Aaron Sorkin (and I) Love the 1940s

Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin in 2007 – Creative Commons (Eric Weiss)

It’s tricky, but here’s how to tell the difference between me and Aaron Sorkin, creator of the new HBO series The Newsroom.

  • We both possess honors that have eluded the other: I don’t have an Emmy or an Oscar, but he doesn’t have a teaching award from Bethel University or a “Best Daddy Ever” card from my children.
  • We both recycle our best material to diminishing returns, but my critics aren’t as nasty about noticing that tendency as Sorkin’s — nor are my fans as irrationally loyal in the face of such criticism.
  • We both have a fondness for Kristins Chenoweth and Davis, but only Sorkin dates them — and, in the former case, writes a version of her into his most critically reviled show as its most critically reviled character.
  • We’re both drawn to the 1940s, but I don’t share that with the world in a half-baked comment buried in a jaw-dropping interview meant ostensibly to promote my new project:

I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties… I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate.

There was plenty to tear apart in an interview performance that one commentator (relatively gently, compared to some others) called “an astounding display of glib, misogynistic, and slightly sociopathic jackassery.” But I’m most interested in probing the appeal of the 1940s — an appeal that seems to resonate with many of my students, not just Sorkin and me. At orientations to our department during Bethel’s Welcome Week, I invariably ask new History majors which time or place they’d like to have lived in, and the era of World War II is perhaps the most popular answer. I suspect that if I pushed further, many would articulate something like Sorkin’s national greatness rationale.

Like my previously dissected attraction to late Victorian England, my affinity for 1940s America struggles to withstand my professional obligation to think critically and understand context. This is a decade, after all, that saw nearly 1.2 million Americans (and 39 members of the Electoral College) cast their votes for a presidential candidate whose chief goal was to preserve racial discrimination. A decade in which more than a hundred thousand Americans were interned in camps for no reason other than their ethnicity.

Were I African-American or Japanese-American, I’m sure I’d feel little desire to return to that era. Or if I were a woman. Or gay.

Even as a Euro-American man, any sense that “I would have done very well” in my vocation in those years is problematic, as I realized in writing my series on family history as revealed by the 1940 Census. Perhaps if I could place myself in the upwardly mobile Gehrz family, whose first-generation German-American paterfamilias became a leading judge and saw his eldest son graduate Phi Beta Kappa and marry into an even more accomplished family. But what if I were among my mother’s ancestors, still a generation away from reaching colleges and graduate schools, and still farming or seeking what work was available in small towns closely linked to the post-Depression agrarian economy?

Marshall Plan Poster
Marshall Plan Poster, ca. 1950 – Wikimedia

And yet… The decade that launched Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy also saw cultural institutions as significant as major league baseball and the armed forces begin to integrate. Even as Japanese immigrants languished in camps, their sons fought alongside other Americans to defeat an even uglier racialism in Europe. (I celebrated “moral histories of World War II” earlier this month.) Many of those soldiers returned home to take part in one of history’s most dramatic expansions of educational opportunity. And they then joined other American taxpayers in funding the greatest foreign aid program in history, announced in 1947 and beginning to disperse its life-changing aid a year later.

So, what should Sorkin and I do with our love of the Forties? A good first step would be listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. After acknowledging the obvious rebuttal that the “great country” that Sorkin imagines 1940s America to have been continued to perpetuate sexism and racism, Coates insightfully concludes:

I don’t think Sorkin’s point is that those things were awesome, so much that all the “great” battles happened yesterday. You can see this sort of longing for a great past all over Sorkin’s new show, and in the attendant notions that the internet that ruined everything. (The first episode of it is up on YouTube.)

Of course this sort of thinking is easy given the clarity of hindsight. I doubt people fighting those battles in the ’40s felt the sort of clarity that we now see looking back. Likely the fight was always muddy and dizzying. Likely nothing was ever clean.

Which is exactly right. While understandably attractive, any “great past” is necessarily an imagined past; every historic past is going to be “muddy and dizzying.”

And that creates a divide between Sorkin and myself, since our professions naturally lead us to different pasts: his imagined, mine historic. My profession (I pray) checks my romanticizing tendencies; his feeds his.

Indeed, looking back at what Sorkin actually said, I think it’s also telling to note that he began not with national greatness or moral clarity, but by musing that he would have thrived professionally, as someone who writes screenplays.

Historian Tim Stanley agreed, though he didn’t mean it as a compliment. In an op-ed piece whose title coronated The Newsroom “the apotheosis of old fogey Hollywood liberalism,” Stanley warned that “…we should not mistake Sorkin’s 1940s liberalism for genuine radicalism. At its heart is Hollywood’s old fashioned faith in the moral (and narrative) power of an articulate white man.” As examples from Sorkin’s oeuvre, Stanley notes President Jed Bartlett of The West Wing and the central character of The Newsroom, Will McAvoy — plus the relative paucity of articulate non-white men. Stanley continues: “‘Speak up for us,’ Sorkin imagines gays, women, African-Americans and disabled saying to his heroes. ‘For we cannot find the words ourselves.'”

I think this is a bit harsh (Stanley ignores the sitcom SportsNight, whose most articulate characters, arguably, are a woman and a black man, and the voice — and often, conscience — of the Bartlett White House was a woman: press secretary-turned-chief of staff C. J. Cregg), but I do suspect that 1940s Hollywood would have both appreciated Sorkin’s strengths and enabled his weaknesses. Sorkin’s trademark style of hyperliterate, fast-paced dialogue has been likened to that of Golden Age screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges (enviable comparisons, those), but a more apt simile comes from another Atlantic contributor, Scott Meslow, who agrees that Sorkin

George Marshall and Frank Capra
Capra receiving a medal for his wartime propaganda work, from Gen. George Marshall (then Army Chief of Staff and soon-to-be namesake of the Marshall Plan) – Wikimedia

would have fit in nicely in the ’40s. Sorkin has somehow managed to brand himself as a dangerous and incisive writer, but his stagey, idealistic scripts are almost defiantly old-fashioned. His best work feels more like Frank Capra than Oliver Stone.

If not writing scripts for Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is almost too neat a fit), I think Sorkin might also have found a patron in Daryl F. Zanuck, producer of well-intentioned but self-righteously liberal films like Wilson and Gentleman’s Agreement that seemed dated within mere years of their release.

By contrast… According to one effort to calculate the most critically acclaimed movies in history, only three English-language films produced in the 1940s made the top 30, and not one was directed by Capra or produced by Zanuck, nor would they have ever come from the typewriter of a time-traveling Aaron Sorkin: Citizen Kane (#1), Casablanca (#16), and The Third Man (#27).

I’m especially fond of the second and third, which present a Forties that I think I can honestly appreciate precisely because they embody Coates’ “muddy and dizzy” phrase so well. Set amid the fights of the 1940s (WWII in Casablanca, the emerging Cold War in Third Man), nothing is all that clean in either movie. (Or in Citizen Kane, of course.) Both feature Americans (away from America) who choose the good at the last second, almost in spite of themselves, barely able to articulate their rationale, and to uncertain effect.

The most Sorkinesque character in either is Casablanca‘s upstanding Resistance hero Laszlo, who is easily the least interesting person in the story precisely because he has to make the kind of speeches that Sorkin heroes orate. And the most Sorkin-like monologue in The Third Man comes from Kane auteur Orson Welles, who wrote the famous lines for himself, making more delicious an already juicy supporting role:

And that speech comes from the villain of the piece, scoffing at the very values most central to Sorkin’s “1940s liberalism.”

It fit right in with a script written by the English Catholic novelist Graham Greene, who knew more than almost any modern writer about sin, something that seems to have no place in Sorkin’s worldview but is indispensable to anyone trying to imaginatively understand the 1940s.

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