Award-winning 'West Wing' and 'Social Network' writer Aaron Sorkin sets his sights on TV journalism
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brings his now-patented fast-talking style to HBO and the world of TV news with “The Newsroom”, which stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.
“I wanted to give journalism ‘The West Wing’ treatment and add romantic comedy to it,” says the Emmy-winning writer of the hit 1999-2006 TV series that went behind the scenes of the US presidency. Now hot off an Oscar win for the screenplay for “The Social Network” and an Oscar nomination for last year’s “Moneyball”, Sorkin returns to television amid much anticipation.
Sorkin’s new satire goes behind the scenes of “News Night”, a cable-news programme hosted by Will McAvoy (Daniels), a newsman who’s made a name for himself by not taking sides. He’s become so homogenised that he’s derided as the “Jay Leno of news anchors”.
But it’s at a university forum where McAvoy snaps and spews forth vitriol against a female student in the audience and against both his liberal and conservative co-panellists. He’s sent packing on a leave of absence, and when he returns, he finds his staff has all jumped ship to another anchor’s show. All he’s left with are a flighty secretary (Alison Pill), who’s name the newsman can’t remember, and a computer nerd (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”) who writes McAvoy’s blog – and McAvoy didn’t he know he had a blog.
Further complicating things for McAvoy is when he’s assigned a new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer), who, it turns out, was McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend – and their relationship ended badly. But McHale, burned out after working as a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, relishes getting back to behind-the-scenes TV production and putting Will back on the path of practising good old-fashioned journalism.
Along the way there’s comedy mined from not only Will and MacKenzie’s strained relationship but in a love triangle that develops between Pill’s character and two rival news producers, played by Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr.
And veteran actor Sam Waterston brings more comedy relief as McAvoy’s boss, a hard-drinking old-time newsman who looks back fondly at the days when Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite set the standard for TV news.
Others in the cast include Jane Fonda as the CEO of the cable network and Olivia Munn, who joins the news show as a financial analyst.
Aside from his use of high-minded, densely packed dialogue, Sorkin is also known for the “walking and talking” technique in which characters engage in conversation or arguments as they move through the set. In “The Newsroom”, he adds pratfalls to the mix.
“I’m happiest when I’m figuring out how to make somebody fall down on a banana peel,” Sorkin says.
Stars Daniels and Mortimer eagerly took that walk with Sorkin, and jumped at the chance to speak “Sorkinese”.
“It’s very daunting but it’s also an incredible experience, one that I will value my entire life,” Mortimer says during roundtable interviews with the foreign press at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
She’s enthusiastic about her starry-eyed, idealistic character. “That’s one of the themes of this show, about how difficult it is to be an idealist in this world, where everything is about money and numbers and doing anything possible to get people to watch your show,” she says.
Daniels, perhaps still best known as Jim Carrey’s counterpart from the comedy “Dumb and Dumber”, says playing McAvoy is the “role of my life”.
Though his character has grown apathetic and bitter, he’s shaken out of his funk by his old flame. “It’s a fight to hang on to the ideals of journalism versus the pressure to stay with scandal and keep spiking ratings,” he says.
Daniels comes well prepared for the Sorkin universe, having had a stint on Broadway in the Tony-nominated “God of Carnage” and in filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed divorce drama “The Squid and the Whale”.
“You have to know what you’re doing,” he says of the challenge of Sorkin’s scripts. “You have to have craft to do Aaron. The speed, the pace … there’s a cadence to it, a rhythm to it.” Mortimer agrees, saying it’s akin to singing.
“The Newsroom” was initially met with a negative reception from critics, who called Sorkin’s dialogue preachy and self-important and didn’t care for the romantic entanglements. “I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, so that’s going to happen,” Sorkin says. “The audience will decide.”
And the audience has decided, making the opener of “The Newsroom” HBO’s third-most-popular debut behind “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire”. Ratings fell off for the second episode, but HBO has already decided that “The Newsroom” will be renewed for a second season.
THAT’S THE NEWS
- “The Newsroom” premieres at 7pm tomorrow on HBO HD (TrueVisions 121) and at 8pm on HBO (TrueVisions 43).