You Can’t Handle the Truth About Aaron Sorkin
I watched everything ever written by America’s finest creator of middlebrow entertainment—a Gilbert and Sullivan for our era.
IMDb images; Merrick Morton/IMDb images; Melissa Moseley/HBO.
In the first play Aaron Sorkin ever got produced, a one-act called Hidden in This Picture (1988), a director, a production manager, a screenwriter, and a P.A. bat around sassy banter while working on “a movie about disillusioned Marines in Guam playing war games that everyone in the industry knows is not going to make doo-dah at the box office,” as Reuben, the production manager, puts it. They’re making the movie on a farm in Schenectady, and preparing to film the final shot: sunset over a hill being traversed by soldiers. “This is an Academy Award-winning shot,” the director, Robert, says. He also says things like, “Call William Morris, find out who handles the sun, say we need a little favor.” The large star around which our planet revolves is being uncooperative.
What’s most notable about Hidden in This Picture is not that Aaron Sorkin, a quarter of a century ago, wrote exactly like Aaron Sorkin. Nor is it the already-present interest in backstage making-of stories, an interest that has since informed each one of Sorkin’s four TV series and a couple of his screenplays. Most notable are the repeated jabs at artistic pretension. Reuben keeps referring to the “Yale Drama crap” in the film script, and says that the writer “should’ve stayed in church basements in SoHo where if the audience doesn’t understand what the fuck is going on, they give him a plaque.” If you want “to be handed 17 million dollars to make a movie, with another 10 million to promote it,” he adds, “you better be pretty damn sure that someone in Des Moines is gonna buy a ticket.”
“Mr. Sorkin has some cutting remarks to make about the pretentiousness of the movie business,” declared Mel Gussow in the New York Times, “and, tangentially, the Off Off Broadway theater.” But that gets it backward. The man who is in the movie business, Reuben, is the closest thing the one-act has to a supposed voice of reason. It’s the auteurs and the Off Off Broadway types, with their “Yale Drama crap,” whom Sorkin really takes to task. Even when he was writing short plays for small crowds in Manhattan—Hidden in This Picture debuted at the West Bank Café Downstairs Theatre Bar (in, yes, the basement)—he was a proudly middlebrow writer who figured sensible people deserved smart, solid entertainment.
That Sorkin’s work is indeed middlebrow—is practically the definition of it—seems not to be universally understood. A profile by Dave Itzkoff published earlier this month in the New York Times, for instance, referred to Sorkin’s “willfully highbrow approach” to TV writing. But that’s probably more a comment on the general lowering of our collective brow than anything else. Sorkin would never, Franzen-like, claim to be part of a “high-art literary tradition.” If he aspires to belong to any literary tradition at all, it would seem to be the tradition of the Broadway musical, the most middlebrow genre there is. Seriously: In his new show, The Newsroom, Sorkin goes out of his way to mention a famous musical in every episode. Over the past few months, I’ve revisited everything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote, and I can say with certainty that the writers who get name-checked more than any other over the course of Sorkin’s considerable oeuvre are W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. No one else comes close.
While lowbrow art indulges—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes with genius—our basic, gut-level pleasures, and highbrow art challenges (or attempts to challenge) our various preconceptions, middlebrow art provides an intelligent diversion that ultimately leaves things just as they were before. That doesn’t mean it can’t be extremely satisfying. Consider the most successfully Sorkinesque movie of all, A Few Good Men (1992), which was adapted from Sorkin’s first full-length play. In the 40 years since The Godfather—to pick a semiarbitrary dividing line—can you think of a more old-fashioned Hollywood film? Two hours and 18 minutes of close-ups on the beautiful faces of big movie stars making eloquent speeches in courtrooms and over drinks? The good guys win, the bad guys make terrific speeches, and “The End” actually appears in grand, white-letter script over the final frames! It may as well have been made in 1952.
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Which probably sounds dismissive. But in addition to being eminently watchable—and, more to the point, rewatchable—A Few Good Men is far from empty-headed. In fact, the movie resonates today in ways that have gone mostly uncommented upon (perhaps because, as much as everyone enjoys the movie, no one really takes it very seriously). In the movie’s climactic courtroom showdown, Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup tells Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee that he did, in fact, “order the Code Red,” which is to say he told an inferior officer to tell two Marines to beat up a third, underperforming Marine. (In the course of that beating, the underperforming Marine dies.) Such tactics are necessary, he says, to protect the nation, even in “peace time.” “All you did is weaken a country today,” Jessup tells Kaffee, after the latter rather implausibly and very dramatically pries a confession out of him. “That’s all you did.” Jessup is defending the torture of one of his own men, rather than the torture of the enemy, but the contours of the debate are familiar. And in the real-world debate, of course, the one that started about a decade after A Few Good Men came out (and continues today), Colonel Jessup is winning.