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 the admirable yet flawed Jeff Daniels’ vehicle The Newsroom), he’s also authored several acclaimed screenplays.
Having finally had the chance to catch up on Sorkin’s latest cinematic offering, Steve Jobs, I’ve decided that now would be as good a time as any to rank 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, a self confessed party animal and womaniser who ends 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 rare opportunity to see Tom Hanks play a less than wholesome hero in the form of Wilson, and Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman also deserve shout outs for their typically outstanding turns as wealthy socialite Joanne Herring and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, respectively.
That said, Sorkin’s script loses marks for raising more issues in than he seems able – or even comfortable – to address, especially with regards to the unforeseen consequences of US foreign policy, from the Reagan Administration through to today.
Nevertheless, there’s an enjoyable lightness to proceedings and it all moves along at a decent pace, which makes Charlie Wilson’s War a much more inviting prospect than many of the more dour, “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 quite apart from its connection to Sorkin’s later White House opus.
For starters, by focussing on a widowed President struggling to cope with both his re-election campaign alongside a new relationship as well, Sorkin and director Rob Reiner manage to put a fresh spin on two relatively tired plot types.
There’s also the razor sharp interplay between characters and 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 the recent box office failure of Steve Jobs has proven, it’s that the general public has pretty much reached its threshold when it comes to re-tellings of the Apple co-founder’s life story.
That’s a real shame, as Sorkin and director Danny Boyle haven’t gone down the usual biopic route with this one, and rather than touching on all the major milestones in Job’s life, they’ve made the bold choice to pare the narrative down to just three major product launches (sprinkled liberally with flashbacks, of course).
The end 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.
While not quite at the level of that other Sorkin tech movie, The Social Network (more on that later), Steve Jobs nonetheless succeeds in finding a Shakespearean depth in the story of a man who seeks perfection from his work (and those around him), 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 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, disappearing into their roles and 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 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 really more concerned in 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, we’re instead given two recognisably human characters – played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield – and the film’s ending will leave you pondering how ironic (or perhaps fitting) it is that the ultimate social networking platform ends up driven by someone utterly alone and desperate to connect.
Sorkin’s Academy Award-winning screenplay crackles with his usual lyricism and wit, but it’s the underlying pathos that tip this one over the edge into “instant classic” territory.
(Oh, and one more thing: 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. FACT.)
1. A Few Good Men
Could there really be any other choice for number one?
Another successful pairing of Reiner and Sorkin, 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.
Think about it: it’s set within a high stakes, politically charged environment, 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.
The classic “You can’t handle the truth” scene has been referenced and parodied so often now that it’s easy to forget what a powerful bit of writing it is (particularly when thundered out by a snarling Nicholson), yet it’s the exploration of the true meaning of honour that takes place during the dénouement that really lingers.