot come awards season, with Sorkin’s name along with it. Even if it bombs, however, nothing will change. Sorkin has nothing left to prove. As far as screenwriters go, they don’t make ’em like Aaron Sorkin any more. But then again, maybe they never did.

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