"A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing — when words won't do the trick anymore," Aaron Sorkin says, before delivering a classically epic ramble from "The Newsroom"
Ever wished you could write like Aaron Sorkin?
The former "West Wing" honcho delivers a crash course in script-writing in the latest issue of GQ. And as a bonus, he offers a sneak peek at the script for his upcoming HBO project "The Newsroom" in the process.
"A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing — when words won't do the trick anymore," Sorkin explains while setting up the script snippet.
"The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern."
Sorkin then goes on to dissect a scene from "The Newsroom," in which news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) loses it in typically eloquent Sorkin style while sitting on a college panel that's devolved into a politically partisan shouting match.
In the excerpt, Daniels-as-McAvoy dresses down the liberal and conservative debators, starling with the left end of the spectrum.
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"Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser," Daniels begins, referring to the hot-button National Endowment for the Arts. "Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn't cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin' smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!"
The use of crude language is essential, Sorkin explains, to indicate that "the filter's off."
At which point, Daniels/McAvoy addresses the right-wing member of the panel:
"And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you're going to tell students that America's so starspangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom."
The next passage — a rapid-fire rattling off of facts that's boilerplate Sorkin — serves numerous goals, according to the writer. "It backs up his argument, it reveals him to be exceptional (what normal person has these stats at their fingertips?), but mostly it's musical. This is the allegro."
"And you — sorority girl — yeah — just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world," McAvoy tells the moderator, who's earlier made the case for American supremacy.
"We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.
"None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about?! Yosemite?!!!"
Sorkin then moves on to the portion of McAvoy's rant where viewers "get a glimpse into his pain … rhythmically you don't want this to be too on the money," Sorkin says. "You're not just testing the human ear anymore; you want people to hear what he's saying."
"We sure used to be," McAvoy begins,employing an oratorical technique that Sorkin describes as "floating opposites." "We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.
"We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.
"The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one — America is not the greatest country in the world anymore."
The speech ends up with a simple, casual capper, which Sorkin explains is there to "acknowledge that [McAvoy] just sang an aria — which is unusual in the course of a normal conversation":
[to moderator] Enough?"
For now, it will have to be, anyway. Follow-up lessons will begin Sunday, when "The Newsroom" premieres on HBO.