Bright Lights Film Journal

Talk Is Cheap: On Aaron Sorkin’s Moral Compass

“You want answers?” “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth!” — A Few Good Men (1992), screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

Exaudio, comperio, conloquor: to listen, to learn, to speak. Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume), managing editor of the fictional sports news program Sports Night, begins with those three Latin words, like a marathoner setting his stride. He’s speaking directly into the camera, opining live for the viewers of Continental Sports Channel about the courage of seven college footballers who refuse to play under the Confederate flag their university flies over the stadium. He pushes forward, increasing his pace, until he works up the authoritative lather that all of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s great idealists eventually do. “I challenge you to do the right thing,” Isaac implores station owner Luther Sachs, an alumnus and top donor of the school in question: use your influence to change the course of events. “In the meantime,” he concludes, “God go with you, Roland Shepard, and you six Southern gentlemen of Tennessee. God’s not done with any of you yet.”

Sports Night (1998-2000), the ABC dramedy from which this scene comes, might not be the place you would expect such earnestness. This is the same series that makes a gag out of a teleprompter dropping the “s” from the phrase “bulging disk” — you can do the math on that one — and has executive producer Dana Whittaker (Felicity Huffman) take off her panties at dinner because she’s bored. No criticism in this, mind you. The series is crackling, fierce fun. But it must be noted that this is mostly not a series in which listening and learning are on equal footing with speaking. This is a series, like nearly all the films and television shows in Sorkin’s body of work, devoted first and foremost to conloquor.

Conloquor is three-quarters of Sorkin’s style. Look at the trademarks, such as the self-consciously masterful “walk and talk” tracking shots, eavesdropping on two or three conversations in succession; the rapid-fire repartee, like the meander of a river circling back on itself; the amply deployed puns. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant would not be out of place in a Sorkin picture, or, as this excerpt from a scene in the control room suggests, on Sports Night:

Chris: This is a heads up. We’re two hours in front of Baja California right now.
Will: We’re three hours in front.
Elliot: Baja California isn’t on Daylight Savings Time.
Kim: Everybody in this country is on Daylight Savings Time.
Chris: Baja California isn’t in this country.
Dave: California isn’t in this country?
Chris: Baja California isn’t in California, it’s in Mexico.
Dave: Baja California is in Mexico.
Chris: It is.
Dave: What kind of a stupid-ass —
Chris: I’m just saying heads up.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we have here is a whole host of linguistic red herrings, MacGuffins, forks in the road, unmarked paths. Misdirection is Sorkin’s favored mode of exposition. His characters talk incessantly about themselves and the minutia of their daily existence. They are maddeningly narcissistic people, easy to watch but well nigh impossible to imagine. That there are so many switchbacks and overpasses in his dialogue is in itself unsurprising. The facility with language is the major reason his work is so gleefully intelligent, so electric to watch. What does surprise is how quickly this turns, often in the final moments, from the blitzing interplay of people talking past each other to a breathless ethical monologue. When the camera finally pauses to take in a single speaker, the words invariably rush forth in a mad-as-hell torrent, a whorl or eddy that threatens to drown everyone within earshot. Sorkin’s narcissists, it turns out, are also idealists, crusaders working as sports reporters, political advisors, or tech geeks. This is the “God’s not done with any of you” part of the work, the earnestness quarter, which differentiates him from other wits. More than perhaps any other contemporary Hollywood writer, he displays a firm, clear, unapologetically liberal moral compass.

And yet, for a writer whose dialogue is in some ways one long contortion of ambiguity, the clarity of the sermonizing, when it arrives, can be disconcerting. Every so often Sorkin falls into an irony-free zone, where the contortions are straightened snugly out in time for the closing credits. Conloquor gives way, in a sort of verbal deus ex machina, to the part where we are meant to listen and to learn. This may be idealism or narcissism, the truth or just one possible set of answers. In the world of Aaron Sorkin, it can be tough to tell the difference.

Sports Night, being a show about a sports show, has an inborn narrowness of range when it comes time to teach us these lessons. Politics is not its purview, though it should be said that the Season 2 storyline about Continental Corp. being sold, which means Sports Night‘s almost sure cancellation, takes on subtle political weight. Scrappy underdogs putting out superior product about to be crushed by televisual Goliaths who care not about sports but about profit, that sort of thing. In his other work from the same period, The American President (1995) and The West Wing (which Sorkin created and worked on from 1999 to 2002), politics is explicitly the purview. The background noise of the various issues addressed is definitively current, allowing the ultimate uprightness of the characters to shine through unfettered.

The two are at times eerily similar, as though they were fished from the same waters. The American President stars the handsomely regal Michael Douglas as widowed president Andrew Shepherd, liberal professor and expounder of Great American Anecdotes; The West Wing, Ur-text in the long line of recent political fictions, stars squatly regal Martin Sheen as happily married president Josiah Bartlet, liberal professor and great expounder of Obscure Quotations. Both are thrillingly adroit depictions of the daily workings of government: in the former, Shepherd begins dating Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), political strategist for an environmental group, as his team faces character attacks from Republican presidential hopeful Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss); in the latter, the senior staff navigates the shoals of contemporary politics — they work the polls and the phones, meet with members of Congress, debate the merits of legislation, and generally run the free world.

In each case the characters are a wild bunch, fast draws with obscure data points circling like sharks around what they’re really trying to say. In each case the characters play distinct emotional and political roles, but everyone eventually preaches the Gospel of Sorkinism. In each case the writing is invariably sharp, wittily rococo, so much so as to require an equally invariable visual blandness, all cubicle gray and Xerox machine off-white. Each follows what one could call the “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” model, named for an eponymous episode of The West Wing. In this motif the messy realities of Washington horse-trading nearly thwart the characters’ better angels, only to be overcome by the last-minute resurgence of an ethical backbone that’s been there all along. This is Being John Malkovich film criticism, the themes hit on so unrelentingly, the pattern hewed to so closely, that it feels like a glimpse into Sorkin’s brain. On not-so-close reading, the plots can be broken down into discrete sections, a three-act morality play of hopes diminished, deferred, and ultimately reclaimed.

Overture: Songs in Patriotic Time. A liltingly “American” theme plays. Artifacts of White House life fade in and out: staid and serious black-and-white photographs straight out of the press pool, the portraits and bronzes of past presidents (Washington, Kennedy, Lincoln, just the greatest hits). Even the typeface of the credits feels patriotic, whether it is the bold sureness of The West Wing‘s simple print or the John Hancock gentility of The American President‘s lighter script. The stars and stripes roll gently behind it all, as though being shaken out before a cock’s-crow flag raising. In other words, you can be taken in by these wellings-up. This, we know from moment one, will be an America we can believe in.

Act I: Hold Your Tongue. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” like nearly all episodes of The West Wing, centers on multiple threads of political maneuvering — in this case, the opportunity to appoint proponents of aggressive campaign finance reform to the Federal Elections Commission, a discussion with representatives of the DOD about gays in the military, and the impending release of a damaging memo written by a current staffer while working previously for a rival campaign. “The reality of the Bartlet White House is a flood of mistakes,” it reads. “An agenda hopelessly stalled and lacking a coherent strategy, an administration plagued by indecision.”

The memo is indicative of the key conflict, political and moral bravery versus meek capitulation. Approval numbers already sagging below 50 percent, Bartlet and company tread cautiously, liberals pushed to the right of where they’d like to be in order to stave off any potential attacks from the other side. Heading to a meeting about the FEC nominations with Congressional aides, jokester and all-around wrangler Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) impugns the president’s strategy of dangling two names the legislators will never confirm: “The President doesn’t think we’re going to get anywhere with this, right?” The big talkers of Sorkin’s Platonic ideal of America always start off silent, holding their tongue against the understanding that to proceed this way is wrong. They paper over their doubts with ever more meaningless talk (“We’ve got to fight the fights we can win,” President Shepherd says early in The American President), which in this language-centric world is akin to not saying anything at all.

Sorkin, unflinching progressive that he is, perhaps takes the mincing too far — these are politicos at the far extreme of mildness, so afraid of the big bad wolf they are willing to pull all the teeth from a crime bill (Shepherd, trying to protect his popularity) or work for a law firm that protects nefarious oil companies from litigation (matinee idol and Bartlet speechsmith Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, in a flashback from the two-part episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”). Of course, such legislation and such profiteers are the stuff of daily headlines, as evidenced by the death of the public option in the health care bill or the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. But to have liberal idealism play the role of savior for both the country and the people who run it ignores the reality of compromise, the potential that the blue-state view of politics is not the only, or even the best, answer. It misses the actual middle ground between selling your soul and redeeming it.

Act II: Talk Is Cheap. Eventually, something raises the hackles of our heroes and proves their former posturing empty. For Josh, it is the callous villainy of lazy, status quo political aides, who assure him that putting up the nominees he’s suggested will result in retribution. “I like it when Josh comes up here every once in a while and teaches us a lesson we so richly deserve,” one of them says — a sentiment that could be taken as self-reflexive acknowledgment of the Sorkin style’s flaws only if the man who speaks weren’t such a miserable cad and Josh himself so likable. “Four hours ago, this was a fool’s errand for me,” Josh responds gamely. “But you’ve managed to get me on board.” The president, still blissfully unaware, begins to be surrounded by fervent believers, the indignant faithful looking for a sign from on high. He may, in order to stretch the drama, remain unconvinced; what becomes clear is that the change of heart is inevitable.

“How do you have patience for people who say they love America but clearly hate Americans?” Sydney asks Shepherd when he refuses to respond to Rumson’s dirty insinuation that she once exchanged sexual favors for votes.

“Why is everyone walking around like they know they’ve already lost?” asks Josh’s assistant, Donna (Janel Moloney), during the FEC imbroglio.

“You guys are stuck in the mud around here, and none of it is the fault of the press!” says Danny Kincannon, a reporter working in the White House pressroom, about the opposition memo. “I know you’re frustrated, but it ain’t nothing compared to the frustration of the people who voted for you.”

Hypocrisy, then, is Sorkin’s bête noire. There is nothing more distasteful to him than the abandonment of the vision, the suggestion that patriotism requires conservatism, the knowledge that most political talk is cheap. He wants every word imbued with heavy meaning, for the promises to be kept; he wants you to be as angry as he is. And sometimes you are. Given how affable and natural the acting is, you don’t have to agree with the liberal agenda; you’re rooting for the people as much as the message. That’s the worrying aspect: Sorkin’s politics turn out to be not about “issues,” but about “character.”

Act III: The Great Monologue. The obscure data points and logical arguments are revealed as a ruse, one more way of papering over the doubts. The unanswerable reams of words do not, as Leo somewhat arrogantly claims at the end of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” “raise the level of public debate in this country,” they negate the possibility of debate altogether. It’s worth providing a few extended examples to illustrate the point.

Exhibit A, during a flashback from “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I,” where Bartlet responds to a tough question about subsidies for dairy farmers that he did not renew during his years as governor of New Hampshire:

Yeah, I screwed you on that one. I screwed you. You got hosed . . . Today, for the first time in history, one in five Americans living in poverty are children. One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty, one in five, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom and democracy is the code of our civic religion, then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says, “We shall give our children better than we ourselves had.” I voted against the bill ’cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, I suggest you vote for somebody else. Thanks very much, everybody. Hope you enjoyed the chicken.

Exhibit B, from “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II,” where press secretary C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) addresses the attempt on Bartlet’s life that functions as the central element of the plot:

It would be easy to think that President Bartlet, Joshua Lyman, and Stephanie Abbott were the only victims of a gun crime last night. They weren’t. Mark Davis and Sheila Evans of Philadelphia were killed by a gun last night. He was a biology teacher and she was a nursing student. Tina Bishop and Linda Larkin were killed with a gun last night. They were 12. There were 36 homicides last night, 480 sexual assaults, 3,411 robberies, 3,685 aggravated assaults, all at gunpoint. And if anyone thinks those crimes could have been prevented if the victims themselves had been carrying guns, I’d only remind you that the President of the United States himself was shot last night while surrounded by the best-trained armed guards in the history of the world. Back to the briefing.

Exhibit C, from The American President, where Shepherd surprises the press with an impromptu statement about Rumson’s attacks:

The last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being President of this country was to a certain extent about character, and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: being President of this country is entirely about character. For the record, yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but the more important question is, why aren’t you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: why would a Senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? Now, if you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago. America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she’s to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore. Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.

I’ve loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer, and I lost the other ’cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now. Tomorrow morning, the White House is sending a bill to Congress for its consideration. It’s White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a 20 percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I’m throwing it out. I’m throwing it out and I’m writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns. We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd and I am the President.

Note the sheer volume of strung-together words, especially in contrast with the deluge of one-liners that preceded them. Note the admission that “being President of this country is entirely about character.” Note the quiver of facts and figures so readily deployed, the logical argument mitigated by the tenacity of the moral suasion. Note the long sentences, the pounding cadences, the focused repetitions. (Note, too, that this is my style of writing as well, and either forgive me or not. But you understand by now the thing we dislike most in others is always that which we dislike most in ourselves.) Note how late each monologue falls in the narrative, climax and denouement at once. Note the way each monologue ends with a throwaway line, a closing off of the potential response: hope you enjoyed the chicken, back to the briefing, I am the President, away we go. For in the final estimation we never get mere answers from these idealists, these ideologues. We get what Sorkin considers the Truth. That he thinks we can’t really handle it is clear, because we have to take it in one gasping gulp, with no time left to digest. The Great Monologue always moves on before any other voice can be heard, and then we fade to black.

It is all too easy, if you are a good Sorkinian liberal like myself, to agree unthinkingly to all of this. Easy to let conloquor slip past in favor of the part where we are meant to listen and to learn. In fact, I agree on the merits. I believe it is wrong to support subsidies that make it harder for the poor and more profitable for agribusiness. I believe no crime was ever prevented by making it easier to get a gun. I believe that the ACLU should defend the Bill of Rights even when it is used by homophobic lunatics protesting at military funerals. I believe in limiting global warming, in the right to burn a flag, in the need for honest debate instead of ad hominem attacks. In other words I believe, or would like to believe, in Aaron Sorkin’s America. I just don’t believe The Great Monologue is any different from the moralizing of Bill O’Reilly or Michelle Bachmann. I just don’t believe that he “raise[s] the level of public debate in this country.”

You understand by now that the thing Sorkin dislikes most in others — his bête noire, hypocrisy — is the thing he most dislikes in himself.

The big talker of The Social Network (2010) starts off loud. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a Harvard sophomore, is having a beer with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), at a local pub. He doesn’t hold back when he opens his mouth, throwing verbal darts without a care where they stick. Erica can’t say the same for herself: “Sometimes you say two things at once and I’m not sure which I should be aiming at,” she tells him after just one of innumerable misapprehensions. “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.” By the end of this awkward dive off the bridge, five minutes in which our protagonist could scarcely seem less charming or likable, he has insulted her parents, social status, and intelligence, arrogantly defended his own, and generally made a fool of himself. In breaking up with him, Erica sends a stinger his way worthy of anybody, anywhere: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that it won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

This is not your usual Sorkin hero. Mark would not throw away a job at a top-tier New York law firm as Sam Seaborn did, nor leave the presumptive nominee’s campaign to support an underdog like Josh Lyman. He may share the narcissistic streak that runs through so many of these self-analyzers, but his is mangled. He is ambitious, cunning, brilliant, obsessed. And he only backs a winner.

Working with director David Fincher to adapt the story of Facebook’s creator and demigod for the screen, Sorkin takes an unexpected turn into the belly of the beast. The Social Network centers not on destroying hypocrisy but on inhabiting it — the computer nerd who desires exclusivity because he’s been excluded, the wealthy twins who “deserve” their share because they’ve always been handed everything, the maverick investor who wants to run a business so he can act like a child. If this is Sorkin facing his fear, he comes out on top. He’s written a film that’s paced like a thriller, plays like Citizen Kane for the Internet generation, and feels like a study of our divided world, where the have-nots don’t become haves but are crushed by them. Part of this shift is attributable to Fincher, who gives us a Harvard that’s shimmery and slippery, just this side of dangerous, and part to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose score begins as six strumming notes atop a foreboding pulsar of sound. A song in patriotic time this is not.

But it may also display Sorkin’s first real engagement with the idea that each narrative, however righteous, is in some sense a manipulation. We pick the places to underline, the places to rest; we create the rhythm of the story by deciding which questions to ask and which to answer. In another striking scene, this one at the end of the film, Marylin, a second-year associate at the firm defending Zuckerberg in the lawsuits his former partners have filed against him, explains the concept of voir dire — jury selection.

“What the jury sees when they look at the defendant, clothes, hair, speaking style, likability,” she says, a little bit haltingly. “I’ve been licensed to practice law for all of 20 months and I could get a jury to believe you planted the story about Eduardo and the chicken. Watch what else. Why weren’t you at Sean’s sorority party that night?”

“You think I’m the one who called the police?” Mark asks defensively.

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “I asked the question and now everybody’s thinking about it.”

Voir dire, from the French, translates literally as “to see to speak,” which feels bracingly like exaudio, comperio, conloquor. Except here, as nowhere else in Sorkin’s work, it is the protagonist being spoken to. The moment feels like an admission: that narratives are built on the power of implication, that the shape of things emerges not only from the diction but the delivery. Mark is an ambivalent force in the film — ambivalent himself, about the choices he’s made and the betrayals he’s perpetrated, and fostering ambivalence about him in the viewer. He screws his best friend out of a piece in a $25 billion company but is uncomfortable with his attorney’s tactics in a deposition. He humiliates Erica on his blog but wants desperately to get back in her good graces. In order for The Social Network to build any momentum at all, Mark can be neither societal do-gooder, braving a new technological world, nor an uncomplicated villain. Sorkin easily achieves this goal: Mark is an idealistic crusader only in that he conceives his destiny as one he can control.

The complexity of the writing also allows Fincher to slip in the visual wit that Sorkin’s other projects so sorely lack, goosing up the proceedings so the talk doesn’t take over. Mark wears black Adidas flip-flops and monotone hoodies to the depositions, and doodles on a legal pad when it looks like he’s taking notes. As Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Andrew Garfield moves from charmingly goofy to slick and unstrung: his awkward dance at a Jewish fraternity’s Caribbean night and note-perfect fist pump/head shake at learning he’s been “punched” for one of Harvard’s prestigious finals clubs are long forgotten by the time the rug is pulled out from under him. His hair is smooth and clothes stylish, but his eyes glimmer with tears and his skinny frame shudders nervously.

What begins as a study in bombast, Mark unleashing ripostes on everyone, at every turn, eventually upends Sorkin’s old pattern. The sparkling intelligence remains, but the moral compass finds no magnetic North — the monologues become mutterings and we are left with no obvious “truth.” In fact, the end of the film leaves Mark with nothing to say at all. His talk hasn’t been cheap; in fact it’s cost him everything. Marilyn, packing up after the deposition, gives him one more piece of advice: “You’re not an asshole, Mark,” she tells him. “You’re just trying so hard to be.” After she departs, he logs on to Facebook and tries to add Erica as a friend, silently hoping she’ll reply.

This uncharacteristic quiet explains, to some extent, the best scene in the film — a soft-focus, slow-motion race at the Henley Regatta, where the twins from whom Mark may have stolen the idea for Facebook are rowing for Harvard. The edges of the frame blur, as though pulled by the clouds moving across the sky. Colors bleed. Two boats stream past, knit together in a close battle, all while a darkly electric rendition of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” makes a muffled pounding on the soundtrack. And as the twins cross the finish line mere feet behind the winners, the constellation of cold choices and embattled dreams in the film suddenly crystallizes. I am enamored, at this moment in The Social Network, of its nuanced sense that ambition arises from a whole host of influences. Ambition is not just a cost-benefit analysis of sacrifices and rewards — it is, for the thoroughly modern social network into which we are plugged, one of the rules of the game. It is the reason one goes to Harvard, rows crew, joins a finals club, creates a website, leaves a boyfriend, files a lawsuit, makes a billion dollars. Morals, finally, aren’t the answer, because no one is asking the question anymore: the question is who wins and who loses, and by how much. It may portend a formal shift for the better in Sorkin’s work or a mere blip in the trend, but for now I’ll take it as it is. The sequence, it should be noted, is barely a minute long. It’s peripheral to the core of the story and utterly out of character with all but the film’s last image, in which Mark refreshes the page again and again, awaiting a different outcome. It should be noted that neither has a word in it. And that’s just fine.