If all Aaron Sorkin ever did was create The West Wing – one of the most highly regarded TV shows of all time – it would still be enough to cement his reputation as one the greatest ever pop culture scribes. Fortunately, Sorkin isn’t one to rest on his laurels. In addition to developing several other TV series over the last few decades (including admirable yet flawed Jeff Daniels’ vehicle The Newsroom), he’s also authored several acclaimed screenplays. Here’s a round-up of the top five films scripted by everyone’s favourite ultra-liberal dialogue maestro.
5. Charlie Wilson’s War
With Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin dramatised the real life story of Congressman Charlie Wilson. Wilson was a self confessed party animal and womaniser who, in the 1980s, ended up the unlikely champion of the Afghani freedom fighters in their struggle against the Soviets.
Part of the appeal of this Mike Nichols-directed comedy-drama is the rare opportunity to see Tom Hanks play a less than wholesome hero in the form of Wilson. What’s more, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman deserve shout outs for their outstanding turns as wealthy socialite Joanne Herring and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, respectively.
True, Sorkin’s script loses marks for raising more issues than he seems able – or even comfortable – dealing with. Nevertheless, there’s an enjoyable lightness to proceedings and the pacing is refreshingly brisk, all of which makes Charlie Wilson’s War a much more inviting prospect than many of the more “serious” films about war and the Pax Americana.
4. The American President
I’m not going to lie: the main reason The American President is on this list is largely down to the role it played in inspiring Sorkin to pen The West Wing. With that admission out of the way, I should add that there’s a lot to like about this romantic comedy apart from its connection to Sorkin’s later White House opus.
For starters, by focusing on a widowed president juggling his re-election campaign and a new romantic relationship, Sorkin and director Rob Reiner put a fresh spin on two relatively tired plot types. There are also the razor sharp interplay between characters and the grandstanding speeches that Sorkin is known for, and which are always worth the price of admission to see.
Sure, The American President is far from the most ambitious work of Sorkin’s career and it’s more than a little corny. But it has a lot of heart and ultimately serves up some great moments for stars Michael Douglas, Annette Benning and Michael J. Fox.
3. Steve Jobs
If there’s one thing Steve Jobs recent box office failure proves, it’s that the general public has pretty much reached its threshold when it comes to retellings of the Apple co-founder’s life story. That’s a real shame, as Sorkin and director Danny Boyle don’t go down the usual biopic route with this one; rather than touching on all the major milestones in Job’s life, they pare the narrative down to just three major product launches (sprinkled liberally with flashbacks, of course).
The result is not only one of the best films of 2015, but also a fascinating insight into the mind of a person always one step ahead of everyone else – except in matters of the heart. No, it’s not quite on the same level of Sorkin’s other tech-focused movie, The Social Network (more on that later), yet Steve Jobs nonetheless succeeds by finding a Shakespearean depth in the story of a man who seeks perfection from his work, but who is himself riddled with imperfection.
Sorkin and Boyle contrasts Job’s brilliance as a visionary with his inadequacies as a man – most specifically, as a father. Indeed, it’s his reluctant – and in many ways, redemptive – relationship with his daughter Lisa which provides an emotional core for audiences to latch on to, credibly selling the idea that this master innovator could actually upgrade his own human operating system for the better.
Boyle also commendably dials back his usual kinetic visual style to let Sorkin’s operatic narrative take centre stage, and actors Michael Fassbender (Jobs) and Kate Winslet (his right hand businesswoman, Joanna Hoffman) both shine, clearly relishing the unique rhythms of Sorkin’s words.
2. The Social Network
Of all the films on this list, The Social Network is probably the most “important”. Like Taxi Driver in the 1970s or Wall Street in the 1980s or even Reality Bites in the 1990s, it really captures the zeitgeist of its time.
From the off, it becomes apparent that one of Sorkin’s many scripting triumphs here is his ability to distil the societal importance (and basic mechanics!) of social networking in way that even the most technologically challenged audience member can grasp it. But as much as The Social Network exists as a time capsule chronicling what it meant to be alive at the dawn of the latest evolution of human interaction, Sorkin and director David Fincher are more concerned with the very personal story of two friends – Facebook co-creators Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin – and how their relationship fell apart.
In place of the moral idealists that usually head up a Sorkin picture, The Social Network gives us two recognisably human characters, played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. Working from Sorkin’s Academy Award-winning screenplay, which crackles with his usual lyricism and wit, Eisenberg and Garfield mine this real-life story’s underlying pathos for all it’s worth, tipping the film into “instant classic” territory.
(Oh, and the score by Oscar-winning score by Trent Reznor – including the now-iconic track “Hand Covers Bruise” – is one of the best soundtracks of the past decade, and that’s a fact.)
1. A Few Good Men
Could there really be any other choice for number one?
Another successful Reiner/Sorkin effort, A Few Good Men elevates itself above the average courtroom drama thanks to top shelf performances by the entire cast – particularly stars Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson – and a screenplay dripping with tension and populated with engrossing characters.
In many ways, this tale of a young lawyer defending two marines accused of killing a fellow officer in a hazing exercise gone wrong is the definitive Sorkin story. It’s set within a high stakes, politically charged environment; it centres around a dilemma fuelled as much by morals as by anything else; and the ending, if not happy in the traditional sense, still possesses a distinctly uplifting vibe.
Admittedly, the iconic “You can’t handle the truth” monologue has been referenced and parodied so often now that it’s easy to forget what a powerful bit of writing it is (especially when snarled by Nicholson). Yet more than its bombastic speeches, what really lingers about A Few Good Men is its exploration of the true nature of honour and what it means to live by a code.