For virtually everyone who watches more than four Aaron Sorkin movies, the viewing experience tends to fall into two categories: before and after. There’s watching Aaron Sorkin movies before you notice all of Aaron Sorkin’s bullshit and after.
Okay, so one could be forgiven for reading this headline as “the Hater’s Guide To Aaron Sorkin.” If you came here looking for an uncomplicated celebration of Aaron Sorkin’s three decades of cinematic artistry, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sorkin isn’t perfectly good or perfectly bad; like most of his protagonists, his legacy is complex. At the very least, Aaron Sorkin is fun to write about; easily parodied, bold in his choices, and unabashedly himself.
Before you’ve intuited his many storytelling tendencies and tics, Sorkin movies just seem like slick entertainment. And the best ones are — briskly paced, with rapid-fire dialogue and pithy wordplay. Sorkin writes (and lately, directs) the kinds of movies actors love, because they get to do a lot of talking. Sorkin characters are garrulous — animated, articulate, and always thoroughly convinced of their own correctness. They pound tables, point fingers, and effortless issue incendiary truthbombs. Every Sorkin movie has at least five “mic drop” moments. Is it any wonder that they unfailingly attract the best actors?
Somewhere along the line one does start to become aware of Aaron Sorkin’s tics. Repeating phrases, adoring dickheads, and the general schoolmarmy smugness of it all. Aaron Sorkin is a teacher at heart, loving nothing more than to have a smart, sophisticated man explain the world to an emotional, immature woman. He loves duty, honor, ideals, institutions and drools over men in uniform, any uniform. He worships authority and appreciates a pedigree (a Harvard degree, an LSAT score, a decade in special ops). He seems to lack a certain curiosity about the world, and his characters tend to seem like many tiny Sorkins in different costumes after a while.
Yet he’s a perennial awards contender (Adapted screenplay Oscar winner for The Social Network, nominee for Moneyball and Molly’s Game) and will probably continue to be so into the foreseeable future. Because hey, people love snappy dialogue. Aaron Sorkin’s wordy ensemble plays always ooze prestige.
Aaron Sorkin is such a brilliant propagandist for the meritocracy that it’s hard to tell if he’s even doing it on purpose. He specializes in writing professional class people who are very good at their jobs, building worlds in which oppressive, antagonistic authority figures will bend to your will and have last-minute changes of heart provided they merely hear the right speech delivered by the right person at the right time.
It’s… well, bullshit, but a comforting kind of bullshit, especially for the erudite overachiever types Sorkin has spent his life flattering (a class to which I and most film critics tend to belong). It’s nice to believe that our institutions are solid and the people who run them are generally smart and principled. His movies are like candy or junk food: impossible not to enjoy from time to time even if you know too much can turn you rotten.
While I normally structure these rankings from bottom to top — it adds suspense, that’s a little inside baseball for ya from the #content trenches — in this case I thought it made more sense to move from my favorite Sorkins to my least favorite Sorkins. It better tracks my growing disillusion with Sorkin as a storyteller. And also, I think, the general arc of Sorkin familiarity, in which one tends to evolve from excited by his sharpness to fed up with his bullshit.
1. A Few Good Men
I WANT THE TRUTH!
How many people who were alive in 1992 don’t know that scene by heart? It’s interesting to go back to Aaron Sorkin’s early days (A Few Good Men was his first screenplay to be produced, adapted from his own play) and be reminded, oh yeah, this Aaron Sorkin is actually pretty good at pulp-y fiction. Certainly, most of his tics are already present in embryonic form even in A Few Good Men — his uniform worship, the way the resolution requires the bad guy to inexplicably lay his cards on the table at a climactic moment, the way Tom Cruise’s fun-loving dilettante is the one to break open the case rather than Demi Moore’s buttoned-up nerd.
The idea that this was adapted from a stage play both makes perfect sense and is hilarious to imagine. Just think: Aaron Sorkin once staged this play about HONOR, COUNTRY, and HAVING A CODE, with uniformed characters spouting non-stop military jargon for two hours, in front of a Broadway audience of rich theater lovers probably weaned on dancing cats. And in the climax, Colonel Nathan Jessup calls them all sniveling worms. Sorkin supposedly heard the story (based on a real case) from his sister, who had been a JAG lawyer, and wrote the first draft on cocktail napkins during “La Cage Aux Folles.” How perfect is that? The whole thing reminds me of a Max Fischer staging “Serpico” at his wealthy prep school.
It’s funny to think about, but it remains arguably Sorkin’s best screenplay, an intense courtroom drama full of unforgettable performances and earworm speeches.
2. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by Mike Nichols, is the ironically feel-good story of a womanizing Democratic congressman played by Tom Hanks, who teams up with a born-again debutante played by Julia Roberts, and an irascible CIA agent played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, to get the US government to help fund their proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan by arming the mujahideen. At least… I think the feel-good tone was intended as irony? With Sorkin, it’s often hard to tell when he’s doing propaganda on purpose and when he’s just doing it reflexively.
There are a lot of weird elements of Charlie Wilson’s War, like the way the Soviets are depicted as faceless ghouls, and the way it, you know, sort of elides the whole epilogue of the story, where all that increased funding for anti-communism efforts the movie’s heroes helped raise ended up bankrolling death squads all over the world. Supposedly, Tom Hanks nixed the original ending, which more explicitly tied the mujahideen Wilson’s crew were funding to 9/11 (which still ignores the death squads, but okay). And maybe Hanks was right. Maybe that would’ve ruined the intense irony of the “happy” ending we got.
But no matter how much irony you read into that ending, Charlie Wilson’s War still posits the CIA as the good guys, explaining how much better off we’d be if only we’d have listened to them. (Which is… let’s say… an interesting take). It’s classic Sorkin, where the institutions aren’t the problem, it’s that we didn’t listen to the most brilliant functionaries within those institutions!
The insane politics of it aside, I can’t help but love Charlie Wilson’s War as entertainment. As Gust Avrokatos (that’s GusT, not Gus), Philip Seymour Hoffman spends the movie hurling fastball after fastball, a bravura performance from a generational talent at the top of his game. Have you seen this scene?
Charlie Wilson’s War could be a puff piece about Satan himself and I would still watch Philip Seymour Hoffman do this for seven hours straight. God, he was magnificent. And if you were looking to humanize a Stepford Wife American Taliban and a corrupt(ish?) politician you could do a lot worse than Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks.
3. Malice (1993)
My first thought upon taking this assignment after I went to check IMDB was, “Oh crap, do I have to go rewatch Malice now?”
It’s debatable how much Malice, co-written by Sorkin and the great Scott Frank from a story by Sorkin and Jonas McCord, counts as an “Aaron Sorkin movie,” but having rewatched it, I can confirm that it is absolutely f*cking bonkers and certainly worth a rewatch.
Malice stars Bill Pullman as the dean of a small college and Nicole Kidman as his new wife. They have a framed newspaper in their house whose headline reads, hilariously, “PROFESSOR MARRIES FAVORITE STUDENT,” to explain their relationship, which is one of the most Aaron Sorkin things ever. Their lives get turned upside down when a surgeon with a God complex played by Alec Baldwin rents the upstairs room in their Victorian, where he bangs women and drinks whiskey, when he’s not jogging six miles a day in his Harvard sweatshirt. Incidentally, every character has incredible hair, including Alec Baldwin’s chest, which is essentially a character all its own.
How insane is Malice? At one point, Bill Pullman catches and beats up the town serial killer and that part is, as Roger Ebert put it at the time, “an entire subplot thrown in merely for atmosphere.”
It’s true, not many movies use Gwyneth Paltrow getting raped and murdered as mere foreshadowing. But Malice is deliciously insane, an early showcase of both Sorkin’s penchant for oddly courtly-sounding language (“I’m not going to like you, am I” — “Don’t be ridiculous, everybody likes me”), garrulous egotists (“I am God”), and men pedantically explaining things to women (I swear to God at one point Alec Baldwin chides a woman for saying “who” rather than “whom”). Malice is probably the only movie in history where one of the characters is a rapist serial killer and yet the antagonist still turns out to be a woman.
4. The Social Network (2010)
I wrote a whole separate retrospective on this one a few weeks back if you want to read that. Anyway, I know most people would probably have The Social Network ranked a lot higher on this list, because, admittedly, it is a brilliantly crafted and acted David Fincher film with memorable lines and an unforgettable score. But… I would argue it has not aged well. Its slick construction and snappy pacing can’t make up for how much of it simply rings false.
At its heart, The Social Network is a bullshit movie based on a bullshit book (though definitely worth a read if you like lengthy descriptions of Asian girls’ nipples). Sorkin and Fincher desperately want to turn Mark Zuckerberg into a classic Sorkinian megalomaniac, and there’s certainly some supporting evidence for that. Yet their take just seems… off. Take the first scene (a Sorkin invention) for example. Zuckerberg’s girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara), put off by Zuckerberg’s casual put-downs and obsession with “final clubs,” dumps him, leading to the memorable line, “you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole. ”
Fine, sure, good line, and Mark Zuckerberg calling an ex a bitch online in his LiveJournal is part of the historical record. It’s the part where Zuckerberg is obsessed with final clubs that makes no sense. This is the same guy who, according to the same book/movie, wore the same hoodie and sandals every day, didn’t care about money, and famously fell out with Eduardo Savarin, who preferred Italian loafers and suits, according to many adoring passages in the book, because Savarin wanted to stay and finish Harvard, and also sell ads and make money, while Mark just wanted to code and work on his website. Final clubs seem like something the real Zuckerberg wouldn’t have given two shits about. Frankly, it seems like the movie Zuckerberg wouldn’t have either. It’s not only a slick characterization, it’s an inconsistent one.
Anyway, the greater problem with The Social Network is that it came out too early. It ended up being mostly about how cool it was to be a punk billionaire revolutionary (they actually called Zuckerberg that in the press notes) and not how scary it is that the world’s foremost social network is presided over by a guy whose defining characteristic is his glaring lack of social skills. That seems like a more interesting paradox, and just as slick, as “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
It also seems bad that in a movie about the founding of Facebook, the most memorable characters are the Winklevii. (I must begrudgingly grant Aaron Sorkin credit for inventing the term “Winklevii”).
5. Moneyball (2011)
Judging by its RottenTomatoes score (94%), many people liked Moneyball. I am not one of those people. Moneyball is a brilliant book, though with so much history, analysis, and statistics, it’s not exactly narrative fiction — a problem Steve Zaillian and later Aaron Sorkin seem to have solved by filling it full of the corniest Hollywood bullshit possible. Like Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) connecting with his daughter by having her sing him a song from an Old Navy commercial in a guitar store. Still, I admit, it was fun to watch Brad Pitt eat and spit and frown and throw things.
It’s also debatable how much Moneyball counts as an “Aaron Sorkin movie,” given that he was just rewriting Steve Zaillian. Steven Soderbergh was originally supposed to direct Moneyball, and had a plan to shoot it as a semi-documentary using interviews with many of the real athletes and people from the book, until Amy Pascal shut it down five days before it was supposed to begin filming. I’d still like to see that Soderbergh version. Who knows, maybe Pascal was right and Soderbergh’s Moneyball would’ve been a disaster. But at least that would’ve been interesting. This Moneyball kind of blends in with the wallpaper.
6. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (2020)
For about 35 minutes, I really thought Sorkin had pulled it off: making me enjoy an Aaron Sorkin movie, about politics, long after I had already started noticing all of his Sorkinisms. Sorkin (who also directed) felt like he was in his element here. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama (a setting that justifies all the dramatic bickering and mic drop speeches Sorkin loves), about historical events, with a star-studded cast and many concomitant opportunities to lecture the audience about how he was right about world events all along (which is the essential plot of The Newsroom).
Sorkin positions Tom Hayden (played by Eddie Redmayne), the leader of SDS, as the face of the civilized left, pitting him against his unwashed hippie provocateur frenemy, Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a bizarre Mass accent) of the Youth International Party. This all leads to a big scene where Hayden (surely speaking for Sorkin) lectures Hoffman on how Hoffman is setting back the protest movement, because years from now, people will only remember his zany antics and not his humanitarian message.
In perfect Sorkinian fashion, their later reconciliation comes when Hoffman snootily corrects Hayden’s grammar (he said “blood will flow in the streets” when what he really meant was “our blood will flow in the streets”) while revealing that he’s read everything Hayden has ever written. I thought he was about to say “I worship you, man,” like Hansel tells Derek Zoolander in Zoolander.
Regardless of how ahistorical this was (and I imagine it was very ahistorical) it was a cute moment. Aww, the left can work together! And Tom Hayden is easily Eddie Redmayne’s least grating role in years. Quibbles aside, the movie doesn’t really fall apart until the climax, which is not only one of the corniest scenes ever shot but seems to exemplify all of Sorkin’s worst impulses, both as a writer and as a thinker. [Spoilers to follow…]
The whole trial, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis has been compiling a list of the names of all the US servicemen killed in Vietnam since the trial began. After the trial ends, Hayden stands up to read a pre-sentencing statement… and begins to read the names of all the dead servicemen, this as the nauseatingly saccharine string music swells in the background and ol’ judge Fuddy Duddy (played by Frank Langhella) screams for order. Even the prosecutor, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, stands at attention, on account of how much he respects the troops. The audience in the courtroom literally slow claps, congratulating Aaron Sorkin for his emotional script.
Obviously, you don’t need to be a historian to realize that this scene is pure fiction. In reality, it was David Dellinger who read the names, on Vietnam Moratorium Day, and he was quickly shut down by the judge. Aside from that, the idea that a government prosecutor charged with putting hippies in prison for a decade would suddenly decide to do the right thing, because honor and duty and how much he respected our brave men in uniform, essentially encapsulates the West Wing worldview. Surely your enemies will stop stabbing you in the chest if only they see you salute hard enough.
Furthermore, why would the defendants only read the names of US servicemen and not any of the Vietnamese? It seems utterly out of character for a crew that pranked the judge with a Vietnamese flag on their table and said, in their actual pre-sentencing speeches, [DELLINGER] “Whatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the Black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail.”
Sorkin’s version isn’t just ahistorical, it’s idiotic. The chief conflict over the legacy of the counter-culture is “we stopped an unjust war” vs. “you only stopped the draft.” Which is to say, Boomers either altruistically ended a murderous war OR succeeded only in taking the onus of empire off themselves and their college buddies (and arguably made it much easier to wage foreign wars without raising public outcry). The way Sorkin stages it, the Chicago 7 seem to only care about their own generation and their own country (which, again, didn’t actually happen) and the movie still treats them as unalloyed heroes.
It would be one thing if this were a take, yet it feels entirely accidental. It’s not that Sorkin chose the wrong side, it’s that he seems utterly blind to the stakes of his own story.
7. Molly’s Game
Molly’s Game is some of the worst of Sorkin, and it’s fair to wonder if that’s because it has a female protagonist. Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom, and in many ways she’s the perfect Sorkin lead, famous for spewing Sorkin-esque dialogue even before she ever worked with him (see “I’m the motherf*cker who found this place, sir” from Zero Dark Thirty).
Yet in adapting Bloom’s memoir about how she ran a high-stakes poker game in Hollywood, Sorkin finds himself without a necessary ingredient: an axe to grind. Sorkin is brilliant at grinding axes. In Molly’s Game, the closest he comes is with a lengthy breakdown of how ridiculous the concept of bottle service is (something that didn’t come from the book).
This would’ve fit with the theme of the memoir, in which Bloom got sucked into the culture of mindless aughts excess and was eventually done in by the financial crisis (and Tobey Maguire), but rather than go in on any of that (though Michael Cera is great as the fictionalized Maguire), Sorkin just kind of carves up his own protagonist. After opening the movie with her GPA and LSAT scores (apparently to prove that, while a woman, Bloom is smart and worth paying attention to), he spends the rest of the movie exploring her daddy issues. This in the form of Kevin Costner, who, as Molly’s father, shows up periodically to explain all her Rosebud moments.
The best part of Molly’s Game is the framing device Sorkin has invented, in which a lawyer character played by Idris Elba interrogates Molly’s word choices in her memoir. The fun read of this is that it’s not just a classic Sorkin man pedantically explaining something to a Sorkin woman, but Sorkin using his own stand-in to pedantically Monday Morning Quarterback word choices in the memoir he’s been hired to adapt. It’s magnificent.
8. Steve Jobs (2015)
Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Michael Fassbender as the titular Apple co-founder, is a strange mash-up of The Social Network and Moneyball. Steve Jobs is depicted simultaneously as a vengeful and megalomaniacal nerd, a la Mark Zuckerberg, and also, after a change of heart, a caring father who wishes he’d spent more time with his daughter, a la Billy Beane. Neither take seems to bear much resemblance to reality and Steve Jobs feels like the closest thing Sorkin has to a “paycheck movie.” (Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography was all the rage at the time, inspiring Elizabeth Holmes’ entire persona, and it makes sense that a studio figured throwing one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriters at it would be easy money).
Sorkin gets to self-plagiarize a few times with some hot actors and Apple-y window dressing, let Danny Boyle shoot the whole thing in swooping and tilting camera angles, and then go home and live to write another day. I think I forgot 99% of Steve Jobs the moment the credits rolled, and I imagine Aaron Sorkin did too.
9. The American President (1995)
Did you know politics is just a polite disagreement between good-looking articulate white people in suits? If you ever want to know why millions of Americans were so disgusted with the political establishment that they were willing to vote for a deranged orange fascist from a TV show, definitely watch The American President.
Starring Michael Douglas as a widower president (with Martin Sheen playing his chief of staff) who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) while he’s trying to pass a crime bill (and eventually has to declare his private life off-limits from an evil Republican played by Richard Dreyfuss), The American President seems to be an eerie foreshadowing of everything from The West Wing to Primary Colors to that Hugh Grant vignette in Love Actually. Last year’s The Long Shot, starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, is almost a perfect gender-swapped version of The American President.
I was planning to rewatch this movie for this list, but truthfully, I could barely make it through the trailer. The music, the jargon, the decorum… gag me with a lanyard. Please, no more stories about the relatable lives of DC political hacks. The only good rom-com about the president is Dave.