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Ranked: Aaron Sorkin, from Worst to Best
The verbose highs and the melodramatic lows of the walk-and-talk master.
BY ADAM D'ARPINO
With Season 2 of acclaimed screenwriter and walk-and-talk enthusiast Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom reaching an apex, and the recent announcement that he'll be teaming up with Paul Greengass for political drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, we've decided to take a look back at all of his credits -- television and film -- and rank them from worst to best.
10. Malice (1993)
If you've never seen or even heard of the Hitchcockian throwback Malice, worry not, there are good reasons. The tedious thriller, which stars Bill Pullman on autopilot as a Johnny Everyman college dean, Nicole Kidman as his infertile, cutie pie wife, and a young Alec Baldwin as a hotshot surgeon who's so handsome and charming that he must be up to no good, reeks so dankly of the early nineties. So much so, that when "Two Princes" showed up on a bar jukebox, I half expected the characters to begin discussing o-zone depletion and the merits of a Ross Perot presidency.
Sorkin serves as a cowriter here, but outside of an unnecessary soliloquy by Baldwin on the unspeakable power of doctors, you wouldn't know it. This is pretty by-the-numbers twisty thriller fare.
9. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006)
Sorkin's mercifully short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a show that asked too much of it's audience -- not in the way of intellect like, say, Sports Night, but in suspension of disbelief. Even if you were willing to buy into a universe where a sketch show so clearly spliced from the DNA of SNL -- right down to the patriarchal Lorne Michaels figure -- existed right alongside it, the populist appeal of a sketch called "Peripheral Vision Man," or the sophisticated comedic minds of Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) giving birth to a sketch called "Pimp my Trike" probably threw you over the edge. Suffice to say, Studio 60's weird sense of self-importance earned the guffaws of comedy professionals everywhere.
8. A Few Good Men (1992)
A Few Good Men might be Sorkin's best remembered movie, but have you watched it lately? It's one particular Jack Nicholson rant about the truth and certain people's ability to handle it away from being a forgettable courtroom flick. Pretty much everyone besides Tom Cruise's hotshot JAG lawyer and Nicholson's honor-fetishizing colonel is a moving part in a mechanical procedural drama. Also, the early '90s synth cheese soundtrack might have implied edge-of-your-seat drama back in the day, but it sounds like melodramatic teeth on a chalkboard here in 2013.
7. Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Written by Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War -- about a playboy Congressman's attempt to provide Afghani freedom fighters weaponry to fight off their Soviet occupiers -- wanted all the Oscars. So. Bad. Just check out the trailer. But it would end up getting justifiably buried by the likes of No Country for Old Me and There Will be Blood during the 2007 awards season in what ended up being one of the best movie years, maybe ever.
It might not have been Best Picture material, but as an entertaining enough picture about the strengths and limits of American foreign policy? Sure. We'll take it.
6. The Newsroom (2012)
Perhaps the Sorkiniest of Sorkin's works, The Newsroom encompasses all that's good and bad about his style. From the smartypants, quippy dialogue, to the lame relationship subplots that reached an apex when associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) became a Youtube sensation after spilling her guts to a "Sex and the City" tour bus -- that's some Katherine Heigl shit right there -- there's plenty to love and hate.
Show centerpiece Will McAvoy is a interesting character, although probably not half as interesting as Sorkin thinks he is. As a modern Edward R. Murrow rising above the fray of partisan politics to deliver truth bombs? Nah. But as a flawed, self-important douche with a Keith Olbermann-shaped cloud of smug that follows him around the office? Sure. Also, after the laughable love quandrangle that polluted the first season, the chemical weapons scoop that's headlined the second has been a welcome change of pace.
5. Moneyball (2011)
Moneyball the movie suffered from the same issues that plagued "Moneyball" the book: despite all of Billy Beane's stat-happy miracle working, the A's still lost in the first round of the 2002 playoffs. The team was actually one of the most successful franchises in baseball history before Beane came along; and much of their 2002 success can be attributed to a monstrous starting pitching rotation, which is barely touched on.
But despite some crafty work with the facts, Billy Beane -- a hotheaded baseball prospect turned talented GM -- is still a compelling character, and Sorkin's uncharacteristically understated script (co-written by "Schindler's List" scribe Steven Zaillian) does an impressive job mining an accessible Hollywood story from a book about the art of baseball nerd-dom.
4. The American President (1995)
Of the last of three movies Sorkin wrote for Rob Reiner's Castle Rock Entertainment, The American President was the best. The story -- about a kindly widowed president knockin' boots and finding love amid sliding poll numbers -- is standard romcom fodder, but outstanding performances from Michael Douglas and Annette Benning, combined with a smart script from Sorkin, elevated the vanilla material to one of the better romantic comedies of the past two decades. Not bad for a screenplay Sorkin wrote while high on crack.
3. Sports Night (1998)
ABC's insistence that Sorkin use a ludicrously out-of-place laugh track helped dig this worthwhile workplace dramedy an early grave. In 1998, treading the line between comedy and drama was sacrilege, and Sports Night fell victim to the mortal sin of being ahead of its time. Too bad. Since then, television has become a much smarter medium, and it's easy to imagine the rapid fire verbal sniping of Sports Night on HBO in place of The Newsroom, or sandwiched between a couple highbrow dramas on FX.
The show's tagline, "It's a show about a show about sports, that isn't about sports at all," said everything you needed to know about Sports Night. It was clear that Sorkin never cared nearly as much about sports as he did about politics, so Sports Night had the benefit of never (well, rarely) proselytizing to its audience. Instead, strong characters kept the action afloat. In particular the love/hate thread between anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), was about as well-developed a relationship as has ever been on TV.
2. The Social Network (2010)
When word of a "Facebook movie" started to creep around the internet, the idea was met with about as much love as the aforementioned social network's Timeline redesign. But anyone paying enough attention knew that any project that combined the creative talents of Sorkin, David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and "The Accidental Billionaires" author Ben Mezrich, was at least worth paying attention to. As it turned out, the dark, witty, voyeuristic window into the lives of the nerd class that is reshaping the world, was one of the best movies of the century.
The biggest lingering knock against The Social Network have been accuracy -- a somewhat valid criticism. "The Accidental Billionaires" is slanted so heavily in favor of Facebook co-founder and protagonist Eduardo Saverin, that he even ended up being portrayed by the unfathomably handsome Andrew Garfield. Anyone who's seen Zuckerberg speak for more than a minute in person knows that rapid-fire quips are just about as foreign to him as a non-invasive privacy agreement. Of course, in the context of The Social Network being an incredibly smart, poignant, well-made movie, the point is pretty moot. The movie's opening, featuring lingering shots of Harvard's campus as "Hand Covers Bruise" hovers forebodingly in the background, remains one of the greatest movie moments of the last decade.
1. The West Wing (1999)
Even Aaron Sorkin's best work isn't immune to classic Sorkin criticisms. Isn't the whole thing a bit preachy? A bit overly idealistic? I say, if we have room in our hearts for the puppy-strangling cynicism of House of Cards' Francis Underwood, surely there's a place for the bleeding idealism of President Jed Bartlet at the other end of the spectrum. Who talks like that? Well, a) smart, funny people or b) who cares? If I wanted to listen to everyday conversations, I'd wiretap a shopping mall food court.
Sure, Sorkin has a a lot to say about the workings and failings and promises of American politics, and sure, sometimes it was all a bit saccharine, but more than anything The West Wing was a beautifully made workplace drama, where friendships built and eroded, plot lines came and went, but a sense of love and camaraderie did the show's heavy lifting. Or, simply put, the same things that made people love, say, Cheers are the same things that made people love The West Wing. We liked Josh, and C.J., and Charlie, and Sam, and we wanted to walk and talk with them.