It’s not everyday that a writer can say that they have cracked the stage, network television, cable television and the movie world in the way that Aaron Sorkin has done, but then again not every scriptwriter is Aaron Sorkin.
A career that has taken in some of the most prestigious projects on both the small and big screens, as well as the stage, he is without doubt one of the great writers of our time, managing to bring brilliant dialogue and plotting to our attention in a way that is unique and brilliant.
Starting his career as a struggling actor, Sorkin would then make the movie to writing, eventually writing stage productions, eventually delivering the critically acclaimed A Few Good Men, subsequently made into a massively successful feature film, starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, with a supporting cast made up of Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland. The movie, directed by Rob Reiner, would infiltrate the pop cultural hemisphere thanks to a brilliantly staged final courtroom confrontation between Cruise and Nicholson, with Nicholson’s delivery of the line “you can’t handle the truth” becoming instantly quotable and famous.
In many ways it solidified a form of writing that Sorkin would make his own and use throughout many of his projects, with scenes that mixed witty conversations, plot exposition delivered at a hundred miles per hour and quirky and intense character development that would prove a powerhouse style of scripting when Sorkin made the move to American television.
Before that, he would also contribute to the suspense thriller Malice, before delivering a script for one of the 90’s best romantic comedies, The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. The film was, and still is, the type of romantic comedy that unfortunately never gets made anymore; a mature, well written comedy that mixes romance and humour to very classy effect.
With the stage and movies having been conquered, Sorkin would next make the move to television, making a considerable impact.
Sports Night only lasted for two seasons, but in many respects could be seen as what a Sorkin television series is in a microcosm; dealing with the media, professional characters trying to do their best in an industry that wants professionalism but in a safe and non-controversial way, a great cast of characters delivering great dialogue and a major supporting role for Joshua Malina.
Produced for the ABC, Sorkin had major disagreements with the network over certain aspects of the show. Promoted as a sitcom, the show featured a jarring laugh track that never really worked and which was eventually phased out as the series went on, and whilst coming across as a situational comedy, it was in reality much more of a comedy drama rather than a fully fledged sitcom.
Despite critical acclaim, and starring the likes of Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Josh Charles and the late Robert Gauilliome, the series was cancelled after two seasons, although many other networks and cable channels did offer to purchase the show. By the time the series was in it second season, Sorkin was creating and showrunning two shows. Whilst Sport Night was hilarious and frequently enjoyable, it was Sorkin’s second series which would prove to be a classic.
Debuting in the Autumn of 1999, The West Wing became a massive hit commercially, as well as critically. Starring, amongst others, Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe and John Spencer, and with one of the greatest ensemble casts of any television show in recent memory, the series was both glossy, classy and intelligent.
Accusations that the series was way too left-wing weren’t entirely unfounded, but the show was so damn enjoyable that it was hard not to get carried along with it regardless of political affiliation. It may have been a drama series with no genre elements, but it did become a fantasy show that nearly everyone bought into. As the Clinton-era gave way to the Bush-era, and the intense controversies over 9/11 and the War on Terror, the series played into the audience’s fantasies over an administration that whilst not always perfect, strived for perfection and tried to do the right thing, even with a fractured political system getting in their way.
Sorkin only wrote for the first four seasons, but his tenure and exit from the series were controversial at the time. A hands-on writer, Sorkin pretty much wrote every episode, using a writers room to break stories but essentially writing every teleplay himself and only letting his writers get a “story by” credit only, whilst his exit from the show, allegedly due to a falling out with Warner Bros. Television and possibly by his arrest on drug charges, had him leaving the series on a cliffhanger that replacement John Wells had to resolve.
For all those controversies, the first four seasons of the show are among some of the greatest works ever created for mainstream American network television, and not for nothing the series was usually credited along with The Sopranos for creating the modern “golden age” of American television.
Not always perfect, however, the third season opened with an out of continuity response to the events of 9/11, whilst audiences and critics were less enamoured of the storyline involving the Bartlet Administration dealing with the fall out over the public revelation over the President’s suppression over his MS diagnosis.
Funny, dramatic, moving and deeply sentimental, at its best The West Wing delivered some of the greatest television of its time, none more so than the season two finale, “Two Cathedrals”, which must surely rank as not only one of television’s greatest ever scripts, but with Martin Sheen’s portrayal of a grieving President Bartlet, giving television one of its greatest ever performances.
His next series would be the divisive Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Although problematic in the second half of its one season run, the series was brilliant when it was flowing smoothly, and once again delivered well crafted, well scripted and intelligent television, this time set behind the scenes of a late night, Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy series.
In between, Sorkin would make returns to the theatre and the movies, and it was on the big screen where he had his biggest success since The West Wing. First up was Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by the late, great Mike Nichols, but with The Social Network, Sorkin would deliver a script that would pave the way for a critically acclaimed, box office hit, as well as an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Directed by David Fincher, the movie told the story of the creation of Facebook. Taking it cue from Ben Mezrich’s novel The Accidental Billionaires, some debate remains over how accurate the movie was, but Sorkin’s script was brilliant, mixing dialogue and intense character development to a breathtaking degree, and was brought brilliantly to the screen by David Fincher, with superb central performances from Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer.
Another return to television followed with The Newsroom for HBO. Like Studio 60, the series received a mixed reaction from critics and audiences. Some hated it for its portrayal of a fictional newsroom dealing with real-life news stories, others (this reviewer included) loved every minute of it. Running for only three seasons, it was a short run, but a brilliant one that never out stayed its welcome and has a lovely flow with a beginning, middle and end. Featuring sterling work from Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston, complete with a brilliant Thomas Newman theme, the series was one of the most underrated in recent years.
At the same time, Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs became something of an urban legend due to the fact it couldn’t get filmed. David Fincher was attached to direct ,with Christian Bale and Leonard DiCaprio linked to the leading role, but it remained stuck in development hell for several years, before coming to the screen under the eye of Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender. Critically acclaimed, but faltering commercially, it was another high mark for the acclaimed screen writer.
Now set to make his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, and with a Lucille Ball biopic also in development, Sorkin’s profile has risen ever higher throughout the last couple of years. Although still regarded as one of the greatest writers working in Hollywood today, his work is not without controversy. His works have sometimes been accused of indulging in white privilege, whilst some of his projects use scenes that could be construed as examples of “mansplaining”, most evident in many West Wing scenes were Josh (Bradley Whitford) is delivering plot exposition to Donna (Janel Maloney), whilst his television shows do frequently portray a left-wing bias that is frequently used by right-wing commentators as a stick to criticise his work.
Despite these issues, his use of words and his manner of scripting television and movies that are grown-up, intelligent, funny and moving mean that his work stands the test of time. Even if he only had The West Wing on his resume, it would be more than enough, but given the work he has done, and the work that is still to come, he is, love him or hate him, one of the most important and brilliant of writers.