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Friday, January 17, 2014

Forget Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin should go back to politics

Posted by on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 11:14 AM

click to enlarge Aaron Sorkin - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Aaron Sorkin
This is an interesting moment for the playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. After months in limbo, his HBO series The Newsroom was just renewed for a third and final season. This should excite hardcore Newsroom fans, but there's another opportunity we'd like to see him pursue—his long-promised adaptation of Andrew Young's tell-all account of John Edwards' downfall, The Politician.

Sorkin acquired the rights to Young's book around the time of its publication in 2010, with the final stages of the Edwards drama—the death of Elizabeth Edwards and the besieged politician's subsequent trial for campaign finance fraud and his subsequent acquittal—yet to play out in the real world. 

Sorkin had planned to make his directorial debut with the story, but it fell victim to his success—his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, his writing for The Newsroom and his research for a planned Steve Jobs biopic started taking up all his time, along with a now-delayed film about the trial of the Chicago Seven for Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. As recently as July 2013, Sorkin said that he planned to tackle The Politician after the Steve Jobs project was done. But it seems obvious that in order for a film of The Politician to happen, Sorkin would have to clear a few things off his plate.

It might be worthwhile for Sorkin to make room in his schedule. As critical responses to his work veer from brickbats (NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) to near-universal acclaim (The Social Network) and back again (The Newsroom), The Politician is the sort of story that plays to his strengths as a writer, and could win him another Oscar if he can pull it off. 

click to enlarge Andrew Young's "The Politician" - COPYRIGHT ST. MARTIN'S BOOKS
  • Copyright St. Martin's Books
  • Andrew Young's "The Politician"

As someone who's read the bulk of Sorkin's work, from the Broadway non-starter The Farnsworth Invention to the early drafts of Charlie Wilson's War—which ended with the title character staring at the smoke coming from the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001—it's deeply intriguing for me to imagine Sorkin's voice adapting The Politician. It's also a thought experiment I conduct with caution, knowing how Sorkin's worst tendencies as a writer could just as easily lead the material astray.

It might sound odd to hang such caveats on one of the most acclaimed writers working today, but like all writers with a distinct voice, Sorkin has his indulgences. Seeing how those indulgences enhance or undermine each project is one of the great, fascinating parts of his work. Will the brilliance overwhelm the flaws, or will the recycled themes and ham-handed messages take over?

The Newsroom
, for example, attempted to critique the media in its first season by having its fictional cable news network get stories "right" after having the information they needed fall in their laps through some last-minute personal source. This often came off as a condescending lecture to both the audience and the real news organizations that work hard to report information.

There are countless other issues, such as Sorkin's problems with writing female characters and romantic relationships, his fondness for old-school melodramatic flourishes and pratfalls, and his reliance on straw-man antagonists to make the "good" characters seem more noble. At times, these shortcomings are downright painful—the less said about the first-season Newsroom episode exploring Gabby Giffords' shooting in a montage set to Coldplay's "Fix You," the better. 

That's why, entering the second season, there was genuine fear that Sorkin would offer sermons on Trayvon Martin and the Sandy Hook massacre (blessedly, he ignored the latter and kept the former to a minimum). The second season seemed like Sorkin battling against the tendencies that led to critics "hate-watching" the first season. An utterly flat storyline about the Romney campaign didn't bode well for the potential of a Sorkin adaptation of the campaign-trail setting of The Politician. Yet the flaws that recur in Sorkin's writing could actually work in his favor on this project. 

Young's book tells a fascinating story. Beyond the fun, for North Carolinians, of the local name-drops (Shelley Lake! Nantucket Grill!), the relationship between John Edwards and Andrew Young is the stuff of which psychology textbooks are made. Edwards comes off as almost sociopathic in how he uses his good looks, charisma and self-made story to craft a congenial surface that conceals a manipulative, entitled core. Young, meanwhile, comes off as a pathological sycophant. His fanatical, almost masochistic devotion to his employer makes him seem like an awkward high-school kid in awe of being allowed to do a popular jock's homework. 

Even Elizabeth Edwards comes across poorly for much of the book, ordering around underlings and breaking down over minor imperfections—though in fairness, she probably had other things on her mind. For all his efforts at self-effacement, Young's book has the tone of The Simpsons' Waylon Smithers deciding to finally write a tell-all on Mr. Burns.

So Young's story has the sorts of larger-than-life characters—such as the sad, strange figure of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, portrayed as a woman whose delusions of settling down with Edwards aren't far removed from Young's dreams of being his right-hand man—and situations that Oscar hopefuls are made of, balanced with more intimate moments and countless oddball campaign anecdotes.

click to enlarge John Edwards - PETER SMITH VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Peter Smith via Wikimedia commons
  • John Edwards

Though he sometimes tends toward hyperbole, Sorkin wasn't exaggerating much when he said this story would have "lit Shakespeare up." It's a funhouse-mirror version of the kind of idealized politics that Sorkin delivered weekly on his greatest success, the long-running NBC White House drama The West Wing. While that show inspired a generation of young people to get into public service, The Politician portrays the realities that many of them likely encountered after they got to work.

A whole host of themes and scenes in The Politician feel like they could have come from The West Wing. Young's first encounter with a speech-giving Edwards is eerily like White House staffer Josh Lyman's first encounter with the future President Bartlet in The West Wing's flashback episodes. There's also an echoing of themes seen throughout Sorkin's film, TV and stage work.

The Politician deals with fathers. Young admits that in a way, Edwards was a substitute for his own father, who was also tainted by an adultery scandal. Exploring those levels—Young's projection, his estrangement from his family through his devotion to Edwards, Edwards' own betrayals as a father—has the potential to be an intriguing reversal of the recurring motifs in Sorkin's work. From A Few Good Men's Daniel Kaffee (whom local attorney Don Marcari claims is based on him, despite Sorkin's denial) to The Newsroom's Will McAvoy, Sorkin's protagonists often deal with the specters of disapproving, sometimes abusive fathers, with even the fictionalized Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network pinning his hopes for the nascent Facebook on his unseen father's approval.

The concept of devotion to unworthy father figures is one that Sorkin has mined—Sports Night and The West Wing both did stories about characters being disillusioned by the discovery that their fathers had long-term affairs. These were some of the best stories in Sorkin's work. The Newsroom greatly improved in its second season with an extended storyline about the investigation and reporting of a false scandal, though it punted much of its dramatic heft by making the story the result of an ambitious reporter sneakily editing a crucial interview.

The Social Network was a potentially problematic storyline for Sorkin, who has infamously railed against the Internet on several of his shows. Yet he managed to stay away from "the Internet is making us dumber and meaner" to tell a more intimate tale of how the building of an empire came at the expense of friendship. The accuracy of the overall tale is suspect, something the film itself admits, but as a dramatic story, it's first-rate.

Of course, the biggest question is how Sorkin would direct his own work. The Social Network worked because David Fincher went away from the Hollywood sheen of past Sorkin films such as A Few Good Men, grounding the tale in dark dorm rooms and a minimalist score by Trent Reznor. Imagine how differently the opening shots of Jesse Eisneberg skulking across Harvard's campus would have played if Fincher had gone with Sorkin's stage direction to use Paul Young's cover of "Love of the Common People" instead of Reznor's ominous ambient piano.

By applying the lessons of that film's success, Sorkin could get into self-satire, painting the glory days of the Edwards campaign in the glowing light of The West Wing before gradually curdling it into the shadowy scenes of The Social Network. Like any unmade film, the possibilities for Sorkin's The Politician are limitless until it actually gets made. But the potential is incredible—a story with rich roles, an exploration of the cult of personality surrounding Edwards in the early 2000s, a tragic tale of a flawed man who finds purpose in serving an even more flawed man.

Rather than taking a third stab at realizing The Newsroom's potential or getting bogged down in new projects, it might be worth Sorkin's while to take this uniquely North Carolinian tale of personal and political downfall and use it to explore the dark underbelly of the ideas that characterize his work. That, or he could just go back to writing the book for the Flaming Lips musical Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I've always had a morbid curiosity about that.

click to enlarge President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing" - CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Creative Commons
  • President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in "The West Wing"

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A third season of The Newsroom is a less exciting prospect than Sorkin adapting John Edwards expose The Politician

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