For the seventh episode of his old-news-as-I-think-it-should-have-been series The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin moved from broad liberal idealism into open campaigning for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Good thing the show is on HBO. Otherwise, after “5/1,” Mitt Romney would have ample ammunition to demand a response under the Federal Communications Commissions’ equal-time rules.
The title “5/1,” for anyone who has been living under a rock for the past fifteen months and instead depends on the exploits of Atlantis Cable News for their information, refers to last year’s raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan by an élite Navy SEAL squad that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Considering The Newsroom‘s narrative flourish—depicting a fictional cable news channel reporting real news from as far back as two years ago—this installment was inevitable. The series opened with ACN covering the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico; it continued with the rise of the Tea Party as an electoral juggernaut; and reached cacophonous levels with a gorge-inducing retelling of the January 2011 assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head outside a Tucson grocery store. Bin Laden was sure to follow.
On a recent edition of Fresh Air With Terry Gross, Sorkin described his storytelling in The Newsroom as an improvement on the news that already happened:
And then what I’ll do is I’ll have Will [McAvoy, the garrulous anchor played by Jeff Daniels] ask the follow-up that was never—that I thought was never asked. In the episode a week ago, which is the episode where that scene took place, in Episode 3, Sam Waterston’s character tells us that the idea is that Will is a fantastic prosecutor and that they’re going to harness that strength and that the studio is going to become a courtroom and that he’s going to treat guests like they’re witnesses on a stand. And I like that because I like writing courtroom drama.
As a fantastical device—this is scripted television, after all—there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Sorkin playing make-believe with the news. After all, it’s something he did with our national politics for several years on The West Wing. Where our real-life presidents and members of Congress were bitchy and boorish, Sorkin gave us in Jed Bartlet’s administration a wizened, noble president with an equally earnest staff. The West Wing was, as The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum put it in her searing review of The Newsroom, “helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration.”
Of course, as Tom Carson’s essay in Washington City Paper rightly points out, it is for that reason exactly that The West Wing stands as “the most escapist series ever to fool intelligent people into thinking it was a realistic portrayal of American government.”
The Newsroom does the same with journalism. Perhaps my revulsion toward The Newsroom comes from the fact that Sorkin’s latest fantasy is poking at my profession. But setting aside my life as a reporter and editor, this show is awesomely bad television that has continued to get worse. Yes, it is exquisitely produced, but it also continues to top itself in cringeworthy moments.
At this point, I could begin spilling hundreds—maybe thousands—of words on the way The Newsroom depicts its women as incompetent, man-obsessed klutzes and the fact that as glaring as that trend is on Sorkin’s current show, a review of his previous series shows just as much casual misogyny. That’s a facet of Sorkin’s writing that is plenty covered and should continue to be focused on by his critics. For now, let’s just leave it at saying that The Newsroom‘s social values are noxious. Let’s get back to its politics.
The fourth episode—the one with Gabrielle Giffords—ends with a vomit-worthy sequence in which the crew of News Night With Will McAvoy, after spending the first 50 minutes bickering at each other over party fouls and missed connections, race into action to cover the Tucson shooting spree. It is set to Coldplay’s 2005 song “Fix You,” a bad song made worse by bad drama. Sorkin’s use of music is, historically, about as nuanced as an anvil dropping on a cartoon coyote’s head. Perhaps the most famous example is the second-season finale of The West Wing, in which Dire Straits’ ”Brothers in Arms” is used to score many shots of Bartlet and his staffers posing in soldierly order. It’s emotional button-pushing at its worst.
So Sorkin, in using “Fix You,” was ordering us how to feel about the Tucson shooting that left six dead and Giffords with permanent brain and sensory damage. Such a scene is jarring enough on its own without Chris Martin’s mopey warbling. But that is how Sorkin commands emotion—wholly blatant and free of any subtlety.
Three weeks after the Coldplay dénouement comes the bin Laden episode. Told over a few hours on May 1, 2011, “5/1″ chugs along as perhaps The Newsroom‘s finest outing to date. Still too maudlin, still bearing too many plot conveniences—a character’s girlfriend happens to be the daughter of a Cantor Fitzgerald executive who died in the World Trade Center, while the entire crew is already assembled on a Sunday evening—but better. The “reporting” section was only slightly more madcap than my friends who work at national and international news bureaus remember. Toss out the subplots involving McAvoy being stoned and Sam Waterston’s character being teased with a NewsCorp-style hacking scandal that just happens to break the same night as the Abbottabad raid, and “5/1″ is almost believable.
The conclusion, predictably, is McAvoy going on the air just in time to introduce Obama’s unexpected address from that night. By the time the President approached his podium, the news that bin Laden was gone had been confirmed for about 10 or 15 minutes after a couple of hours of speculation.
Obama’s speech that night was brief and pointed. Navy SEALS had, after months of planning, gone into Pakistan under cover of darkness, found the compound housing the al Qaeda leader, and shot him dead. The President was straightforward and taciturn. In the immediate wake of the news, the White House left the celebration to us. Crowds flocked in New York. In Washington, thousands, including me, raced down to the White House to rally outside the gates. Here is some of what I wrote about that night:
A friend from the Obama campaign of 2008, her roommate, and I got to the White House about 12:30 a.m. My friend wore a navy Obama T-shirt with faded lettering, an appropriate choice for the party unfolding on Pennsylvania Avenue where some of the first chants we heard included the familiar campaign choruses of “Yes, we can! and “O-ba-ma!” Enough people brought flags, most traditional stars-and-stripes with a few Gadsden banners dotting the White House gates. Yes, there were Tea Partiers and Obama loyalists shouting in unison. The trees lining the sidewalk, just now blooming, were full of people, some too large for the thin branches.
We started to take our lap around the party. Within a few minutes it was clear that at least half—more, probably—had rushed in from George Washington University, Georgetown University, and American University. This was equal parts a patriotic triumph and an end-of-semester rager. Verses of the national anthem and “God Bless America” were punctuated with Hoya athletic chants. “Fuck bin Laden!” turned into “Fuck our finals!” The University of Alabama canceled its final exams last week after tornadoes devastated Tuscaloosa. I can’t imagine a Georgetown dean doing the same in honor of the death of bin Laden. In fact, after last night’s craziness, I imagine some students woke up this morning muttering, “Fuck, our finals.”
But the prevailing sentiment was one of victory and pride in, if not the country’s larger foreign policy, then certainly in part of its national-security apparatus. Though most of the crowd was in elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001, their elation was sincere. Other chants included “Obama got Osama” and “We want Obama,” the latter inviting the President to step onto the White House lawn for a victory lap. (Though as thrilling as that might have been in the moment, such a thing—if it were even logistically possible—would be quickly remembered as an Eva Perón-style moment of vanity.)
For a time, there were no presidential victory laps. The moment was savored by the people—ones who lost loved ones on 9/11, who were impacted by the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who needed a proud moment for an emotionally scarred nation.
Naturally, that has changed. The killing of bin Laden is a key talking point for Obama’s re-election campaign, and the White House, it has since been learned, opened up its some of its classified records to the director Kathryn Bigelow, who is making a film about the Abbottabad raid. (Whoever said presidents weren’t vain and self-serving? Besides, you know, Aaron Sorkin.)
That Sorkin closed “5/1″ with the image of Obama walking to the podium in the East Room is smart, effective storytelling. What came next, however, was atrocious. Sorkin could have cut it off with Obama saying, “Good evening.” Or even, “Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.”
Instead, the speech continues over the credits, right up through the closing HBO “whoosh.” Many will likely see this selection as a tribute to the commander-in-chief who ordered bin Laden’s assassination.
But those are the exact people who Sorkin is targeting with his latest craven use of audio. Accuse me of right-wing lunacy if you must, but “5/1″ ended with about as perfect a commercial that Obama for America could cook up for itself. Sorkin’s liberalism is nothing new; in fact, he and I probably share many of the same political values. I just didn’t think he was up for scripting a Karl Rove moment.
On May 1, 2003, eight years to the day before Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, President George W. Bush flew a fighter plane onto the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in the waters off San Diego, California. After shedding his flight suit, Bush addressed the aircraft carrier’s crew that with the recent downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq was “accomplished.”
Of course, everything that has happened since that day has proven the opposite. What people remember is Bush’s bravado and jingoism, and a moment that will go down as one of the most bombastic embarrassments in American history.
Obama’s speech on May 1, 2011 was the tonal opposite. It was sudden and reserved and an actual mission had been accomplished. The President delivered the news soberly; our emotions ranged wildly, from the Iraq veteran who broke down in tears outside the White House to the cover of the New York Daily News, which blared “ROT IN HELL.”
“Mission Accomplished” was designed to boost Bush’s credibility as a tough, combative decision-maker. Obama’s speech was to deliver the news. But what Sorkin has done is to transmute that address into a dramatic sledgehammer that bashes the viewer with emotional manipulations of 9/11, memories of which require little prodding to elicit emotional responses. It is debasing and exploitative.
So is a stunt landing on an aircraft carrier to declare victory after one chapter of an open-ended war.
And so are campaign ads, like the freebie Obama just got from Sorkin.
Update, 4 p.m.: Hey, what do you know? Aaron Sorkin is a co-chair of a fundraiser for Obama tonight at the Westport, Connecticut home of Harvey Weinstein, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Admission to the 50-person affair is $38,500. Assuming it sells out, that’s a nice haul of $1,925,000. I wonder if last night’s credits count as a down payment on Sorkin’s ticket.
Photo of Aaron Sorkin by John Russo/HBO.