How Aaron Sorkin and U2 Can Soothe the Pandemic Mind
Like Aaron Sorkin, the veteran rock band U2 has been making ambitious, iconic art for decades—art that can be soaring but occasionally self-important. Sorkin and U2's work draws parallels in comfort and struggle.
While sheltering in place, many of us are dining on pop-culture comfort food. Though new and edgy fare stimulates the taste buds, songs, and stories that are familiar to us have a unique ability to sustain us while also warming our bellies. The problem is that comfort food can be too gratifying.
Consider the work of Aaron Sorkin. The screenwriter, film director, and television showrunner crafts stories that often provide comfort to Sorkin's legions of superfans. (Full disclosure: I am one of those superfans.) His idealistic narratives elicit quick catharsis by foregrounding dedication and humanity instead of cynicism. For goodness sake, he makes politicians loveable.
A West Wing (1999-2006) binge during the era of Donald Trump and a global pandemic is escapist but also aspirational. Here is a cadre of hard-working, selfless, and patriotic characters who are more articulate and intelligent than us. But of course, the program also seems more concerned with affirming a set of (liberal-centrist) worldviews than challenging those views. Like much of Sorkin's work, the monologues, storylines, and even the score can, at times, seem cloying and sanctimonious.
If you have never seen his films and programs, should you binge Sorkin during this pandemic? If you haven't experienced Sorkin in a long time, which of his projects are worth revisiting? The answers to these questions depend on what kind of U2 fan you are. Like Sorkin, the veteran rock band U2 has been making ambitious, iconic art for decades—art that can be soaring but occasionally self-important. To help you decide whether Sorkin is for you, let's consider the parallels.
Sports Night (1998-2000)
Sports Night was Sorkin's first show and had all the hallmarks of his writing style, the quirks that would later be known as "Sorkinisms". Sports Night is a 30-minute, workplace comedy-drama about a fictional cable-tv sports program and combined elements of the screwball comedy, the rom-com, the procedural, and the hero narrative. The hosts and producers of the show-within-the-show are erudite and witty but ultimately don't take themselves as seriously as the Sorkin that followed.
Watch Sports Night if you are a fan of U2's first two records, Boy (1980) and October (1981), lean-but-ambitious, highly competent post-punk albums that feel restrained compared to the band's later releases.
A Few Good Men (1992)
A Few Good Men stands out as Sorkin's early commercial peak. He wrote the screenplay based on his successful play about military lawyers defending two Marines being court-martialed for a hazing incident gone bad. Directed by Rob Reiner, the highly entertaining legal drama boasts memorable turns from Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and most of all Jack Nicholson. The big Sorkin themes like duty and obligation are overt but are also complemented by big performances and bigger dramatic moments.
This is a film you must watch, especially if you have fond memories of U2's War (1983)—a murderer's row of rousing hits like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day", many of which meditate on the affective dimensions of violence and conflict. Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" outburst in A Few Good Men is as momentous and as recognizable as the opening drum groove from "Sunday Bloody Sunday".
The American President (1995)
The American President reunited screenwriter Sorkin and director Reiner. It deftly merges romance and politics while also commenting on the "culture wars" being waged during Bill Clinton's first term in the White House. This was a very timely film and fascinating to watch in the context of the 1990s, with its doppelgangers of real politicos—Michael J. Fox channeling George Stephanopolous and Richard Dreyfuss essentially playing Newt Gingrich—and its heavy-handed commentary on the shifting sexual mores embodied by a liberal, baby boomer president. The American President has effective moments but feels a bit dated and doesn't quite live up to A Few Good Men.
If you are a fan of U2's The Unforgettable Fire (1984), then this film is for you. Fire has fantastic moments including the hit "Pride (In the Name of Love)", but at times strains under the weight of social commentary. It has songs about Martin Luther King Jr. and drug addiction and nuclear war—and its overt attempt to comment on the American experience. Both The American President and The Unforgettable Fire read like first drafts of their respective follow-ups.
The West Wing (1999-2006)
The West Wing aired for seven seasons and was a commercial and critical smash. Sorkin recycled plot points, setting, tone, several cast members, and entire lines of dialogue from The American President and helped usher in television's second golden age.
While American President foregrounded romantic comedy, The West Wing emphasized drama, following the work lives of the senior staff of a Democratic president played by Martin Sheen. The West Wing is Sorkin's masterpiece, the "first line of his obituary" (to steal a Sorkinism). The dialogue is Shakespearean, as are the storylines that wrestle with legacy, ambition, hubris, civic duty, democracy, and power. Plots were sometimes topical (terrorism, foreign aid, funding for the arts) but 15 years later rarely feel dated, in large part because the characters are round, real, and almost always admirable. Large moments (kidnappings and assassination attempts) mingle with small moments (committee meetings, office flirtations) to craft a world of wish fulfillment (aka "liberal porn").
Sorkin the idealist collaborated with production dynamos like Thomas Schlamme (who directed and/or produced numerous episodes) whose technical competence and unique vision made The West Wing visually stimulating. Consider the way characters move through the halls of the White House and how visual jump-cuts move our attention from "live" characters to their images on television monitors. Sorkin ran the show but didn't work alone.
If you find U2's great Joshua Tree (1987) album to be self-serious, then you probably won't like The West Wing. The Joshua Tree perfects The Unforgettable Fire's version of earnest arena rock. It contains thoughtful, inspirational ballads ("With or Without You") and anthems ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For') that are often aspirational pictures of the US. A few tracks tackle timely issues like Reagan-era Latin America ("Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Mothers of the Disappeared"), but by and large The Joshua Tree is abstract and ethereal, and a commercial and critical juggernaut.
It spawned massive hit singles and a massive tour that captured the zeitgeist. It showed how smart rock 'n' roll could be. It sounded great thanks to production from Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (the Schlamme to Bono's Sorkin) who wove weird sonic textures behind the music and convinced the band to flirt with ambient and electronic sounds.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is Sorkin's third behind-the-scenes workplace dramedy. This time, the setting is a fictional sketch comedy program and our heroes are the writers, actor-comedians, producers, and network executives who create the show-within-a-show. It sounds like a rehash of Sports Night but draws more heavily on the ethos of The West Wing.
Viewers gave Sorkin permission to portray politicians who believed they were changing the world but were largely hesitant to trust comedians who held that same belief. Many viewers found the core Studio 60 characters insufferable. Indeed they were cultural elites who were cool, unironically comparing their spit takes and sub-Mad TV-level sketches to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and medieval commedia dell'arte.
The series bombed and for over a decade has been lambasted by think pieces about the hubris and ego of Aaron Sorkin and even fictional twitter accounts purporting to be run by the show's characters. As a Saturday Night Live geek I have a soft spot for Studio 60, which occasionally produces fascinating moments and has an amazing ensemble cast (Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, and Steven Weber).
You'll have a soft spot, too, if you have a high tolerance for U2's double album (and feature film tie-in!) Rattle and Hum (1988). Just as Sorkin followed up The West Wing with more of the same, so too did U2 double-down (literally) on the Americana and pomp of The Joshua Tree. Rattle and Hum contains live tracks from the Joshua tour, cringe-inducing stage banter, an album's worth of studio tracks, snippets of other artists, covers, and acoustic numbers. It's…a lot. It's an Irish band raised on first-wave punk discovering American blues, gospel, and roots-rock.
It bombed and like Studio 60 has been the subject of numerous negative takes. Studio 60 gave us "That's swell, Tom, but your little brother's standing in the middle of Afghanistan." It's spoken by one of the comedian's fathers (a middle-aged Ohioan who has never heard of Abbot and Costello and calls sketches "skits") and who can't help but compare his comedian son to his son serving in the military. Rattle and Hum gave us Bono introducing a cover of "Helter Skelter" with the banter, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles; we're stealing it back."
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Speaking of standing in the middle of Afghanistan, Charlie Wilson's War perhaps suffers from the sense of combining too many disparate elements: screwball comedy, Mike Nichols drama, biopic, history lesson, and Tom Hanks vehicle. Sorkin returns to the big screen, writing the screenplay for what would be Nichols's final directorial effort. Charlie Wilson's War is charming thanks to a stellar cast (Hanks alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, and Amy Adams), but feels inessential.
The film draws on the story of the congressman-raconteur responsible for US support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in early '80s Afghanistan. It's rich subject matter, to be sure, though the film largely fails to say very much about how this support led to the rise of the Taliban.
If you are a fan of U2's contributions to film soundtracks, you might also be a fan of Charlie Wilson's War. From the late '90s and into the new millennium, U2 has made competent contributions to movies: "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" (Batman Forever), "I'm Not Your Baby" (The End of Violence), numerous tracks for The Million Dollar Hotel, and "The Hands that Built America" (Gangs of New York). Solid tracks all ("Hold Me…" is great fun), but largely forgettable compared to their studio albums and the hits thereon.
The Social Network (2010)
There's a strong case to be made that The Social Network is the best thing with Sorkin's name on it. He won an Academy Award for the screenplay, a fictionalized retelling of Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook.
This is a hipper, edgier version of Sorkin: moody Oscar-winning score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (their first of many collaborations); campy sense of humor, especially Justin Timberlake's turn as Sean Parker; snarky commentary on millennials; and most notably the sleek direction of David Fincher (best known for directing 7even and Fight Club). His version of Zuckerberg, imagined by Sorkin and then fully realized by Fincher and lead actor Jesse Eisenberg, embodies a certain white male sense of anti-social entitlement, brilliance, and desperation. It was as if Sorkin the idealist discovered irony.
This, of course, corresponds to U2's Achtung Baby (1991). On this record, Bono allows himself to have some fun by leaving behind social causes in favor of a more experimental sound inspired by unlikely forms including industrial rock like Reznor's band Nine Inch Nails and the "Madchester" iteration of electronic dance. It's U2 steering out of its lane and somehow making a second, post-"Joshua Tree" masterpiece.
Moneyball signaled that Sorkin had found his groove once again and was possibly settling into a second act as a prestige screenwriter who could tackle eclectic fare instead of a TV showrunner working within the very specific milieu of workplace dramedy. Moneyball is Sorkin's adaptation of Michael Lewis's book about the success that Oakland A's management found using sabermetrics to determine the viability of prospective recruits.
Starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, Moneyball is a quiet, engaging, observant, character-driven story. Not as successful as its predecessor, but a solid entry in Sorkin's mid-period. Check it out (and only after the superior Social Network) if you like U2's Achtung follow-up, Zooropa (1993), a psychic, thematic, and sonic sequel to Achtung that although full of interesting moments like Bono handing vocal duties to The Edge who raps (!) his way through lead single "Numb", seems less essential.
30 Rock - Guest Appearance
Fully embracing his self-awareness and sense of humor, Sorkin guest-starred as himself on the 30 Rock episode, "Plan B" (Season 5, Episode 18, 2011). With Liz Lemon's (Tiny Fey) fictional comedy program on hiatus, she interviews for other writing jobs and runs into Sorkin, who takes her on a "walk-and-talk". Of course, the famous Sorkinesque walk-and-talk has been parodied by countless talk shows and amateur youtubers.
The joke here is that 30 Rock premiered the same season as Studio 60 and became the far more successful attempt to peak behind the scenes at a sketch comedy program. It's not unusual for prominent showrunners to poke fun at themselves, but for someone as earnest (and occasionally sanctimonious) as Sorkin to engage in self-deprecation is remarkable.
Find and stream this episode if you can laugh at U2's ill-fated Pop (1997), a tripling, quadrupling down on the band's flirtations with irony and humor, a record with a few solid tunes but too many attempts to do disco and rave.
The Newsroom (2012-2014)
Sorkin returns to television showrunning with The Newsroom, a brilliant but flawed iteration of his earnest workplace dramedy. Sorkin takes viewers behind the scenes at a cable news program staffed by hyperarticulate, idealistic reporters and producers.
The twist: the show-within-the-show is reporting on real-world stories from then-recent history (Occupy Wall Street, the killing of Osama bin Laden, tea party activism, etc). Sorkin's writing is excellent, and his dialogue is well-delivered by the likes of Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, Olivia Munn, and others). At times, he recaptures the soaring, inspirational tone of West Wing, although the hindsight baked into the show's premise turned off some viewers, as did the pomposity and savior complexes of the leads.
Similarly, U2 went back to basics and largely captured some of the Joshua Tree magic on All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000), a record with great highs ("Beautiful Day", "Elevation", and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of") but an inconsistent back-half.
Steve Jobs (2015) and Molly's Game (2017)
Now confident in his ability to shapeshift, genre hop, and survive commercial ups and downs, Sorkin made two solid films in the past five years. Steve Jobs and Molly's Game are character-driven, thoughtful, mature dramas based on the contemporary milieu. Both films succeed in part because of Sorkin's willingness to let his voice disappear so that we can hear real, round characters speak. Both films are populated with quirky individuals who are far more than mouthpieces for the screenwriter's viewpoint.
Written by Sorkin, Jobs is a somewhat traditional biopic about the complicated entrepreneur/tech giant, while Molly's Game (Sorkin's directorial debut) is more stylish, a crime story with noir pretensions based on a real woman who left behind her Olympic dreams to run high-stakes poker games. These are very good films in which Sorkin doesn't seem to be begging us to agree with him.
Well worth seeking out if you respect what U2's doing on late-period entries like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and No Line on the Horizon (2009). These albums contain solid tracks like "Get on Your Boots" and "Vertigo" on which U2 sound like the elder statesmen they are—mature and vital if less inclined toward risk than they were a decade earlier.
I'm amazed at the parallels between these two giants. Their trajectories follow remarkably similar paths of idealism, followed by irony, followed by course corrections, followed by maturity. I mean, they both crashed Broadway (Sorkin with the Jeff Daniels-starring re-imagining of To Kill a Mockingbird, U2 with the infamous Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark debacle). They've both become the subjects of popular, meticulous deconstructions of their work (Sorkin with the podcast "West Wing Weekly, U2 with the irreverent "U Talking U2 To Me"). The two acts have essentially had the same careers.
But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. They both embody dynamic versions of the American Dream. Yes, I know U2 is from Ireland, but they've been obsessed with American mythology for over three decades. Sorkin and U2 are themselves highly successful, but they also dare to play with the very idea of success, by telling us stories of mobility alongside stories of challenge, by modeling the imperative to recreate ourselves and start over, by surprising themselves and their fans with that which we crave.
Which brings us back to comfort. Should you binge Sorkin during this pandemic? Yes, of course, you should. You'll find comfort, a salve during a time of pandemic. But you'll also find the spectacular discomfort that comes from public failures and narratives of struggle. You'll find all that in U2's discography too.
Maybe, in 2020, that's what we need: comfort, struggle, second and third acts that suggest that life goes on.
* * *
Must See Sorkin: The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Social Network.
After you've seen those, watch: The American President, Moneyball, Molly's Game, Steve Job
For Sorkin Fanatics : Studio 60, The Newsroom, Charlie Wilson's War.
Unclassifiable: To Kill a Mockingbird, cameos, Youtube Sorkinism supercuts.
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