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6 Reasons Why Aaron Sorkin Should Give Up On TV and Stick To Movies

This week, on October 9, Steve Jobs hits cinemas, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Michael Fassbender as the black shirt-loving Apple genius / enfant terrible, and penned by Aaron Sorkin.

All three will probably have their names called when Oscar nomination season comes around, and Sorkin – adapting the Walter Isaacson book – is probably a lock to take to the podium to pick up his second Best Adapted Screenplay award (he won for The Social Network) for the much-buzzed about Jobs. (…)

Critics and audiences love Sorkin. He’s probably one of the few television / screenwriters that even casual fans of both can name offhand. His dialogue erupts in rapid-fire chunks of idealism and intelligence; if Tarantino’s words are red-meat pulp, Sorkin’s are lean, perfectly-seasoned roasted chicken slices, both delivered by the truckload.

His monologues are the stuff of legend – “You Can’t Handle the Truth!” in A Few Good Men, “I am God!” in Malice, “My Name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President!” in The American President, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook!” in The Social Network. He specializes in exploring the pillars of America – baseball, Congress, the presidency, the armed forces, Silicon Valley – and exposing the light and dark forces within them; for every Daniel Kaffee, there’s a Nathan Jessep, all different shades of colorful grey.

Sorkin might have started in movies, but he really made his name in television, to various degrees of success; The West Wing was a generationally brilliant show (when he wrote for it) that everyone watched, Sports Night was an occasionally-brilliant show that no one watched, Studio 60 was a bomb of epic proportions, and The Newsroom was infuriatingly dumb with patches of brilliance.

Aaron Sorkin with Emmy Statue
Aaron Sorkin (middle) at his TV peak with his Emmy for The West Wing

His shows may never have been boring, but sometimes…well, they just didn’t work.

We’re all very lucky that he’s turned back to film with Jobs, because the truth is that Sorkin’s a much better film writer than a television one. There’s more of his dialogue to appreciate on television, of course (even a bomb like Studio 60 provided more material than all of his movies did combined), but the format of the medium exposes his lesser tendencies in a way that films bury. Sports Night, Studio 60 and The Newsroom all tackled different aspects of television – examining Sportscenter, SNL and nightly cable news with a strange idolatry that never really connected with audiences as the premise was stretched out. They were institutions ripe for parody, not pleading introspection; the fact that 30 Rock became one of the most beloved comedy shows in the history of television while premiering the same year Studio 60 did is proof enough.

He’s never had the problems that come with too much space and time to write in screenwriting – where necessity demands conciseness, and where his lively dialogue can shine most bright. Let’s take a quick, chronological look back at Sorkin’s efforts on screen:

A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men
Photo via Columbia Pictures

Sorkin wrote his debut screenplay (it was based off of a play he wrote), while working as a bartender, based off a story he’d heard from his JAG corps lawyer sister; the ensuring film adaptation, directed by Rob Reiner, earned four Oscar nominations, solidified Tom Cruise’s standing as the world’s biggest movie star, and gave Jack Nicholson a line for the ages. Not a bad start to his film career.

Malice (1993)

Photo via Columbia Pictures

Alec Baldwin famously goofed on his legendary “I am God!” courtroom speech in an episode of 30 Rock – the show that shares a premise, if not a tone, with Sorkin’s Studio 60. His arrogant, scheming physician is the best part of this twisty thriller that co-stars Nicole Kidman and Bill Pullman, piled so high with red herrings and twists it very nearly implodes. Think of it as one of the highest-quality Lifetime movies ever made.

The American President (1995)

The American President
Photo via Columbia Pictures

Sorkin re-teamed with Rob Reiner for his polished and shockingly watchable political drama that follows widower president Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) through his relationship with a beautiful lobbyist (Annette Bening). It’s a wonderfully written and acted movie, with Douglas a natural for Sorkin’s dialogue and a healthy strain of pragmatic liberalism throughout. It’s easy to see the genesis of The West Wing in the film, especially in the casting of Martin Sheen as the Chief of Staff (he would play the president in the TV show) – several of the movie’s plotlines were echoed throughout the show.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)  

Charlie Wilson's War
Photo via Universal Pictures

It’s a very good movie that should have been a great one. The story of the Texas congressman who worked to fund the clandestine war against the Russians in Afghanistan has a ton of too-unbelievable-for-fiction details, and Sorkin’s screenplay captures that – but the direction of Mike Nichols doesn’t always live up to his performers, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as the profane CIA agent Gust Avrakotos.

Moneyball (2011)

Photo via Columbia Pictures

Sorkin provided the third and final draft of the screenplay to this supposedly-unfilmable Michael Lewis book on the industry-bucking construction of the early-2000s Oakland A’s team. It’s a fascinating, accessible movie to even non-sports fans, and Sorkin’s trademark dialogue gives the whole work a great bit of mass-appeal zip. The story behind the production is almost as interesting as the topic covered in the movie.

The Social Network (2010)

Photo via Columbia Pictures

Once derided as “The Facebook Movie,” The Social Network – in the hands of Sorkin and director David Fincher – became an engrossing, intricately crafted study in asshole genius and the impact of his technology on modern life. Sorkin won an Oscar for his work. Oh, and if you’re ever in Boston, be sure to visit the bar from the start of the movie (some of the best wings in the city).  

The book remains open about how audiences will take his new examination of a Silicon Valley personality. My bet is Steve Jobs will offer audiences a similar level of insight into the late Apple CEO with that familiar spark of Sorkin’s dialogue to keep the pace up.

Are you excited for Steve Jobs? Different opinions on Sorkin’s work? Sound off in the comments below.

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