The Brilliant Films Of Aaron Sorkin, Perhaps The Greatest Screenwriter of Our Time
Part 1: The American President Came Before The West Wing — And Holds Up Better
Over the years I have written several articles about the television series of Aaron Sorkin and how that while his style was brilliant and some of his series were incredible, the lion’s share of his work has not aged particularly well and after he left The West Wing, the idealistic tone of his TV has become increasingly out of touch with the darkness and cynicism that makes up the best of the new Golden Age.
However, I don’t hold that opinion with the movies he has made. Of the ten movies to date that he has screenplay credits for, at least seven of them can be considered classics of the screen. He has won one Academy Award for screenwriting and has been nominated three more times and he received many nominations from other critics groups for Charlie Wilson’s War, Molly’s Game and his most recent movie Being The Ricardos, which received multiple acting nominations. His screenwriting debut A Few Good Men was nominated for Best Picture and he received Golden Globe nominations for it and The American President (both of which, I should mention, he wrote before he was ‘Aaron Sorkin’) There are almost no screenwriters with this great a track record who do not also direct their own movies (something that Sorkin didn’t begin doing until Molly’s Game)/
And with the sole exception of Malice, an Alec Baldwin-Nicole Kidman potboiler, which does have some quotable dialogue (it is a Sorkin film) all of these movies are superb entertainments. It isn’t merely for the great dialogue, it is also because all of them are fundamentally about something, all of the characters are smart and can make even subjects that should be uninteresting incredibly entertaining to watch. Sorkin may not fit in with television any more but he remains one of the greatest screenwriters in history.
While the style of Sorkin’s films are all the same (whip-smart dialogue, brilliant acting, fascinating characters) they all are entertaining in different ways. Some of them have themes that were obvious on first viewing, some of them are far more subtle than you might have picked up even on multiple viewings. I have been wanted to write about Sorkin’s movies for a very long time as much for personal reasons as anything else. So this is the first in what will be a recurring series about Sorkin’s films. And I think it is fitting to start with the one that I have the greatest personal attachment to. It’s probably not his best film; but its by far the most entertaining.
For more than twenty years my family has loved The American President. Whenever one of us found it channel chasing, even by accident we would stop what we were doing and generally all of us would gather in one room to watch it. There were more than a few late family dinners and late nights because we chose to see the movie all the way through no matter what time it was when it started. It was part of our repertoire for so long I honestly don’t know if we had already fallen in love with it before we knew that Sorkin was the screenwriter. (We’d already collectively been watching The West Wing but I’m no longer sure when we first saw the film or how long we’d been watching The West Wing by the time we had.)
At this point in history, I imagine that even those who love Aaron Sorkin’s work would be inclined to dismiss it as ‘lesser Sorkin’ (as if there could be such a thing) or merely as an ancestor text for The West Wing. It’s easy to understand the latter reasoning: this is, after all, a film set in D.C. with a President who seems far too good to be true, Martin Sheen, the future President Bartlett is the Chief of Staff, West Wing alumnus such as Joshua Malina and Anna Deavere Smith have small but critical roles and even the environmental group Annette Bening works for would end up appearing on an episode of The West Wing. There are even a few phrases every so often that would show up on the series: at one point, when decided to attack a building in Libya, Sheen tells Andrew Shepherd, among other things, “it’s a proportional response.” Shephard counters: “One of these days someone will have to tell me the value of proportional response.” This exact exchange would occur in one of the first episodes of the series.
But there is far more value to The American President than that. For one thing the movie is an outlier in almost every other Sorkin movie. It is not only one of only two screenplays he wrote that is a completely original work of fiction (his eight other films are either adaptations or adaptions of actual events) but it’s also the only true comedy not only in his movie repertoire but his entire artistic work. For all of the fast paced banter and witty dialogue that made up his TV shows, all of them were essentially dramas. Even Sports Night, classified as a comedy, never fit easily into the traditions of 1990s comedies, which may have been the main reason it never did particularly well with the Emmys at the time. The American President, for all of the seriousness regarding the subject, may very well be the only work in Sorkin’s resume that can truly be considered a comedy. Many people would later compare Sorkin’s dialogue to screwball comedies from the 30s and 40s; The American President is the only movie he made that basically could have been made by Frank Capra or Howard Hawks if they had made films in the present.
Perhaps even more amazingly its also the only romance in his body of work that is absolutely perfect. I’ve commented on multiple occasions that among Sorkin’s utter flaws, he absolutely could not make any of the romances in any of his series seem plausible: he was great when it came to the flirting, but could never deliver on the romance. (Josh and Donna only managed to hook up after Sorkin was long gone from The West Wing. Sports Night was an exception; the relationship between Natalie and Jeremy was perfect from the start and probably could have been ended well had the show not been prematurely cancelled.) The fact that he chooses what should be the most unbelievable idea for a romance possible — the President of the United States wants to start dating a woman — and not only makes it believable but practically combustible — makes it so frustrating that this would be the only time he ever got it perfect.
In this the movie is helped by the absolute perfect casting of Michael Douglas and Annette Bening as his leads. Michael Douglas is clearly one of the greatest actors in history, but I’d argue that most of his best work was done in comedies rather than dramas. By this point in his career, he was getting typecast in intense dramas such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct as well as very dark action movies. Douglas was actually far more entertaining — and successful — in his comic films. He’d already given superb performances in three brilliant comedies with Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile and the wonderful black comedy The War of the Roses. As great some of his work in dark movies would be later on (The Game and Traffic are some of his best movies) his work in The American President represented a fundamental shift in the work he would do. Much of his best work from this point — his exceptional performance in Wonder Boys, underrated independents such as King of California and Solitary Man and his award-winning work on The Kominsky Method — shows how great a comic performer he is. His work as Hank Pym in Marvel’s Ant-Man movies almost makes them watchable even if you wouldn’t be caught dead in comic book film.
And Douglas is perfect in every scene he’s in. He has enough gravitas to pull of being President Andrew Shephard but he also has enough awkwardness when he’s fumbling around a woman he’s attracted to that he can do variations on slapstick and deliver pitch-perfect Sorkin dialogue at every occasion. (I’m not sure what my favorite line and situation comes to, but it’s probably when he’s trying to convince Sydney that this is perfectly normal, an Air Force helicopter arrives on the White House Lawn and he says nonchalantly: “My ride’s here.) Douglas was the perfect vehicle to deliver the stirring lines of Sorkin’s dialogue, but he’s also the perfect actor to show awkwardness and comedy. (I love the scene after he tells Sydney that they’re going to take it slow — and she walks from behind a curtain wearing only a shirt and he starts to fumble with his dialogue.)
My mother loves Annette Bening and thinks she is one of our greatest actresses, but still thinks her work in The American President is her absolute high point as an actress. That’s a high bar to cross for a woman whose been nominated for four Academy Awards (and still hasn’t one) and has starred in some other truly great movies. The thing is, I’m inclined to agree with her on this point. For all the power in her work in American Beauty, much of her performance is as much a caricature as it is a real person. And while she did do great work in films like Bugsy and The Kids are All Right in both of these films she was always being overshadowed by a brighter sun. Sydney Wade is probably her most perfect role: she is fundamentally love struck by the President early on, but she is a political operative and honestly has a far clearer glimpse of the political landscape that the President does. She is aware fundamentally how perilous this puts her position as the political consultant with the GDC from the beginning (her new boss makes it very clear when he shows her the front page of the two of them at ‘their first date’) and as much as she wants to follow her heart, she is more aware of the dangers of it than he is, which is why she spends the first half of the movie resisting his advances. She is also very clear on the dangers his political rival Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfus in a truly brilliant performance) and keeps warning Shephard well after their relationship has advanced. Throughout the movie she is able to keep her professional and personal life separate and the inevitable break in their relationship occurs when she cannot comprehend why Shepherd thinks he can violate the former and still be fine with her and the latter.
I can understand why so many people think The West Wing no longer holds up in this age of polarization. I think that The American President, though it aired in theaters four years before The West Wing debuted on TV, actually holds up better and almost all of its points are in fact just as valid as they are in the age of cable news and social media. The fact that Andrew Shephard is essentially a single man and yet the Republicans decide to excoriate him because ‘The President’s got a girlfriend’ couldn’t be more pertinent in an era where only a married man is an acceptable model for Commander-In-Chief and ‘family values’ only seem to apply to one side. Rumson is more than accurate says that “When it comes to a good character debate, the press is a willing accomplice’, something that has only become clearer in thirty years even as it seems to matter less for one side than the other. It may seem slightly unrealistic that Shephard refuses to engage with Rumson until the end of the movie, but that seems to have been a strategy that far too many Democrats adapted to their own detriment over many election cycles. And when Shepherd gives his stirring speech at the end of the movie, the fundamental strategy he says for what winning elections has become has basically not changed from then and now. (I’ve mentioned it a couple of times myself to some doomcrying leftists at this point.) Indeed, some of the things that Sorkin has his characters say at some point are so blatantly obvious to me (I’m thinking of why Shephard asks why Rumson isn’t a member of the ACLU) that it astonishes me more than thirty years that no politician ever just cribs it wholesale.
In a way the Andrew Shephard White House is the inverse of the Bartlet one. In this White House, it is the President who is the idealists and the staffers who are realists about how America works. Smith, Sheen, David Paymer and Michael J. Fox (in what is arguably his best movie role) are always trying to tell the President that he can not just pretend that dating a woman is something the American people should have no say over. As the President’s approval numbers continue to slide and the bill they are trying to get passed becomes harder to get votes, they make it very clear that Shephard must do something to either address the issues or attack Rumson.
Fox’s performance is superb because of how it shifts over the film. He is the most easily agitated with the President from the start and as things get more precarious, he increasingly loses patience until a scene when an Oval Office scene where he finally explodes at the President. “Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking!” he yells and when A.J questions his attitude he says: “I have that right. He’s my President, and in American questioning the government is not only our right but our responsibility.” Then he looks Shepherd in the face and says: “But you already knew that, sir.” He delivers a brilliant speech about leadership which ends with: “People are so desperate for it they’ll go into a desert chasing a mirage and when they can’t find it they drink the sand.” This line, as well as the President’s as to why he believes people do so, is as dark a line Sorkin ever wrote about today’s politics — as well as one of his most accurate.
When it came out in 1995, many critics loved The American President; Roger Ebert put it on its ten best list. But it was a box office bomb even after being nominated for five Golden Globes (along with Sorkin, Bening, Douglas, director Rob Reiner and the film itself all received nominations in the Best Musical or Comedy category.) Americans do not go to political movies in general and while romantic comedies are popular, perhaps they chafed at the idea where the romance is as important as whether a bill involved curtailing global warming gets passed over one involving gun control. (Ah, the nineties.) And while this movie is idealistic when it comes to its politics, Sorkin does not forget that it is fundamentally a romantic comedy above all else. For all we know after Shephard’s brilliant speech, he ends up losing reelection in a landslide to Bob Rumson regardless. Sorkin knows that’s not idealism triumphing over politics as usual isn’t the happy ending this film deserves: he makes it very clear that it’s about Andrew and Sydney being together no matter what. (Their exchange before they kiss about why they broke up makes it very clear that’s not why he made that speech or why she came back to him.)
Perhaps that is also why even now I find The American President far more resonant now than ever. The people who work for the President are idealists but they are also workaholics who have to be reminded its Christmas. Congressman refuse to vote with the President not because of their corruption but because they fear for their seats. The President’s Chief of Staff may be his best friend but he knows just how much he needs to be pushed. The President is a good man who can get angry and shout an obscenity at his best friend when he reaches his limit. And the people’s opinion, rarely acknowledged as meaningful except as to how it affect the political winds, are discussed in a meaningful context without degrading them. Perhaps Andrew Shepherd’s speech at the end of the movie is not the kind that any President would ever have made at any time in human history. But that’s because he’s not just speaking to the American public, he’s speaking to the one person in the world whose opinion of him is the only one in the world that has ever mattered.
That may be the reason why this is the only film Sorkin has written that has an unabashedly happy ending because this the only time the real world consequences are irrelevant. In Casablanca, Rick famously told Ilsa: “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” This is the only story in Sorkin’s entire body of work where he argues the opposite, even — and maybe especially — if one of those people is the most powerful man on Earth.