Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The treacherous craft of Aaron Sorkin

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When I consider Aaron Sorkin and the weirdly watchable train wreck that is The Newsroom, I’m reminded of something that Norman Mailer once said about craft: “I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.” Craft, in other words, becomes a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, a way of disguising bad thinking or more fundamental narrative problems, when a writer of lesser facility might have been forced to deal more honestly with the true implications of his material. Mailer cites Robert Penn Warren as an example:

Robert Penn Warren might have written a major novel if he hadn’t just that little extra bit of craft to get him out of all the trouble in All the King’s Men…And his plot degenerated into a slam-bang mix of exits and entrances, confrontations, tragedies, quick wits and woe. But he was really forcing an escape from the problem.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like the The Newsroom, which so often confuses manic action and the rapid-fire exchange of factoids with drama and witty repartee. It’s a frustrating, often outright terrible show, and yet I find myself watching it with increasing fascination, because it achieves the level of badness that can only be attained with the aid of remarkable craft. Sorkin is a man of enormous talent, but in his best work, he’s been aided and restrained by other strong creative voices. The Newsroom gives us Sorkin uncut, without the guiding hand he needs to hold him back from his worst impulses, and the result tells us a lot not just about Sorkin, but about the nature and limitations of a certain kind of drama. Because watching this show forces us to confront what David Thomson, speaking about David Mamet, has called “the time-killing aridness in brilliant situations, crackling talk, and magnificent acting.”

That sort of “crackling talk” is a skill that can be learned over time, and Sorkin, who has written hundreds of hours of television, theater, and film, has had more practice doing it than just about anyone else. As a recent supercut made clear, he also tends to return repeatedly to the same verbal tics and phrases (“Well, that was predictable”). Yet this only reflects how good he really is. Sorkin is a machine for creating great dialogue, and like all insanely productive creative professionals, he likes to fall back on the same tricks, which he generates almost unconsciously. If he’d slaved over a line to make it work, he wouldn’t have used it again, but the fact that these lines reappear so often implies that they came easily. As Nicholson Baker says in U and I of John Updike’s reuse of certain images in his novels: “He liked it enough to consent to it when it appeared in a street scene the first time, and yet he didn’t like it well enough for his memory to warn him off a second placement.” And that’s the mark of a writer of almost supernatural felicity.

Yet it also conceals deeper problems of substance, as well as a disturbing lack of real ideas. As Sorkin recently said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” And what The Newsroom demonstrates is that Sorkin’s blessed ability with dialogue has left him underdeveloped along other parameters, a shortcoming that seems especially visible now. If you write wonderful words for actors to say, this can conceal any number of other limitations, sometimes for years, but eventually the mask starts to slip. Sorkin is a verbal genius, with the Oscar and Emmys to show for it, but without good collaborators, his gift tends to ripen and rot. What Sorkin needs, clearly, is a strong creative force to push against, which David Fincher provided with The Social Network and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells did on The West Wing—although his recent purge of many members of his writing staff makes it doubtful if this will happen soon. But I hope it does. Because otherwise, the show will continue to waste its great potential, and a legion of viewers can only say: “Well, that was predictable.”

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