Aaron Sorkin knows the weight of last words, and his last words to me, as we walk-and-talk out of the HBO press room, are: "Write something nice." He says this in the "Smile, honey" tone of much less successful jerks. It's not advice the Oscar-winning, show-bossing Jonathan Franzen of screenwriting would take himself, thank what gods there be. In Sorkinville, these gods are men.
At the short end of a TV season dominated, if not by shows about girls and women, by talk about shows about girls and women, Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom arrives with a "Hey, remember how great America was when it wasn't just a man's world, but a man's man's world?"
Episode one opens close on the camera-weary face of Jeff Daniels, playing an old-school network-news anchorman – Will McAvoy – with no public allegiance to any party, anybody, or anything. Sitting in front of 500 college students on a state-of-the-union panel with a liberal commentator and a conservative commentator, he's square in the middle, grim-jawed and resigned. He bats off questions slackly, unwilling to play their pundit games. Then, someone asks: "What makes America the greatest country in the world?" Pressed for a real answer, then pressed again, he whips to attention and shoots off.
And boy, those are some last words.
"We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labour force, and No. 4 in exports," he shouts, mid-orgiastic-spiel, reprising Howard Beale for an Occupied time. "America leads the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defence spending ..."
The mad-as-hell, articulate-as-heck monologue is Sorkin's favourite weapon. We saw it in his first movie, A Few Good Men, with Col. Jessup's indelible "You can't handle the truth." We saw it often on The West Wing, not only from the U.S. president but also from his men: Think Oliver Babish's "Truth isn't a luxury." We would've seen it on the NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had we watched it; so few did that it was cancelled after 22 episodes. We saw it in The Social Network, when the unreal Mark Zuckerberg stops slouching long enough to spit truth at his accusers. We saw it in Moneyball, but there it felt softer, wishier. No more. The truth is hard as a baseball, and Sorkin is going to shove it so far down your throat you see stars. Can you handle it?
Gawker's Drew Magary called The Newsroom "the most Aaron Sorkin thing ever" and – probably because Sorkin is unsubtly protesting the Gawkerization of news with his "civility, respect, and a return to what's important" theme – he did not mean it well.
Magary was jejune and vituperative, but he wasn't wrong.
Months before seeing the pilot, I read its entire (leaked) script. The show runs breathtakingly true to its words: There's the fiery, viral screed; there's McAvoy's terse implosion, when his executive producer leaves and takes half his staff; there's the buoyant alrightness of Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), his new EP and old flame; and there's the adrenalin-high drama that will make screen watchers care about news the way Friday Night Lights made me, an unathletic snob, care about football. The great American dialectic – optimism and realism, faith and reason – is thrillingly animated onscreen, but hardly moreso than on the page. I had to watch the show twice just to believe (a) how good that script was and (b) how incredibly convinced of its goodness, in every sense of "good," it was.
Hence, my first question starts, "I watched the pilot twice ... " But I don't get to the question part because Sorkin looks as if he wants to say something. I invite him to do so, and he asks, "Because you liked it so much the first time, or because you didn't understand it the first time?"
So huge is the hubris in thinking anyone smart enough to write about this show for a national newspaper might not be yet smart enough to understand it (should you fret about your own Sorkin-fathoming abilities, let me say that if you read Don Quixote in the ninth grade or studied American History in the 11th, you will be fine) that I just swallow and tell my own truth.
REPORTER: No, I think that there might be a third way, which is that if you're going to write about something, you have to look at it more than once.
SORKIN: So, it wasn't that you liked it so much the first time? You could have lied.
REPORTER: (Laughing.) No, I couldn't have. I did like it. I found it good, not as a show about media, but as a show about America. It's not the media that I find is most important now, television. … For me, it would have more personally fascinating to watch a show about Internet news.
SORKIN: There should be a show about the Internet.
REPORTER: There should be a show about Gawker.
SORKIN: (Pausing, while appearing to conceive the perfect murder.) Really?
Sorkin does not live in the age of Gawker. But The Newsroom is opportunely timed – at least for educated-liberal audiences – in part because this is an election year, and Americans are so divided that wild ambivalence seems like the only way left to feel. In larger part, it's because a certain kind of man is now freaking out over the loss of his greatness: Esquire is e-publishing "men's fiction"; Simon Fraser University wants to build a "men's centre," requiring perhaps refuge from the plague of 51-per-cent female enrolment; "misandry" is a word you hear people say and mean.
Really, all that's happening is that feminism has achieved some of its purposes and pluralism has taken root. Systems are tenuous; forces of change are multiplying; the great-(white)-man theory will not hold.
Sorkin, though, is winningly upholding it. The colonel, the president, the genius, the baseball coach, the anchorman, and next – as he's recently confirmed – no less than Steve Jobs: His subjects are masculine iconoclasts with traditional top-down power, who strive, in Graham Greene-type ways, to use it for good.
But on "real" TV news, these heroes are dying, and to mourn them is also to mourn a paternalistic notion of truth as something you should but cannot handle, when for the powerless vast majority it's so gossamer it just slips through our fingers. With one look into the steel arrogance behind Sorkin's eyes, I am sure he considers his life's tragedy that, in 50 years, there will be no Sorkin to write about him.
"I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties," he says. "I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate."
It was a great country, yes, for great white men. It was a great country when you could still trust in greatness. As many of us (who watch HBO, at least) long ago stopped believing in God, a God who for all Christian and capitalistic intents and purposes was male, it could not be much longer before we also stopped believing in things as theistic as neutrality and objectivity and omnipotence in journalism. I do not want us to stop believing in heroes; only in heroes who think, as Sorkin's heroes think, they're truth-raining gods.
Recently, in the L.A. Review of Books, rock critic/legend Greil Marcus railed against postmodernism: "Give me modernism. Modernism says the world has to be changed and we're going to draw a picture of what it ought to look like."
Sorkin could have said that. Sorkin can also say, as he does to me, that he is interested only in telling great stories, but those stories tell me he wants to draw the picture. In his work, and especially in The Newsroom, truth is the electric blue vein in the soft, nebulous flab of postmodern American culture. He believes that with a needle-sharp script you can find that truth, and that if he finds it, audiences will believe it too.
Belief is the least factual and most beautiful thing; as a weekly ritual, so is The Newsroom. Between the centuries-apart goalposts of Nietzsche's "We have art in order not to die of the truth" and Joan Didion's "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," the show scores high. Where it misses is with its intrinsic conflation of art (where McAvoy is the artist, his once-pure aims trampled by Internet traffic, demographics, advertisements, ratings) with the truth itself (he's also the storyteller, but MacHale, the show's bossy conscience, believes his story is the story. "Speaking truth to stupid," she says of her aim).
Sorkin doesn't see this. He denies being either an ideologue or a modernist, agreeing only that the show is written in his voice, and that said voice is "authorial" (both my word and his). I'd posit that creating an authorial drama in a time of mumbling, precarious, voice-of-a-generation comedy almost absolutely constitutes an ideology, one both modernist and masculinist. But conveniently, at that moment, the interview's over.
"Listen here, Internet girl," he says, getting up. "It wouldn't kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while." I'm not sure how he's forgotten that I am writing for a newspaper; looking over the publicist's shoulder, I see that every reporter is from a print publication (do not see: Drew Magary). I remind him. I say also, factually, "I have a New York Times subscription and an HBO subscription. Any other advice?"
He looks surprised, then high-fives me. Being not a person who high-fives or generally makes physical contact with interview subjects, I look more surprised.
"I'm sick of girls who don't know how to high-five," he says. He makes me try to do it "properly," six times. He also makes me laugh; I'm nervous, and it's so absurd. He loves it. He says, "Let me manhandle you." Then he ambles off, hoping I'll write something nice, as though he has never known how the news works, how many stories can be true.
The Newsroom premieres Sunday on HBO Canada at 10 p.m. ET.
Special to The Globe and Mail