Monday 1 February 2021

On DVD - John Baxter revives memories of the writing career of Aaron Sorkin and THE NEWSROOM (USA, 2012-14)


Aaron Sorkin


            If Lawrence Kasdan and Paul Schrader were the laureates of American cinema at the end of the last century, the twenty-first belongs, so far at least, to Aaron Sorkin.  He grasped more surely than anyone the dynamic nature of modern discourse, the fact that meaning resides less in what’s said than in the manner of saying.  The medium is the message (to coin a phrase). 

            A Few Good Men was almost unique in Sorkin’s work for having a beginning, middle and end. He soon abandoned narrative to concentrate on process, examining how events, as W.H. Auden wrote, “take place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” In this world, Mark Zuckerberg invents Facebook because he’s dumped by a girl, while the Russians leave Afghanistan because Charlie Wilson notices Dan Rather is wearing a funny hat.

            Watching – and, more important, listening to a Sorkin film is less like hearing a story than viewing a sporting event. His trademark mobile conversations in The West Wing, conducted at machine-gun speed as characters rush between crises, captured the febrile nature of life in the corridors of power, while the cross-purpose exchanges between Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara which open The Social Networkrecorded unerringly the combative quality of a relationship juddering towards terminal decline.  Neither, however, conveyed much in the way of facts. 

            Paradoxically, Sorkin has failed conspicuously at anatomising his own world of the media.  He came closest to success in the 2011 Moneyball,  which analysed the changing nature of professional baseball, but his contribution to that film was to rewrite a script by Steven Zaillian, to whom he credits its lucidity.  His series Sports Night  and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, both set behind the scenes of television, lacked any such coherence, and critics were also largely unanimous in rejecting his most ambitious attempt, The Newsroom.  

            This series debuted in June 2012 and ran for twenty-five episodes, ending in December 2014, when HBO, faced with falling ratings, axed it in the middle of its third year. Since then, it’s been available only on DVD, regrettable for a project that, in the era of YouTube, Instagram and Twitter,addressed how information is packaged and transmitted.

The principal cast, The Newsroom

            Sorkin follows the fictitious Atlantis Cable Network as it struggles to reclaim the prestige enjoyed by public service broadcasting under Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.  Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, anchor of its 8pm flagship News Night. A once-reputable commentator,  he’s become a “ratings whore,” fixated on personal popularity. Critics of his refusal to investigate the scandals on which he reports dismiss him as “the Jay Leno of news.” 

            All this changes when a student at a panel discussion asks him to define why America is the greatest nation on earth.  McEvoy is goaded by the anodyne responses of other panelists to rebut in acerbic detail the query’s self-satisfied assumptions. Far from being the greatest country on earth, the United States is “seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy” and leads the world in only three categories – “number of citizens incarcerated per capita, number of people who believe angels are real, and defence spending, in which it exceeds the total of the next twenty-six countries combined, all but one of which are allies.”

            This unexpected outburst jolts news director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) into revamping his division to emphasize serious reporting. To effect the transformation, he hires battle-hardened producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). That she was formerly McAvoy’s girlfriend re-directs the series into territory already well mapped by Howard Hawks in His Girl Friday and James L. Brooks in Broadcast News. 

Emily Mortimer Jeff Daniels

            Sorkin aimed to base each episode on a real event, beginning with the Deepwater Horizon oil-well fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Other segments covered the Ugandan genocide and riots in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Climate change was addressed in a dryly comic segment by a scientist (Richard Lieberestein) who describes the catastrophe to come. Jolted out of his professional detachment by this forecast of doom, McEvoy appeals for some hint of optimism. None is forthcoming. 

            For most of Year Two, the team grapple with a scandal inspired by CBS’s false claim that George Bush avoided service in Vietnam. On apparently impeccable evidence, ACN asserts that America usedpoison gas on Pakistani civilians. It must have been cold comfort to Sorkin when the furore over falsified evidence in the Iraq invasion showed that the media had learned nothing from CBS’s humiliation. 

            Notwithstanding the gravity of these events, we see them only as refracted through the private lives of those reporting them. The Uganda massacres are interesting because they traumatise one of the central characters, and coverage of the Arab riots takes a back seat to details of how a valued informer in Cairo is saved from exposure. Love affairs receive more attention than disasters, and characters move in and out of prominence at the whim of love, lust or chance. Just as Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) in The West Wing  applies for a job as a messenger but, because he’s black and the son of a heroic policewoman, becomes the president’s most intimate attendant, The Newsroom’s financial reporter, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), wins a spot in prime time because she’s just so damned hot. Others know more about economics  – “but,” McHale says succinctly, “they don’t have your legs.” Being a Sorkin character, Sabbith doesn’t hesitate “You want me to pole-dance while explaining sub-prime mortgages? I can do that.”

Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith

            Because it has no continuing narrative, a Sorkin series has no end, unless a conclusion is implicit in the subject: Jed Bartlett can only serve two terms as president, so we know there will be no West Wing II.Accordingly, The Newsroom  doesn’t climax so much as run out of emotional steam. We barely notice as, in the background,  News Night  is high-jacked by “citizen journalists” who accept payment in notoriety. Like the couple in Antonioni’s L’Avventura  who set out to find a missing friend and lover, only to fall in love with one another and stop looking,  the ostensible subject was never the point. 

            Reaction to The Newsroom  was hostile. Most journalists didn’t have to be told that news had no place in commercial-sponsored television. Nor did they mind Sorkin turning their profession into Falcon Crest. They did object, however, to what they saw as his superior manner.The Los Angeles Times  found the series"weighted too heavily toward sermonizing diatribes" and to the New York Times   it appeared to "choke on its own sanctimony." 

            They may not be so censorious now. The Newsroom foresaw better than anyone an America where right-wing demagogues could preach without restriction to the national audience and where a mogul-president could govern by Twitter. Closer to home, its fictional expert on global warming warned, presciently, of “mass migrations, food and water shortages, the spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires - way too many to keep under control;  storms that have the power to level cities and blacken out the sky”.  Sorkin had the last laugh - but as Bertolt Brecht wrote, “the man who laughs has not yet heard the dreadful news.”


            Jeff Daniels’ “America is not the greatest country” can be seen on Youtube here         

The interview on climate change between Jeff Daniels and Richard Lieberstein can be seen 

on Youtube here

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.