Charlie Rose, a sort of upmarket US Parkinson, is not a place where you expect to hear anything very interesting. If a tough interview is a grilling, then Charlie delivers the lightest of bakings—popping his guest’s ego in the oven for 20-60 minutes, allowing it to gently rise and expand. A typical Charlie Rose question is “Your movie’s great. Tell me about it.” That one of Rose’s typical questions is not, in fact, a question, may be taken as indicative.
But, on 2nd October 2002, something interesting was said on Charlie Rose. Discussing The West Wing, and specifically answering Rose’s question “How do you write all that smart dialogue for all those smart characters?” Aaron Sorkin declared that he himself is not all that clever, it’s just that he had learned to mimic “the sound of intelligence” by listening to his smart friends. As incisive self-analysis by a creative artist goes, this is on a par with Balzac’s comment: “I am not deep but I am very wide.”
The Social Network has been a critical and commercial smash but, like all of Sorkin’s work, the film sounds hyper-intelligent whilst serving up popcorn-friendly thrills no more intellectually engaging than other smart Hollywood fare like Up in the Air and Spiderman. That’s not to say his scripts themselves aren’t intelligent—it’s just that their intelligence lies almost entirely in brilliant craftsmanship. We get clever-sounding 1000wpm whizzbang dialogue, we get superbly structured drama, but beneath all that there doesn’t seem to be any philosophical core to Sorkin’s work. Films like A Few Good Men and The Social Network touch upon all kinds of serious themes (What is honour? Who owns ideas? etc) but, as in The West Wing, ideas are elegant set dressing rather than a vital part of the drama.
Sorkin is at his best when he’s doing the core Hollywood stuff—heroism, knotty conflicts, comedy, romance. He’s at his worst when he takes it into his head that he’s doing something deep. The final episode of series two of The West Wing offers a case in point, with Sorkin aiming to deliver a televisual King Lear. Pushed to breaking point by intense presidential pressures and the death of a loved-one, President Bartlet stands alone in a cathedral inveighing against God in Latin, as a tropical storm is blown Washington-wards in an immense gust…