Jeff Daniels, left, who portrays Atticus Finch in the broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird is seen backstage with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and writer, Aaron Sorkin before performing a reading at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the
Image Source: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Aaron Sorkin’s Liberal Fantasy Runs the World

Watching Sorkin’s work is an experience comprising one part awe and two parts frustration.

Recently, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that she was inspired to work in the White House because of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, a show about a fictionalized version of the White House, its idealistic Democratic president, and the staff that supports him. 

Truly, Sorkin and the current Democratic party have a lot in common. They recognize the problems of the world, but don’t want to dismantle the systems that give rise to them; they’d prefer, rather, to rearrange things so that liberals get to run the show. This is a worldview that reduces political players to good guys and bad guys, one that says what’s wrong with how the world works is who’s in charge. That’s a story that people like to tell about America and its systems of power, but one that buckles under the weight of actual American history.

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There’s no difference between Psaki chiding a reporter for daring to ask why the White House hadn’t sent free COVID tests to Americans that need them and Sorkin’s depictions of fictional press secretary CJ Cregg, who delivers her press briefings as if she’s a stand-up comedian responding to hecklers. The writer’s idealized read of liberal politics is read by liberal political actors as a model, and everything goes on from there. It’s an approach to politics—and the world—that’s smug, out of touch, and often loudly wrong. That all of it centers on Sorkin's place in the firmament is all the odder considering who Sorkin is.

Sorkin is a master storyteller who writes stories largely about men who can’t take criticism well. These men are rough around the edges, but ultimately noble—something they demonstrate by putting other people down. They are a lot like Sorkin, in other words. 

Sorkin’s films present him as an expert in things he doesn’t actually know much about: during the press tour for The Trial of the Chicago 7, for example, he said that he had only learned about the event a few years prior to writing a script about it. Regardless of how much research he did during its production, the movie definitely feels like he had only recently learned about his subject. It doesn’t much matter: The subject, as always, is how the world should be, according to Aaron Sorkin.

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His latest film, Being the Ricardos, which he wrote and directed and is up for three acting awards at this year’s Oscars, is the perfect synthesis of his best and worst traits. Individual scenes have a zippy chemistry right out of a screwball comedy or classic play, with the cast completely embodying their characters. Despite all this, the movie still comes off like he’s trying to play a shell game with history so you can’t dispute his claims. This is how his late period has gone. 

Watching Sorkin’s work is an experience comprising one part awe and two parts frustration. He might be a genius, but over the years his vision has turned away from the world and the people in it, and more towards himself and how he feels. If you agree with him and his liberal politics, great. If not, well, he will make it very clear how wrong he believes you are.

It’s hard not to admire Sorkin’s talent for crafting not just a turn of phrase, but a narrative, especially within the form of television. The kinds of storytelling Sorkin demonstrated on Sports Night, one of his earliest forays as a showrunner in television, were unheard of in the half-hour comedy format. Long-running plots, social dynamics that evolve over time, and even moments of poignant drama in a comedy show were things that Sorkin had to fight for at the time, and now are more or less standard for sitcoms. 

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Sports Night was canceled after Sorkin unsuccessfully fought for his vision for the show with the network, and that conflict bled right onto the page. These are some of the best episodes of the show, and also some of the best episodes of television, ever. Sorkin’s propensity for using his work to relitigate his own personal grievances, though, would foreshadow some of his worst tendencies as a writer. Many of these would come to fore in The West Wing.

To understand The West Wing, you only really have to go as far as its non-canon response to 9/11. In the universe of The West Wing, 9/11 doesn’t happen, but given that the show is about the president of the United States, Sorkin and the other writers working on the show wrote an episode that portrayed how these characters would have responded had it happened. (The West Wing’s third season was delayed because of 9/11. When it returned, this episode, titled “Isaac and Ishmael,” served as its premiere. The episode was written and produced in two weeks, and aired less than a month after the attacks. 9/11 is never directly addressed again in the series.)

It’s an impeccable piece of television, weaving the characters gracefully through the A- and B-plots as they outline a complicated global crisis. It’s also a valuable demonstration of Sorkin’s tendency to write around facts that contradict his overall argument.

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The A-plot of the episode features Josh Lyman and his secretary talking to a group of high school juniors and seniors who end up stuck at the White House. Because of the terrorist attack in New York, more and more people join the cafeteria where these students are stuck to try to explain and contextualize the attacks for them, culminating in the president and first lady personally delivering their take to the awe-struck kids.

Their perspectives on 9/11 were, at the time, a balm for a wounded country. Listening to them now, you can’t help but notice the things that Sorkin leaves out. While he does make an effort to reframe the conflict as not about people hating Americans for their freedom, through Lyman’s mouth, the end result still casts America as some kind of golden pinnacle of democracy besieged by some evil brown guys.

Josh Lyman gives the class a prompt: “Islamic extremists are to Islam as blank is to Christianity.”

While some students guess things like Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Christian right, Lyman tells the students that the correct answer is the KKK.

“The Christian right may not be your cup of tea, but they’re not blowing stuff up,” Lyman tells them.

Except, of course, they were. Even discounting Waco or Timothy McVeigh, which are closer in history to this episode’s airdate than they are to current day, the Christian right had been attacking and murdering doctors who provide abortions throughout the 1990s. Being against abortion is a right-wing position, and one that many right-wing Christians support. It’s certainly one of the major pillars of the Republican Party.

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While Lyman insists that this is “the Klan gone global and medieval,” he neglects to mention that the Klan is also active within the United States. And when Lyman attempts to tell the children that there are people with legitimate and specific grievances with America, his secretary Donna interjects that “a ridiculous search for rational reasons why someone straps a bomb to their chest is ridiculous.” 

All this becomes even more eyebrow-raising once you reach the B-plot: White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry investigating a Muslim White House staffer as a possible terrorist, specifically because this person is a Muslim. When this staffer bristles at being investigated precisely because he is a Muslim and has previously protested American actions in the Middle East, McGarry delivers a classic Sorkin-style bon mot, that encapsulates ones ideology and defeats one’s enemy at the same time.

“I’m trying to figure out why any time there’s terrorist activity, people assume it’s Arabs. I’m racking my brain,” McGarry says sarcastically, conveniently forgetting all of the homegrown, white American terrorists that made headlines in the 1990s. As this staffer further objects, McGarry says, “Well, that’s the price you pay.” McGarry declines to clarify what price this Muslim man is paying, and for what.

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Having experienced post-9/11 America, I know that the general mood at the time was incredibly myopic. It was hard to look back into history and understand how such an event could happen, let alone do the introspection necessary to wrestle with America’s violence against itself. Islamophobia was pervasive and incredibly violent. Over time, many people who held these political positions have changed their minds. Based on Sorkin’s career and what he has written since then, he has not.

Sorkin’s political beliefs are all over his work—not only has he created television shows about the White House and broadcast journalism, his films tackle political topics like Chicago 7 or the second Red Scare. Even in his not as overtly political work, Sorkin’s beliefs slip through, in both a broad and a more pointed sense. In Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show about a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch comedy, one early plot point revolves around a sketch that the network refused to air called “Crazy Christians.” In the second episode of the show, the lead character, played by Matthew Perry, declares that everyone should come to work wearing suits.

“What are you all wearing?” he starts out. “One of the things this show does is decide what’s cool, and I’ve just decided that it’s no longer cool for grown men to dress as if they’re in junior high school.”

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It’s hard not to feel put down when you’re watching this scene—especially if you disagree about what makes something funny. It breaks your immersion with the television show because it feels so incongruous. Despite Perry’s characters’ alleged bonafides as a comedy writer, the way he is talking down to other comedians feels out of touch. It doesn’t feel like what this character would say, or would even be worrying about at all. It feels like Sorkin—a man who seems never to be seen in anything more casual than a sports coat—is just lecturing you.

As a point of comparison, after years of dud seasons and a cast that hasn't really clicked, the standout new hire for Saturday Night Live is Sarah Sherman, who is unilaterally considered to be the new breakout star for the show. Sarah Sherman, who both writes for SNL and appears in sketches, is a woman who dresses like this:

Sorkin feels like an out of touch blowhard when he inserts his own, personal opinions on how people should behave in the world of comedy. As he tends to do more and more in the late period of his career, the way he puts his rants about kids these days in the mouths of his characters is infuriating. Studio 60 was canceled after one season, and Sorkin’s next show, The Newsroom on HBO, would dive even further into Sorkin’s tendency to just write about how he thinks the world should be. Both The Newsroom and Studio 60 open with a similar convention, inspired by the film Network. In each, a high ranking person working in television decides to go mask off and say what they really feel. 

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The Newsroom’s version of this went viral as soon as it aired. In it, TV anchor Will McAvoy is asked by a college student why America is the best nation in the world, and he explains that he doesn’t actually think that America is great.

In this clip, McAvoy humiliates this young woman for really no reason at all, calling her “sorority girl,” and says that she is a member “of the worst generation period ever, period.” But because this is a Sorkin show, the actual harm this man is creating in the actual room he is sitting in is overlooked in favor of his noble ideology. America might not be great now, but it used to be great, McAvoy concludes. As he keeps speaking, he goes from citing very specific statistics to more vague folksy wisdom.

“We waged wars on poverty, not poor people,” McAvoy says. “We sacrificed, cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chests.”

If you look at the historical record, none of this is exactly true. Searching for a time when this was factual always leads to a counterpoint—a way in which America and Americans subjugated themselves and others. The founding fathers were slave owners, during World War II we put Asian Americans in internment camps, we lost Vietnam (along with the lives of an estimated two million people), and the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. has clearly not ended. America may not be great, but the past that McAvoy wants to return to is mythological. Yet as he begins to intone on the ways that Americans just used to be nobler, the soundtrack swells with string instruments, and the camera pans into his face, which softens, his eyes moistening with tears. Sorkin is a good enough writer that even though this is basically a boomer Facebook meme, it still feels heartfelt.

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There is a way to salvage schmaltzy writing like this. Although Sorkin has recently been directing his own work, when other directors adapt his scripts they can feel radically different. The Social Network, arguably Sorkin’s best work, was directed by David Fincher, who isn’t the kind of director to opt for swelling strings or circular pans. With Fincher’s more staid approach, characters that speechify don’t feel like they’re meant to be taken as the smartest people in the room. 

Often, especially in the case of Justin Timberlake’s rock star take on Napster co-founder Sean Parker, they just come off as pretentious, like they believe their own hype. As a director, Fincher reframes these characters’ tendency to speechify as a tic that wealth and privilege grants you, letting them rant cruelly at each other in situations that highlight their pettiness, holding the camera on them as they try to convince themselves that they’re in the right.

Projects over which Sorkin has more control play out quite differently. Conversations are less between characters than between the unseen Sorkin and the unseen audience, with the details of whatever the nominal subject is not mattering much. The Newsroom in particular foreshadows what Sorkin’s late period would devolve into. Each season tackled real-world news from the year previous. While The West Wing took place in a fictionalized version of the country with fictional scandals and news events, characters in The Newsroom reacted to and reported on events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. You’re basically watching Sorkin say, “Hey, here’s how I would have done it if I were a journalist,” literally re-writing our own reality so he can come out on the right side of history.

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Nowhere is this more clear than in Being the Ricardos. The cast for this film has sizzling chemistry, and Nicole Kidman in particular as Lucille Ball absolutely shines. In the micro, everyone gets a lot of great material to work with. Lucy and Desi have a rocky but passionate marriage, the writer’s room clashes with each other and the cast, and Lucille herself has to figure out how to be a smart woman in a world where women aren’t considered much more than set dressing. Sometimes, Kidman’s performance transcends the film itself, pulling together all these disparate parts of a fascinating woman into a new whole.

It’s just that Sorkin is not especially an expert on the topics of feminism, or healthy relationships, or really anything other than how television is produced. The historical material surrounding I Love Lucy falls flat in every scene that does not take place in a writer’s room. His treatment of political events is particularly galling.

Being The Ricardos opens with a faux-documentary set-up—a choice that remains baffling throughout the movie’s runtime—explaining that Lucille Ball was at one point accused of being a member of the Communist Party and a traitor to the United States. This accusation itself is not really put into a proper context. Many characters state that this could kill I Love Lucy flat, but there is no discussion of the Hollywood blacklist or general brutality of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The closest we get is one character bemoaning that the studio asked a seven-year-old actor to sign a loyalty pledge, and another character rebutting that if that seven-year-old actor ended up being a Communist, he’d have to beat him up.

Communism being evil and having been a Communist being akin to being a traitor to America is simply taken as a given in Being the Ricardos, which leads to a curious flattening effect. Desi Arnaz, played with a bottomless well of charm by Javier Bardem, frequently bemoans the brutality of the “Bolsheviks” who persecuted his family in Cuba when he was 16. He mentions to other characters that they burned his house down, and killed all the animals, as if these acts make them murderous past the point of empathy. But the “Bolsheviks” that caused Arnaz’s family to flee aren’t the same people as the ones that were leading the Cuban Revolution in 1953. The film doesn’t make a clear distinction between the 1933 Sergeants Revolt with the later, more widely known Cuban Revolution. In fact, the revolution that’s going on during the events of Being the Ricardos was to oust the brutal (and U.S.-supported) military dictator Fulgencio Batista, who led the 1933 revolt to which Arnaz repeatedly refers. 

It’s unsurprising that Desi is written this way. In life, the man was a lifelong Republican and self-proclaimed patriot. But Lucille Ball, both in life and in this film, had a different opinion, and Being the Ricardos goes out of its way to say that she is wrong.

In the film, Ball tells representatives from the network and advertisers that she was raised by a socialist grandfather and joined the Communist party in the 30s to honor him. She doesn’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do the executives, really. Throughout the film, Desi describes this story as Ball “checking the wrong box,” which she strenuously objects to. It starts to become a symbol of the ways they can’t see eye to eye—he refuses to say that she checked the box intentionally, and she corrects him every time he says it.

Near the end of the film, Desi gets even more explicit in his objection.

“He didn’t tell you the part where they throw your father in prison for the crime of being the mayor of the city,” Desi yells at her. “Believe me, you checked the wrong box!”

Immediately following this scene, Desi has to warm up the I Love Lucy audience, where he has invited press to watch. He tells them that Lucille Ball can’t possibly be a Communist and has been cleared of all charges. To bolster this claim, he brings on a telephone and has the man on the other end say that there is no FBI case against Ball. The man on the phone? J. Edgar Hoover. The audience gives a standing ovation.

What happened in real life was considerably different. There was no phone call from J. Edgar Hoover. Desi Arnaz told the story of Lucille Ball’s grandfather, like she wanted him to.

Not only does this change make the story worse—what better note to show how much Desi loves Lucy than to have him honor her wishes?—it’s a little bit more than rearranging events for the purpose of a narrative. The entire event is a fabrication, down to the motives of the characters. This isn’t offensive in its own right—this is a movie, not a work of history—but the purpose of it is bewildering. The ultimate version of what Sorkin has explored in The Newsroom—rewriting history so he, and his personal political beliefs, can always be right—ends triumphantly with one of the most viciously repressive authoritarians in modern history vindicating someone who’d done nothing wrong by lying on behalf. It not only doesn’t make sense, it’s impossible to tease out what kind of sense it could even by trying to make.  

That’s only on its own terms, though; when considered in the context of Sorkin’s other work, the point is self-evident. In his world, things can be reduced to the good guys and the bad guys, the American government is always just in its goals, there is a shining ideal of America that once existed and which we must return to, and all your ideological enemies can be defeated by an impassioned speech. All it takes to make that into reality, of a sort, is being a clever enough storyteller to leave out the parts of history that contradict you. And just as Sorkin has learned from the American liberal tradition, so has it learned from him.