Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Aaron Sorkin
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, "˜You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, giftless. I'm not your agent and I'm not your mommy. I'm a white piece of paper, you wanna dance with me?' And I really, really don't."-Aaron Sorkin

"Listen lady, a gender I write very well when the story calls for it, we make horse drawn carriages and the first Model T just rolled into town."-Aaron Sorkin as himself, 30 Rock

When I began brainstorming this column, I honestly believed I would be able to consistently defend the idea of the screenwriter as the true author of a film. It just seemed to make sense to me that the person who wrote the actual story, the words everyone spoke, the actions everyone performed, the person who created the very conflict that drove the film, would be an arguable author of the final product. While I'll discuss this more in depth in this column's (temporary) conclusion next month, it turns out I was largely wrong on that front. Let's play a little game, shall we? Name your five favorite screenwriters. I'll simplify that even further. Name five screenwriters whose attachment to a project means you'll absolutely see it (And no cheating and naming writer-directors either. Just the scribes, kids). My guess (and please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong) is that you had trouble putting that list together. I know I would have. Because when I hear Charlie Kaufman has written a movie, I'm there. David Mamet is pretty hit and miss, but I'll probably tend to see his new movies when they come out unless the film in question sounds terrible or prominently features his wife Rebecca Pidgeon who makes me want to gouge out my eyes and ears and throw heavy things at the screen until she goes away. Beyond those two, only one writer will send me running for the theater on opening day: Aaron Sorkin.

This is a film column by nature, and so I will focus on Sorkin's movies to make my point, but it would be silly for me to gloss over Sorkin's television career in a discussion of his status as the author of his works. Television, as a rule, is written by a variety of writers on a rotation to ensure there is no delay in the production schedule. Even most of the television shows you associate with one show runner are usually written by a variety of people. David Simon is the brains behind The Wire and received story credit on all but ten episodes, yet he only wrote the teleplays for 20 of the show's 60 episodes. David Chase is the heart and soul of The Sopranos and was involved in all of the writing, but he only wrote the full script for 30 of the show's 86 episodes. Joss Whedon wrote only 24 of Buffy's 144 episodes, Alan Ball wrote only 9 of Six Feet Under's 60 episodes, and Larry David wrote 62 of Seinfeld's 180 episodes. By contrast, Aaron Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 40 of the 45 episodes of Sports Night, wrote or co-wrote 86 of the 89 episodes of The West Wing before he was fired, and every single one of Studio 60's 22 episodes. When Aaron Sorkin is the name on a television show, you can bet the farm that he'll be writing pretty much every episode, crafting the arcs, character development, dialogue, and, since he handpicks the directors of his shows, and generally uses Thomas Schlamme, has a hand in their direction as well.

But we aren't here to talk about Sorkin's television career, where he is surely the master of his domain. Sorkin has turned in scripts for five movies over the last two decades, and each bears his mark so strongly, it is impossible not to think of them as Aaron Sorkin films. Even when Sorkin works with strong directors who may themselves be considered auteurs, he manages to make each and every one of his films his own, filled to the brim with his signature witty repartee, hyper-literate references, passionate idealism and focus on committed professionals.

His first screenplay was based off of his own play, and directed by Rob Reiner. A Few Good Men follows a lazy and inexperienced lawyer (Tom Cruise) who becomes a passionate advocate when he is required to defend two soldiers accused of killing a fellow recruit during a hazing ritual. With the help of his best friend (Kevin Pollack) and another investigator (Demi Moore), he manages to make his case that his clients were just following the orders of base commander Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his tour de force performance). Despite working under the very experienced Reiner, there is no doubt that Sorkin's influence shines through the strongest. From the lightning quick banter to the passionate idealism of the characters and their strong dedication to doing their jobs, it is clear that the script took center stage during the filming process.

Sorkin's next big project had him teamed with Rob Reiner once again for the political romantic comedy The American President. Often referred to as Sorkin's "test balloon" for The West Wing, Reiner helped Sorkin get the film produced to prove the viability of a television show about the president of the united states, which Sorkin would finally bring to television four years later. The film follows widowed President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) as he struggles to maintain a relationship with a lobbyist (Annette Bening) while passing a crime bill that will consolidate his approval rating before his reelection campaign. The film is clearly a blueprint for the series to come, and the two share plotlines, dialogue, and even cast members (Martin Sheen plays the Chief of Staff in the film and President Bartlet on the show, and five other cast members from the film played roles on the series). From the film's inception to its release, this was Sorkin's project, with Reiner agreeing to direct only to ensure the film would be produced and released by a studio.

Over a decade later, Sorkin returned to film with Charlie Wilson's War, which paired him with directorial titan Mike Nichols as he adapted the book by George Crile. Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is more partier than politician until his friend and sometimes lover Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) convinces him he has to help the Afghan people in their struggle against the Soviets. Wilson befriends CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Oscar nominated Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and becomes a passionate advocate for arming the people of Afghanistan. While the film is clearly a Mike Nichols movie, Sorkin's influence permeates every scene, from the similarities between Wilson's development and the development of Tom Cruise's character in A Few Good Men to the ideologies espoused throughout the film. Rumors have surfaced that the ending of Sorkin's screenplay differs majorly from the ending of the film, which gives Charlie Wilson a happy ending and avoids directly referencing the 9/11 attacks. According to sources from the set, Tom Hanks demanded that the ending be altered and Nichols and Sorkin complied, though neither was happy with the change.

Perhaps the most fascinating pairing of writer to director in his career, last year's The Social Network, which finally won Sorkin Best Adapted Screenplay, paired Sorkin with the incredibly distinctive David Fincher. While the film does play with Fincher's pet themes about obsession, power, and the dark side of the human soul, Sorkin's dialogue and predilection for characters who are addicted to their work above all else shine through just as strongly. Mark Zuckerberg (Jess Eisenberg, nominated for Best Actor for the role) somehow manages to be both a stock Fincher and Sorkin protagonist, making him a fascinating study of the dark side of dedication and the isolation of intelligence and arrogance. When I first heard that Sorkin and Fincher were teaming up for The Social Network, I wasn't sure how the combination of two consistently strong visions would work out, yet the film is a complete triumph, giving us the best of both men's work in one two hour tour de force.

The script for The Social Network is so completely engrossing and enjoyable, I actually found myself continually hoping the film would never end. While Fincher's work on the movie is incredible (and, if I ever get around to covering Fincher for this column, his work will be examined and praised even more closely), it is Sorkin's gift for dialogue that lifts the movie into the stratosphere, giving it easily the best script of last year. The conflicts spark with such verbal vitriol it is actually pulse-poundingly tense just to watch the characters sit across a deposition table from each other, so dynamic that even their discussions of intellectual property sizzle with multiple meanings, sarcasm, and subtle character developments.

As Sorkin playfully warned during his recent cameo on 30 Rock, the importance of the writer in Hollywood is constantly in danger of sliding toward irrelevance, yet the strength of a few great writers is enough to remind the skeptical of the importance of the written word. When examining one of the movies written by Aaron Sorkin, or any of the television series he has written, his influence on their quality is clear. He is a constant reminder that without a great script, it is difficult to make a great movie, and each of Sorkin's always excellent screenplays makes the movie truly, meaningfully his, even when he has to compete with some of the greatest auteurs of our age for the privilege of saying so.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Whose Film Is It Anyway?:

Note: Whose Film Is It Anyway? will go on indefinite hiatus after these final two installments.

4/24: Christopher Nolan

5/8: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011

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