In a script for The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin wrote the most insightful articulation of the source of the deep and seemingly unbridgeable division in this country, when he spoke, through one of his characters, about
“the hate the Right has for the Left, and the mountains of disrespect the Left has for the Right…”
Mel Brooks used to do a comedy bit where he’d rename words to make them sound more evocative of the objects they represent, but when he was asked to consider the word “banana”, he replied,
“’Banana’ is right.”
That Sorkin line is right. (And the root cause of our national difficulties.)
That’s why I like Sorkin. He says smart things in memorable ways. As a writer, it’s something to aspire to. Something to admire.
Sorkin comes to mind because I just saw the new movie he wrote, The Social Network. Twice. I don’t usually see movies twice. Not when I have to pay both times. I’ll watch them again on television. But that’s free.
Aaron Sorkin is the perfect writer for The Social Network. A smart writer writing smartly about smart people. And being a smart human being as well as a smart writer, Sorkin provides us with a “ring of truth” understanding of how smartness informs smart people’s characters, or at least the image they project of themselves – a combination of arrogance blended with a gnawing sense of personal unacceptability.
This isn’t a review of the movie. If you’re interested, go see The Social Network, and let me know what you think. I liked it a lot. Your opinion may differ.
When I see good writing, my natural impulse is to check under the hood, and see how it works. I can’t do that with machinery, because I don’t understand what I’m looking at. But I can do it with stories. It’s just the way it is.
I’m not shy about rewriting my heroes. When I was learning it on the piano, I (very slightly) changed the words to a Randy Newman song, and I think I made it better. With Aaron Sorkin, I haven’t considered exactly how I would change things. I’m only at the point where I’ve noticed a recurring, disconcerting element in his approach.
The element is “the bluff.” I’ve noticed that in a number of Sorkin-written movies, there comes a point where an essential component of the storytelling mechanism, upon further consideration, does not hold up.
I first came across this perturbing glitch amidst the winning characters and the smarter-than-the-average-bear snappy banter of A Few Good Men.
The movie, structured as a courtroom drama, centers on whether or not Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) ordered the “Code Red”, an unauthorized punishment, meted out in secret to Marines whose performance is substandard. The “bluff” here is that, from the first time we meet Jessep in the movie, we know for a certainty that he did. The way the character is written and portrayed, there is no reason to believe otherwise.
Still, Sorkin structures his screenplay in the traditional courtroom drama manner, as if it’s building to a climactic revelation on the Witness Stand. Like we don’t already know what it is.
At some unidentified moment, the storyline subtly shifts to a matter of considerably less interest – whether Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) will go the distance and get Jessep to acknowledge ordering the “Code Red” on the record, thus mitigating the punishment for his clients, but, more importantly, making Kaffee’s late brilliant attorney-father proud of him.
Sorkin seems to be hoping the audience will conflate the “courtroom fireworks” template with his “make Daddy proud” scenario, and remain spellbound by the proceedings.
It worked. Until later. When it suddenly came to me,
“That was a bluff.”
A second, less important bluff in A Few Good Men concerns the rationale for Jessep’s having ordered the “Code Red.” (Which, by the way, I don’t even know exists.) It’s the famous “You want us on that wall! You need us on that wall!” speech. The problem is, the movie was released late in 1992. By then, the “Cold War” being over, there wasn’t really much of a wall.
The rationale was a factual anachronism.
But a dramatic bluff.
Okay, so what? A couple of story elements in one movie that were less sturdy than I wish they’d been. “Give the guy a break.” “Okay, fine.”
But then I double-watche The Social Network, and darned if I don’t feel I’d been being bluffed again.
Billionaire and Facebook originator Mark Zuckerberg is being simultaneously sued by two separate plaintiffs, his former best friend and original Facebook CFO, claiming he has been aced out of his share of the company’s ownership, and twin brothers who contend that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them.
The evidence is unbalanced in a direction indicating that Zuckerberg is either guilty, or can easily be proven to be guilty on both counts. Plus, near the end of the movie, a female character sympathetic to Zuckerberg reminds him that, being a billionaire, the amount of settlement money he will be required to pay is like “a speeding ticket.”
Once again, a taut, this time, pre-courtroom drama, with, when you examine it, no actual suspense. Plus, very little at stake.
And yet, it works.
Reviewing The Social Network, Manohla Dargis, the respected film critic for the New York Times writes:
“The movie is paced like a thriller.”
It is. But at its core, from a “thriller” standpoint, there is nothing thrilling going on.
It’s just another bluff.
Okay, wait. What if it’s just me? I’m misunderstanding. I’m overstating. I’m distorting. I’m misrepresenting. What if this “bluff” idea is simply in my head?
I have to consider this. What if I’m flat wrong about the whole thing?
The Short Version Of Why I Don’t Think I Am:
I worked on the show Lateline, co-created by and starring (now Senator) Al Franken. In one episode, entitled “The Seventh Plague”, Al’s character, Al Freundlich, a nerdy reporter of the utmost integrity, is cast as a “White House Reporter”, specifically to give a major big studio blockbuster “verisimilitude.”
A real reporter, playing a reporter in a summer “Disaster Picture.” Rob Reiner, playing the character “Rob Reiner”, is the disaster movie’s director.
At one point, Freundlich emphasizes the need for total accuracy by referring to a memorable, but to Freundlich, embarrassing moment in the Reiner-directed The American President.
Written by Aaron Sorkin.
The President (Michael Douglas) is about to deliver the State of the Union Address. Accompanying him to the chamber where the speech will be given, his new sweetheart (Annette Bening) asks him how he “manage[s] to give a woman flowers and be President at the same time?” To which, the President unforgettably replies,
“Well…it turns out I have a Rose Garden.”
Freundlich, reminding “Reiner” that the State of the Union Address in traditionally delivered in January, then drives home his point about verisimilitude:
“Roses in January? I don’t think so.”
This exchange was not written by me. It was written by Al Franken, who noticed something “off” about that moment, and included in our script. The “Reiner” character’s response to the criticism?
“It was the best line in the movie.”
It may well have been.
But it was a bluff.
So you see? It’s not just me.
Senator Al noticed too.