Their Politics May Be Different. Their Means of Messaging Definitely Are
Last week, while perusing the New York Times Magazine, I saw an interview with TV and filmmaker Adam McKay. ‘Interview’ is actually a loose term; it was a diatribe. (At one point, he interrupted his interviewer.) I won’t go into details, except for one item that really struck me.
McKay was asked about his style of film making and the politics involved. When asked if there was a conservative equivalent of him in Hollywood, he said: “I think my closest equivalent on the right would be Aaron Sorkin.” To quote the great Amber Ruffin, when I saw this: “I was like, whaattt?!”
Aaron Sorkin? The writer who spent the better part of the third and fourth season on The West Wing fully attacking the idiocy of Republicans? The writer whose Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was such a disaster because it spent the lion’s share of its time berating politics? The writer who spent the entirety of Season 1 of The Newsroom explaining to everybody the evils of the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, and Scott Walker? That guy’s too conservative for you?
Leaving aside the unanswerable question of just how far to the left McKay must be by that standard (I don’t think Bernie or AOC would fit his politics by those measures), I’ve spent much of the week considering a comparison between McKay and Sorkin. And there is a very clear contrast along with some similarities. Both men spent a lot of their early careers in television — McKay wrote for Saturday Night Live from 1995–2001, and we all know where Sorkin spent much of the 2000s working. Both went into films after awhile. But both had gone in radically different directions in their filmmaking; Sorkin’s films were for the most part, apolitical; McKay wrote wild comedies and does some very political films. And I think there is a critical difference in their approach to films over the last decade that drastically represents how they view the world.
So in this article, I’m going to look at the movies both Sorkin and McKay have made over the past decade to given an overarching example of how they view the world and perhaps more importantly, how they view their audience. (Because I haven’t seen Sorkin’s latest film, Trial of the Chicago 7 I’m not going to discuss it.)
Now it’s worth noting that two of Sorkin’s earliest films The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War were very political — you could see The American President as what would be the bible for The West Wing and Charlie Wilson’s War took a very look how at how the Soviets in Afghanistan ended the Cold War, but also very clearly laid out just how badly we, as Wilson himself is quoted in the end titles: “f…ed up the end game.” But in these movies (and in a stark contrast to what we got in The Newsroom) Sorkin never forgot that his principal job was to entertain the audience. There were speeches near the end of both movies that could be considered lectures, but Sorkin would undercut both of them by showing them as entertainment.
For the next three films Sorkin did something that I’m pretty sure any sane critics would’ve consider impossible: he made brilliant, compelling narratives that became critical hits, and in the case of the first two –box office draws — out of stories that most people would’ve consider unfilmable.
The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook; how Mark Zuckerberg, a man with apparently no social skills at all created the most successful social media site in history. The fact that did so without considering the feelings of anybody else, and that he utterly dismissed the only friend he had as just good business, may have been the clearest, and frankly most foreboding insight to the man who became the youngest billionaire in history. Indeed, it’s worth noting that at no point in the entire movie does Sorkin even attempt to make Zuckerberg likable or even relatable. He is an arrogant asshole from start to finish, so we can’t say we weren’t warned. The movie also unfolds in flashbacks from deposition were the other vital characters are suing Zuckerberg for stealing from them and throwing them out of the company. We really should’ve considering that a warning.
I’m not saying that more than a decade later, we can watch The Social Network with innocence (if we ever really did; Sorkin never lets his subjects or the audience off the hook). But it’s hard to deny its power. It takes a story that you’d think was comprehensible and does it at a fast pace, snappy dialogue and genuine wit. Its small wonder Sorkin won an Oscar for it.
If anything Moneyball, Sorkin’s follow-up, should’ve been an even harder film to sell — it’s a baseball movie that deals almost entirely with the front office, rejects athletics for mathematics, and doesn’t even have a happy ending — the A’s have yet to win the championship despite their game changing approach. But Sorkin somehow managed to make this story work, in my mind, even better than The Social Network. It helps immensely that Brad Pitt is in the lead as Billy Beane, A’s executive. This is one of Pitt’s best roles as a man trying to build a winner with no money, following methods that go against everything his scouts and front office think, and with no certainty at the end. It’s a sweeter movie than Social Network with some genuinely cheerful moments that deservedly got Sorkin his second consecutive nomination for Adapted Screenplay.
I’ve never been entirely sure what to make of Sorkin’s biopic of Steve Jobs. I’ll admit it’s a more interesting approach than the Ashton Kutcher version that came out a few years earlier. We see Jobs just prior to introducing three major projects in 1984, 1991 and 1998. But at no point in the entire movie does Jobs come across as sympathetic, likable or even tolerable. Part of the problem may be the work of Michael Fassbender in the title role. He was best known to American audience as playing Magneto, and that level of arrogance and detachment is present throughout the film. He turns on everybody in the entire films; the techs that won’t do what they tell him is impossible, the executives who tell him his ideas are bankrupting Apple, he won’t even acknowledge his own daughter, and is somehow surprised at the end of the movie that she utterly hates him. I’ve never been entirely sure what Sorkin was trying to say in his portrait of Jobs, and it’s telling that perhaps the most pertinent comment comes from Steve Wozniak, after Jobs utterly humiliates him before a major presentation: “It’s not binary, Steve. You can be gifted and decent.” There is no indication in the film that Jobs ever was. Even the last minutes of the movies, where he seems to open himself just the slightest bit to Lisa, the daughter he once said could’ve father by 26 percent of the population, has always seemed to me like just another business opportunity to me. I’m not surprised this movie was a box office disaster; not even Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue can make you feel anything for this man as either an icon or a human being.
Molly’s Game is a different story, probably because it’s far more human. Telling the story of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic athlete who ended up running a high stakes poker games where Hollywood stars and Russian mobsters would end up playing, it is entertaining practically from beginning to end. Molly goes out of her way not to present herself sympathetically, but because of the situation she’s in — facing indictment under a trumped up RICO charge — it’s impossible for us, like her attorney, not to feel for even as we chastise her decisions. The movie has some of the greatest performances in any Sorkin film. Jessica Chastain has made a habit of playing hard to like beauties, and she is perfectly cast in the title role. Idris Elba as Charlie, her unlikely attorney, gives one of the greatest performances of his entire career, including an absolutely incredible monologue near the end of the film that absolutely should have been the center of getting him an Oscar nomination. And Kevin Costner gives a small but utterly exceptional performance as Molly’s perfectionist, seemingly indifferent father. In an incredible scene near the end of the movie, he does something that would be utterly impossible in any other actor’s — or writer’s — hands and explains to Molly and the audience exactly why she did what she did and that she’s wrong about one of the greatest assumptions that has driven her life. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that we never really understand why, even with her back against the wall, Molly will not turn on her patrons, many of whom we have seen viewed her with other contempt through most of the movie. And I’ve never understood what the last line was trying to tell us. (To be fair to Sorkin, I repeatedly misheard it, and had to use subtitles to know what it was. To be fair to me, I’m still not sure what it means.) But it’s still an utterly joyful and entertaining ride from beginning to end.
If there is a constant theme throughout Sorkin’s writing, it’s that his characters are smart, witting and speak quickly — I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s reference to Tarantino in that, like him, you’d love his movies if they were books on tape. And for all their complicated subjects, Sorkin’s characters never talk down to their audience. You can’t say the same for McKay’s films which I will discuss in the next half.