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Aaron Sorkin Is “The Greater Fool” on a “Mission to Civilize”

by Eric Prister | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: Sports and Culture, Voices P Posted on: August 27, 2012
Eric Prister Eric Prister

He’s on a mission to civilize.

The de facto catchphrase of Aaron Sorkin‘s newest drama on HBO, The Newsroom, which finished its inaugural season last night, has resurfaced the same feelings towards the renowned screen writer that have plagued him for most of his career — he’s pretentious, and his writing is pretentious.

But The Newsroom has other problems as well. Some have called it sexist. Others have remarked that the characters are either overly emotional or boring. For many, The Newsroom has little of what makes Sorkin great and much of what makes him detestable.

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), anchor of the fictional Atlantis Cable News’ prime time nightly news show, along with the other members of his news team, have set out to do the news like they think it should be done, to inform voters in a world full of partisan politics and doublespeak. McAvoy claims to be on a “mission to civilize” the general public, to present the news in a fair, unbiased way.

But McAvoy isn’t the only one on a mission to civilize, and this mission didn’t just start in 2012 when The Newsroom debuted. Daniel Kaffee, the lawyer from A Few Good Men, was on a mission to civilize. President Andrew Shepherd from The American President was on a mission to civilize. Dan Rydell, one member of the sports anchor team from Sports Night, was certainly on a mission to civilize. And most famously, President Jed Bartlett from The West Wing was on a mission to civilize.

In the finale of The Newsroom, an article is written about McAvoy entitled “The Greater Fool.” He is portrayed as a self-important dunce who thinks far too much of himself and does little to back it up. But this isn’t just fiction, because Sorkin rarely writes just fiction. Sorkin himself is the “greater fool,” critiqued by many for attempting to succeed where countless others have failed.

Why do Sorkin’s characters often quote from literary sources? Why the constant bombardment of Don Quixote and “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”? Because Sorkin fancies himself as one in this tradition. He writes television scripts, not books, but in a world of digital media, is there really a difference? Sorkin isn’t just telling a story — there is an inherent deeper meaning in his scripts. They are often noted for their quick dialogue, something that is less realistic and more thought-provoking — he isn’t writing a TV drama, he’s writing literature.

McAvoy isn’t just on a mission to civilize with his news show; Sorkin is also on a mission to civilize with his Newsroom show. Those who call McAvoy a “greater fool” are the same people who call Sorkin one.

Is Aaron Sorkin pretentious? There’s no doubt about it. But if one reads any of the so-called great thinkers in the history of humanity, he’d get that same vibe. When someone thinks he’s right, he tends to sound (and in most cases, be) full of himself.

Maggie is weak-willed and spastic. Jim is mostly boring. Mackenzie is just plain annoying. Many of the story lines on The Newsroom seem out of place. But despite the problems with the show and the problems with the writer, The Newsroom still sends chills down its viewers’ collective spine every time breaking news hits.

Sorkin is on a mission to civilize. He’s on a mission to raise the level of discussion by raising the level of television. He comments on contemporary issues, but also comments on those who criticize him. Just like McAvoy is on a mission to civilize his viewers, so is Sorkin on a mission to teach his viewers what they should expect out of smart, thought-provoking television. He’s on a mission to civilize, and if that sounds pretentious to some, Sorkin accepts the role of the “greater fool.” It’s exactly where he wants to be, because with where others have failed (himself included), he dreams to succeed. And as he did with The West Wing, with The Newsroom he just might do it again.

Eric Prister Eric Prister Eric Prister is a guest NGJ contributor and a first year graduate student studying Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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