Why Aaron Sorkin is cinema's finest talent

Sorkin, who comes from a middle-class Jewish family from Scarsdale and started out as a playwright, is at the top of his game


There's a West Wing episode that culminates in the presidential team deciding it's time to "let Bartlet be Bartlet". It's time for the great man to let his convictions shine through, never mind the consequences. It's a mantra by which you suspect the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, aims to live.

With a host of award-winning films and television shows under his belt, at the age of 54, Sorkin, who comes from a middle-class Jewish family from Scarsdale and started out as a playwright, is at the top of his game.

"In cinema terms he is your greatest writer," director Danny Boyle said recently, and many would agree. Not least Boyle who is winning plaudits for his latest film about Apple Svengali Steve Jobs, which Sorkin wrote. More than a quarter of a century after his first play, A Few Good Men, opened on Broadway, and nearly 10 years after The West Wing concluded, the mere mention of his name on a project is enough to get the entertainment world talking. He has come far since his very public arrest for drug possession in 2001.

His latest film, released last week, tells of the tumultuous years preceding the launch of Apple's iMac in 1998. Directed by Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the film opened to broad if not universal acclaim. While it's perhaps not as sharp as Sorkin's 2010 Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, it's undoubtedly another triumph and he is likely to be in line for a few trophies come award season.

"Grown-up Aaron Sorkin dialogue: crisp, sour, rotten and delicious," concluded the New York Times. "An ingenious script," agreed the Washington Post. Centred on three product launches, the film deals with Jobs's notorious control-freakery and his turbulent relationships, including that with his daughter and Wozniack. "I felt like I was actually watching Steve Jobs and the others," Wozniak commented.

The film is classic Sorkin, complete with those trademark walk-and-talk scenes, snappy intellectual dialogue, and a powerful, tenacious man at the core of the story. And, with Sorkin, it is always a powerful man, whether that's the title character in Charlie Wilson's War, Matt and Danny from Studio 60, or Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg.

Sorkin is repeatedly criticised for his failure to write well-rounded female parts, and for his tendency to show male characters ''mansplaining'' to wide-eyed, shrill female counterparts. His female characters are often flaky, emotional and disaster-prone; think Mackenzie's email slip-up at the start of The Newsroom, or Donna in The West Wing, endlessly patronised by Josh. In films such as The Social Network and Moneyball, there's barely a woman to speak of. It didn't help matters when an email leaked during the Sony hack revealed Sorkin's view that scripts celebrating powerful, funny women ''aren't there'' in Hollywood. As wags pointed out, isn't it time he write one?

He's halfway there with Joanna Hoffman, Jobs's put-upon marketing chief. Played by Kate Winslet, she is a force of nature; a woman who speaks her mind with verve and impact. She brings to mind C J Craig, The West Wing's press secretary, as well as Sorkin's Hillary Clinton-esque First Lady Abby Bartlet who surely deserves a spin-off series featuring her own White House run.

Naturally, Hoffman must endure several of the protagonist's monologues. It wouldn't be a Sorkin script without a passionate and long-winded piece of oratory from the leading man. If Woody Allen's characters are famously neurotic, Sorkin's are modern-day prophets, certain they know better than anyone how the world should be. Even his most notable Jewish characters, The West Wing's Josh and Toby - both of do exhibit traces of Allen-esque insecurity - tend to be know-alls, albeit ones in need of a good therapy session.

There's little doubt Sorkin uses these monologues to communicate his opinions, which some see as a weakness; he just can't resist an opportunity to show off his brilliance. The Newsroom, Sorkin's most recent series, saw him decried by critics as condescending. "You, sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there's something you should know," bombasts Jeff Daniels' character in the opening scene.

Equally characteristic is Sorkin's quick-fire dialogue, with characters primed to verbally outsmart each other. And, while Sorkin's Jewishness is at best latent, it's hard not to see here the vestiges of a lively Friday- night dinner. He has spoken of being from a family where "anybody who used one word when they could have used 10 just wasn't trying hard enough".

An inveterate wordsmith, he seems to have missed the memo telling Hollywood to concentrate on dialogue-light superheroes, dumbed-down remakes and explosion-filled blockbusters that sell well to non-English markets. It's a testament to his standing that he gets away with it.

So is he, as Boyle says, cinema's greatest writer? He's divisive, and he may patronise his audience, yet we keep coming back. He's certainly unusual for having made as much impact in film as television. Few other writers today could make the driest of subjects compelling viewing; the census system, say, or the techiest bit of computer design. He is deservedly credited, along with Mad Men's Matthew Weiner and The Wire's David Simon, with contributing to a television golden age that has seen major stars rush to work on the small screen.

Whether he'll surpass The West Wing is anyone's guess. Critically acclaimed, it remains compulsive viewing even long after we have abandoned hope of seeing such a paragon as Bartlet inhabit real political office. For all that The Newsroom ran for three series, it never achieved the same must-watch status. But Sorkin, like Steve Jobs, is no stranger to reinvention. His next project is said to be a biopic of legendary comedian Lucille Ball, with Cate Blanchett in the lead. After that, who knows? To paraphrase the writer himself, if we let Sorkin be Sorkin, we'll find out.

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