Below are brief thoughts on each piece of material Sorkin has written for the big and small screen. For the films, my grades are solely based on the strength of Sorkin’s script. For his TV shows, my grade is based on the overall power of the show, all aspects included. Enjoy!
Best not to mince words here: the screenplay for A Few Good Men is one of the best American scripts ever penned. It’s intelligent, relentlessly paced, stealthily funny, and just, well, perfect. Based in part on Sorkin’s sister’s experiences with the U.S. Navy JAG Corps, Sorkin initially used the material to craft a successful stage play. He was soon approached to adapt his play into a script, which resulted in a unique work of art.
Sorkin tells a funny story about writing the script for A Few Good Men. Basically, he had no idea what he was doing. He was so concerned with how to properly format the script, that he lost sight of the story he was trying to (re)tell. Someone at the studio told him to forget the formatting and just stick to writing. My point is, people lose sight of the fact that A Few Good Men was Sorkin’s first produced screenplay. That’s a massive achievement in and of itself. A+
Memorable Quote: “That’s a relief! I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to use the liar, liar, pants-on-fire defense.” – Lt. Daniel Kaffee
Malice, co-written with Scott Frank (1993)
Malice is a psychosexual thriller about an earnest college dean (Bill Pullman) his caring wife (Nicole Kidman) and the devious doctor (Alec Baldwin) who comes between them. Sorkin’s script (with help from impressive screenwriter Scott Frank), makes for a pretty solid domestic suspense flick, in a decade where there were hundreds of them. Kidman’s transformation from a babe in the woods to Lady Macbeth is rather satisfying, while Baldwin chews malevolently on every one of Sorkin’s words. B
Memorable Quote: “If you’re looking for God, he was in operating room number two on November 17, and he doesn’t like to be second guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.” – Dr. Jed Hill
The American President (1995)
If you lived in America in the late ‘90s-early 2000s, chances were that, one any given night, you could turn on the television and catch Rob Reiner’s The American President. This movie was a staple of cable TV, thanks much in part to Sorkin’s playful banter, delivered to excellence by Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. And here’s the thing: even to this day, The American President doesn’t feel old. I never tire of it, and I have seen it more times than I care to say.
The American President gives equal attention to the Douglas/Bening relationship, Bening’s job as a lobbyist, and the impending Presidential election. One of my biggest critiques of Sorkin’s writing (which is mostly applied to his later TV work) is that he constantly jungles too many stories in an attempt to hold our attention. At first glance, The American President comes close to offering too much. But thankfully, Sorkin found the precise balance of politics and romance to tell a ceaselessly entertaining story. A-
Memorable Quote: “We had a nice couple a minutes together. She threatened me, I patronized her. We didn’t have anything to eat but I thought there was a connection.” – President Andrew Shepherd
The Rock (1996) (uncredited dialogue puncher-upper)
Many people (including Quentin Tarantino) were unofficially credited as unofficially punching up the script for The Rock, so it’s impossible to know for certain which lines of dialogue came from Sorkin’s hand. The Rock is a fine action film, but part of its success should be credited to how damn funny it is, namely the back-and-forth conversational wit throughout. The banter between Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery is priceless, while John Spencer’s tactical venom is as engaging as Ed Harris’ vengeance. There’s a good chance The Rock may be remembered as Michael Bay’s best film. Sorkin’s efforts certainly don’t make that a coincidence. B+
Memorable Quote: “You broke out down the incinerator chute, on the mine car, through the tunnels to the power plant, under the steam engine – that was really cool by the way – and into the cistern through the intake pipe. But how, in the name of Zeus’ BUTTHOLE did you get out of your cell?” – Stanley Goodspeed
Bulworth (1998) (uncredited dialogue puncher-upper)
I like to think that Aaron Sorkin helped punch up all of Warren Beatty’s lines in Bulworth. Maybe Beatty was a tad too old to nail the hilariously un-PC, politically ghetto cadence he desired from his title character, so he brought Sorkin on to make his words fly. Again, I have no way of knowing if this is true, but Jay Bulworth sure does sound an awful lot like an Aaron Sorkin character. B-
Memorable Quote: “You know, there’s a lesson here, which is never try to make life or death decisions when you’re feeling suicidal.” – Sen. Jay Bulworth
Sports Night (1998–2000)
Sports Night ran for two seasons and told the behind the scenes narrative of a SportsCenter-like show. All the makings of classic Sorkin are here: the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, the extended walk and talk shots, sarcasm, tears, office romance, heartbreak – everything worked, until it didn’t.
Much of the second season of Sports Night aired at the same time as the first season of The West Wing (which played on NBC). The West Wing was an immediate, massive success, which caused irrevocable harm to Sorkin’s attention to Sports Night. Granted, that wasn’t the only reason Sports Night was cancelled (Sorkin’s constant battle with the network over their decision to add a horrendously unnecessary laugh track to the show never helped matters), but whatever the cause, Sports Night deserved to live longer than it did. A-
Memorable Quote: “Bob Shoemaker was telling me about the nobility and tradition of hunting and how it related to the native American Indians. And I nodded and I said that was interesting while I was thinking about what a load of crap it was. Hunting was part of Indian culture. It was food and it was clothes and it was shelter. They sang and danced and offered prayers to the gods for a successful hunt so that they could survive just one more unimaginably brutal winter. The things they had to kill held the highest place of respect for them, and to kill for fun was a sin. And they knew the gods wouldn’t be so generous next time. What we did wasn’t food and it wasn’t shelter and it sure wasn’t sports!” - Jeremy Goodwin
The West Wing (1999–2006)
Up until last month, I had never watched a single episode of The West Wing. Once I noticed the entire show was available on Netflix Instant, I thought Ah what the hell, I have 156 hours to spare, so I gave the show a go, and was marveled by much of what I saw. The show is an insider’s perspective on the daily functions of a presidency. In chronicling Jed Bartlet’s reign as leader of the free world, Sorkin created his most vast landscape yet. A massive setting that included dozens of endearing and memorable characters, plentiful engaging storylines, and hundreds of gentle moments of emotional intensity.
For me, much of The West Wing rolled by at an embarrassingly fast rate. As soon as one episode was finished, I was compelled to start another. Much of this can be credited to the show’s uncanny ability to end a season at peak dramatic tension. Which is why it was upsetting when the show began to fall.
Rather famously, Sorkin and his producing partner/director Thomas Schlamme, left The West Wing after Season 4, and boy can you tell. Season 5 was, for the most part, an utter disaster. The quick banter was gone, the acting was stifled, the plot lines were boring – but once Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda were set up as the new Presidential candidates in Season 6, show runner John Wells got things back on track, to a degree. Although much of the charm of The West Wing was lost when Sorkin left, it will forever be revered as one of television’s finest hours.
The Aaron Sorkin Years (Seasons 1-4): A
The John Wells Years (Season 5-7): B
Memorable Quote: “You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.” – Tabatha Fortis
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006–2007)
I actually loved Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip when it first aired. It was Sports Night, but for a Saturday Night Live-type show. No laugh track, no distracted Sorkin – just solid acting, a compelling narrative, and witty humor, for 43 minutes a week.
And then everything went to shit.
NBC took a gamble in the fall of 2006 when it decided to air a dramedy about an SNL-type show (Studio 60) and a farce about an SNL-type show (30 Rock) simultaneously. In doing this, it’s as if NBC was setting up one of the shows to fail, which is exactly what happened. NBC cancelled Studio 60 while Sorkin was still filming episodes for its first season, and those subsequent episodes are regrettably awful. There’s no spark left in the actors, no charm in Sorkin’s words. It’s a sinking boat that knows it’s going to drown. When Studio 60 was at its peak, it was Sorkin at its best. But goddamn did this one go down hard. B
Memorable Quote: “I’ve been married twice before, and I’m a recovering cocaine addict. And I know that’s no woman’s dream of a man. Or of a father. Nonetheless I believe I’m falling in love with you. If you wanna run, I understand. But you better get a good head start because I’m coming for you.” – Danny Tripp
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
I had only seen this Mike Nichols film once before researching this post, and upon rewatching it, I’m sad to say I was as unfazed by it as I was the first time. Sure, Sorkin’s words soar at times (especially at the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was justly nominated for an Oscar for his role), but I couldn’t care less about the film’s overall story. It’s not nearly as compelling as it should be, and fails to hold my interest for any length of time. Any credit to the strength of its script belongs chiefly to Hoffman. C+
Memorable Quote: “For 24 years people have been trying to kill me! People who know how. Now do you think that’s because my dad was a Greek soda pop maker? Or do you think that’s because I’m an American spy? Go fuck yourself, you fucking child!” – Gust Avrakotos
The Social Network (2010)
I was tempted to let The Social Network speak for itself by filling this description with a handful of brilliant quotes featured in the film. Much has been said about the ingenuity of Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script, and David Fincher’s fearless direction of this film. I watched it again last night and was thrilled that it still holds up completely. It’s brisk, smart and crazy fun. As good as screenwriting gets. Period. A+
Memorable Quote: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try – but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” Mark Zuckerberg
Moneyball, co-written with Steven Zaillian (2011)
After Steven Soderbergh was fired as director of Moneyball, the studio hired Aaron Sorkin to write another draft of the script. For Bennett Miller’s film, he incorporated aspects of Sorkin’s script (namely much of the dialogue) and Steven Zaillian’s previously penned draft, crafting an immensely enjoyable baseball film.
Sure, I’ve always wondered how Soderbergh’s version would’ve turned out, but I have to give credit to Miller for picking up a faulty production, and carrying it with gusto. Bringing Sorkin on appears to have only helped the material. Much like the best of Sorkin’s work, I find that I can watch all or a part of Moneyball whenever I come across it. It just works. A-
Memorable Quote: “You get on base, we win. You don’t, we lose. And I hate losing. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even wanna win.” – Billy Beane
The Newsroom (2012-present)
The Newsroom has been called it all. From topical masterpiece to heavy handed train wreck, and certainly everything in between. It’s difficult for me to accurately assess the show as a whole, because I’ve always felt that its quality changes from episode to episode.
I was into the show when it first aired in June of last year. But after the Osama bin Laden episode, I tuned out. It was just too much. Too forced, too self-appreciative, too obvious. Before its second season began in July, I went back and watched the first season in its entirety, and have watched every episode of Season 2 that has aired. And the best way I can summarize my thoughts on The Newsroom is that, episode to episode (or really, scene to scene) it is inarguably hit or miss. Some storylines excel, while others are lame from the start. What the show gets right (Will McAvoy’s broadcasts, Mac McHale’s charm, Sloan Sabbith’s intelligence) nearly outweighs what it gets wrong.
In short, while The Newsroom doesn’t compare to the other television shows Sorikin has created, I suppose it’s a pleasing way to spend 60 minutes out of my week. C+
Memorable Quote: “There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student. But you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period.” – Will McAvoy