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Aaron Sorkin: Donald Trump may be 'the end of political satire'

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Director Danny Boyle (left) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (right) on the set of "Steve Jobs"
Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, right, with director Danny Boyle on the set of "Steve Jobs."

The creator of "The West Wing" says it would be difficult for his political drama to air today, because "you want to have two reasonable sides."

It's probably fair to say that the "The West Wing" will go down in history as one of the most enduring dramas in TV history. Although nine years have passed since the show's finale — and 12 since creator Aaron Sorkin left the writing staff — the show's cultural caché has hardly diminished. In fact, many people credit the show with inspiring the current generation of budding Washingtonians.

It was the show's idealism — making politics look, if daunting, at least noble — that created such staying power, and it's in keeping with Sorkin's stylistic blend of fantasy and realism. As he told The Frame: "As long as you keep one foot in the real world while the other foot's in a fairy tale, that fairy tale is going to seem kind of attainable." Not only that, but "The West Wing" paved the way for other political dramas such as "House of Cards" and "Veep."

But what if "The West Wing" aired today? Could it work? On the one hand, Sorkin thinks that today's cynicism creates a need for a show like "The West Wing" more than ever. On the other, he thinks it would be difficult to stage a fair fight, dramatically. Sorkin finds Donald Trump, for example, to be "the end of political satire."

Sorkin has been able to vault dramatic deadlocks before, though. In his most recent movie, "Steve Jobs," he thought that the tech legend's relationship with his daughter, Lisa, was unworkable. Sorkin says he couldn't empathize with Jobs at all. And yet, that turned out to be the central conflict of the movie.

Read more of Aaron Sorkin's conversation with The Frame's John Horn:


Let’s assume that "West Wing" is currently on the air. What are your inclinations as a dramatist when you see what’s happening in the world? And you would have an opportunity to address that?

Whether it’s "The West Wing" or anything else, my first thought is always, What’s a good story? That said, I’m sure that I would want to write about the refugees. I would want to write about that in a romantic way that reminds us that what’s great about America is we’re the ones who open our arms and say, Come here. My grandparents, like a lot of people’s, were chased here. So I’d want to write something about that.

Writing something about Donald Trump would be extremely difficult. Donald Trump may be the end of political satire. If Trump were running for grand wizard of the Mississippi klavern of the Klu Klux Klan, would he give a speech that was any different than the speeches he’s been giving? And I think we have to stop looking at Donald Trump and start looking at ourselves. Who are we, that this is happening?

Given how partisan we are, do you think a show like "The West Wing" might be more useful or enlightening today than it was when it was first on?

Maybe. When I wrote the show . . . we were plenty polarized then. If it were on today, the problem I don’t think would be so much the polarization of the audience as, you want to have a fair fight. You want to have two reasonable sides. 

Brad Whitford, who played Josh Lyman [on “The West Wing”], told me that lobbyists started approaching him to say, I think you should deal with this issue. They thought that “The West Wing” was a better way to illuminate an issue than lobbying. Did that happen to you? 

It did happen. I’d be contacted by lobbyists or elected officials, saying, Can I tell you about this problem? Of course it was flattering. Then it was daunting, thinking that the future of what is apparently an important issue is resting on whether or not I can write a good 48 minutes of television. But it was always helpful. Especially if it was something that was not a headline. A couple dozen times that happened.

Could a show like "The West Wing" get on the air now? In other words, is our society just too affected by cynicism to embrace something like that, or does it create the need more than ever before?

I think it creates the need. If I were to pitch the show today, I’d say: We are living in a time when nobody has any faith in government, when Congress has a nine percent approval rating . . . and we’re certain that the people in power don’t have our best interests at heart. What if we showed a group of people who will fail as often as they’ll succeed, but they’ll always be trying? . . . What you would have to do is remain idealistic and romantic. I’ll keep using those words. As long as you keep one foot in the real world, while the other foot’s in a fairy tale, that fairy tale is going to seem kind of attainable. Like I can just see the top of the silhouette of Camelot over there. Why can’t it be like that? That’s a good feeling for an audience to have.

On "Steve Jobs":

I like to write characters as if they’re making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven. And to do that, you have to find things about that character that you’re able to defend.

For instance, [Jobs] created things. He made these devices and machines that people have an emotional attachment to. In a third-act scene with [Steve Wozniak] — who’s played by Seth Rogan — when Woz says to him, The things you make are better than you, he says, That’s the idea, my friend. I can identify with that. 

One thing that made it very difficult to identify with Steve was his relationship with his eldest daughter, Lisa . . . I thought, initially, I can’t get past this. It doesn’t matter what great things he did. This is a non-starter, the relationship with the daughter. And then, that flipped to its opposite — let that be the emotional center of the movie. What we’re really watching is, will Steve be able to make his way to his daughter?

The movie was critically acclaimed. It didn’t do well at the box office. Do you have any theories as to why?

We were much ballyhooed at three film festivals to start off with. There was nowhere to go but up from here. These prestigious film festivals, the fantastic reviews, the fantastic limited-release opening. And then, like we were in a Warner Brothers cartoon, the movie just went off a cliff! I know nothing about box office strategy, and I absolutely trust the people at Universal who do. Danny [Boyle] believes we went wide too fast — that we should have let word-of-mouth grow. 

I think that the film ended up being a referendum on Steve Jobs. That people ultimately didn’t like Steve Jobs, even though they like him as an inventor.

You may be right. Because there are people who made a judgment on the film before they’d seen it, assuming this was going to be a movie that glorified him. People assumed this movie was going to be a lot of things it wasn’t, and never assumed it was going to be the thing that it was. So while I’ve never heard that theory before, I find it very interesting and I’m now going to claim it as my own. 

Okay! We’re at a point now where it probably will be nominated for a lot of awards, and it’s starting to. Would that be a vindication?

Vindication is kind of a loaded word. A little harsh. It would certainly salve the wound. I know it would cheer a lot of us up, if there are any people with ballots out there. 

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