Tag: Aaron Sorkin

Being the Ricardos (2021)

Being the Ricardos (2021)

I Love Lucy is bought to life in this behind-the-scenes drama that bites off more than it can chew

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Nicole Kidman (Lucille Ball), Javier Bardem (Desi Arnaz), JK Simmons (William Frawley), Nina Arianda (Vivian Vance), Tony Hale (Jess Oppenheimer), Alia Shawkat (Madelyn Pugh), Jake Lacy (Bob Carroll), Clark Gregg (Howard Wenke), John Rubenstein (Older Jess Oppenheimer), Linda Lavin (Older Madelyn Pugh), Ronny Cox (Older Bob Carroll)

A film about I Love Lucy is always going to lack cultural cache outside of the US: it would be the same if a British film about Dad’s Army or Hancock’s Half Hour played there. Without a legacy of growing up on endless re-runs, I think a lot of British audiences (like me) will be left playing catch-up working out who the stars are and what the show is about.

Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos follows one week in the making of I Love Lucy in 1952. It’s a big week. There are rumours of infidelity (from him) in the lives of the married co-stars Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). On top of that, the media is running stories that Ball is a card-carrying communist (not completely true). And finally, she’s pregnant, something the network can’t imagine would be acceptable to include in a family show. All these problems come to a head as that week’s show is finalised, rehearsed and shot.

Sorkin’s film is by far and away at its best when dealing with the backstage mechanics behind bringing a TV show to the screen. Which perhaps isn’t a surprise, as that is obviously material he’s very familiar with. The film is fascinating at showing the technical side of things like rehearsals, and it’s very illuminating on the dedicated perfectionism Ball bought to making the comedy work. We see every single gag being worked on over and over to mine the maximum number of laughs from it. There are long back and forth conversations on timing, positioning and nuances of line delivery.

There are similarly fascinating ideas during scenes in the writers’ room. A huge board maps out the details of future episodes. The writers – a neatly squabbling but fundamentally loyal Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy, headed up by executive producer Tony Hale – are constantly pushed to fine-tune their ideas, while passionately defending many of their own jokes to the sceptical stars.

A sequence essentially showing Ball and the writers spit-balling ideas that will develop into future set-pieces is particularly well done. Sorkin also comes up with a neat visual concept showing how Ball considers the impact of the gags: events from the show play out in black-and-white then switch to colour as the action pauses and Ball considers what to do next to get the most laughs. It’s all part of the film’s primary strength: a fascinating look at the energy and passion required to produce a half-hour sitcom, be it arguing over camera placement to a sleepless and worried Ball calling her co-stars to the studio in the wee small hours to fine-tune a pratfall.

Where the film is less certain is all the other stuff it tries to cover. Being the Ricardos is almost the dictionary definition of a film biting off more than it can chew. It tries to cover: the making of a TV show, McCarthyism, a biography of the marriage of the two stars, the sexism of network TV, racial unease at the Cuban Arnaz playing Ball’s husband, the sexual prudishness of the 1950s, and expectations around gender roles. On top of which, Sorkin’s film trumpets continuously that this was the “most difficult week ever”. It’s an onslaught of stakes the film finds hard to deliver on.

For starters, most of the action focuses on the mechanics of making the show – mechanics that surely would be the same every week. The communist plotline is introduced then largely dropped for most of the film until the final rousing hurrah. McCarthyism is barely tackled, other than a new perspective from Arnaz, who remembers being forcibly driven from Cuba by Communists. Awkward flashbacks fill in some of the backstory around Lucille and Desi’s meeting but end up feeling like superfluous additional information that adds nothing to anything other than the runtime.

Tensions in their marriage bubble away before finally coming to a head, as if Sorkin didn’t want to spoil the rat-a-tat dialogue with some deeper content. The film is very good at showing what a great team they made: Ball’s creativity and comic genius matched with Arnaz’s business-sense and ability to plan every aspect of the show’s technical and financial set-up. But again, more could have been made of this – too often it’s an idea crowded in amongst others, with a tone that can’t decide how it feels about Arnaz’s possible betrayal or Ball’s fixation on it.

More could have been made about the prudish and sexist struggles Ball and Arnaz went through to get her pregnancy integrated in the show. It’s a fascinating realisation that the implication that a happily married couple must have had sex to produce a baby was anathema to TV networks in the 50s. A film that focused on the battle to get this integrated into the show – and the impact that doing so had on America and television – would not only have been more focused, it would also have played into the film’s real strengths: the mechanics of actually making television. As it is, this sense of the struggle Ball had to get due recognition in a male-dominated industry is lost.

As the two stars Nicole Kidman (under layers of latex to transform her facial features into Ball’s) and Bardem are very good, Kidman in particular brilliantly conveying Ball’s comedic genius as well as her self-doubt and insecurity, expressing itself in worries about her marriage to making sure her female co-star looks less attractive than her on the screen. Kidman pounces on Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogue and provides much of the film’s drive and focus. There are also neat supporting turns by JK Simmons and especially Nina Arianda as their co-stars.

In the end though, yet again, it feels like Sorkin the writer is ill-served by Sorkin the director. While the film is more sharply directed than his others, it lacks focus, discipline and drive, like Sorkin can’t bear the idea of cutting some of his own words and ideas so tries to include them all. It ends up meaning nearly all of them lack the impact they should have.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Michael Fassbender excels in Danny Boyle’s superb Sorkin scripted biopic Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogan (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfield), Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan aged 19), Makenzie Moss (Lisa Brennan, aged 5), Ripley Sobo (Lisa Brennan, aged 9), Sarah Snook (Andy Cunningham)

The art of movie biography shouldn’t be slavishly covering every second of the subject’s life. It should be capturing their essence. Steve Jobs does exactly that, a superb distillation of its subject’s life and personality through focusing on the preparation for three vital project launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, each playing out in real time. The contrasting (and continuing) clashes and tensions at each event – personal and professional – tells us more about the man and his impact than a cradle-to-grave biopic ever could.

It also helps that Steve Jobs has an electric script from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin approached the project not like a film, but as a classic three-Act play. Steve Jobs is an explosion where all the special effects are the words, held together by pulsating ideas and a sense of rhythm musicians would envy. This is Sorkin at his absolute best, a script with zip and jokes but also a profound understanding of exactly the sort of tunnel-visioned visionary perfectionism Jobs encapsulated, all wrapped up with a beautifully judged emotional through-line. Only Sorkin can make just actors delivering dialogue as dynamic and edge-of-the-seat as a car chase.

And (like The Social Network) his intensely intellectual style, and sense for the frustration of the super-intelligent at the rest of us for not keeping up, is perfect for this tale of the creation of the future of computing. Sorkin uses product launches as a window into how fresh idea can be accepted (or not) by the world. The battles over them, with the focus on small details that communicate the big picture and the difficulties of making others understand the visionary core that makes something work is crucial – and brilliantly delivered here. That’s perfect for Sorkin, who is gifted at making big-picture passionate thinkers sound as brilliant as they are.

But what makes Steve Jobs perhaps his most compelling script, is that he adds an emotional undertone to it. Jobs was a visionary, who understood better than the customer what they really wanted. But he was also a flawed individual. Sorkin’s script makes clear that, like his computers, he was a closed system. Just as the Macs were designed to only work with their own software and not interface with others (Jobs’ gospel, the exclusivity of the product being what makes it special), so Jobs himself built his own conception of the world and refused to let anything outside that influence it, or allow any external factors to change his mind. Decide he was loyal to someone, and nothing they do will shakes that. Decide another has betrayed him, and the system locks them out.

Central to this is Jobs’ relationship with his unacknowledged daughter. From the 5-year-old he reluctantly spends time with, to the young girl he starts to form a carefully emotionally managed bond with to the 19-year old who finally tells him how much she resents his closed-system management of their relationship. Sorkin’s script brilliantly balances an insight into why Jobs might have acted like this (bound up in issues with his birth parents) and the emotional impact it has on the daughter (the hugs not returned, the words not said). Jobs isn’t a bad man – although the script doesn’t shy away from his selfishness, or the appalling things he said about Lisa’s mother in the press – or a straight-forward terrible dad. He’s just not quite capable (or willing) of giving the emotional commitment needs. It’s written tenderly with a great deal of empathy for both father and daughter.

This emotion is further bought out by Boyle’s dynamic humanism at the helm. It’s a reminder of what a great theatre director Boyle is: this film is basically one of the most dynamic plays you’ll ever see, fast cuts and graphics intermixed with extended one-shot dialogue scenes that allow his actors to flourish. Boyle employs on-screen graphics and montage to move us between the product launches, but isn’t afraid to let his camera serve the dialogue, with the exchanges brilliantly cut to the rhythm of the dialogue.

He also sets out a space for the actors to deliver uniformly superb performances. Front and centre is Michael Fassbender’s transformational performance. He communicates Jobs’ brilliance and his ruthless determination to never compromise. It’s a performance of messianic intensity, but also extremely grounded and real – and, like Sorkin, he understands the heart of the film is the father-daughter relationship. Fassbender carefully hides Jobs’ emotional need, just as he understands the dynamism that wouldn’t allow a hint of vulnerability and arrogance that judges everyone as second-best to himself. He’s a tough, difficult, uncompromising man – but also an egalitarian one, (eventually) willing to acknowledge his flaws, the biggest being his fear of emotion.

Equally brilliant is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ long-time confidante and ‘work-wife’, manager of each of the launches and a combination of mentor, conscience, counsellor and parent. Jeff Daniels is excellent as the businessman who goes from mentor to unforgiven rival. Seth Rogan gives his finest dramatic performance as Steve Wozniak, here a decent man and computing genius, who lacked Jobs’ ability to “play the orchestra” and shape events to his will.

It’s all wrapped up in a gripping film that feels like a fusion of theatre and film. If it has a problem, it’s that many will find its focus on the nuts-and-bolts of Apple hard to follow (and I confess, the script makes me understand the drama without understanding the product). But its strength is in understanding visionaries, their ability to shape ideas that wouldn’t occur to the rest of us – and the selfishness, and the damage that causes, that often goes hand-in-hand with that. With scintillating acting, skilful direction and, above all, a superb script, Steve Jobs is sharp and engrossing drama.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher’s modern American classic

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)

Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Charlie Wilsons war
Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman plot to bring down communism in the misfiring satire Charlie Wilson’s War

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Tom Hanks (Congressman Charlie Wilson), Julia Roberts (Joanne Herring), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gust Avrakotos), Amy Adams (Bonnie Bach), Ned Beatty (Congressman Doc Long), Christopher Denham (Michael G Vickers), Emily Blunt (Jane Liddle), Om Puri (President Zia-ul-Haq), Faran Tahir (Brigadier Rashid), Ken Stott (Zvi Rafiah), John Slattery (Henry Cravely)

Did Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) end the Cold War? Well no, of course he didn’t. But he might just have managed to make the US notice that Afghanistan had the potential to be the USSR’s very own Vietnam. Despite his reputation as a playboy, Wilson had a shrewd understanding of geopolitics and – encouraged by millionaire backer Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and helped by firey CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – arranges for money and arms to be pumped into the Afghan Mujahideen throughout the 1980s. Shame that funding stopped just as the Taliban emerged into the power vacuum.

There is a compelling film to be made here around how the US’s short-sighted policies in Afghanistan during the 1980s led to catastrophic implications in the 2000s. This isn’t that film. Instead Nichols – with some playful rat-a-tat dialogue from Aaron Sorkin – settles for a political caper, which only nods vaguely at the future disaster of 9/11 in favour of a feel-good, against-the-odds triumph. It’s a massive shame, as a third act which really embraced how policy failures in Afghanistan contributed to the rise of the Taliban and Al-Queda could have been compelling and thought provoking.

Watching this film you could come away with no real idea why the fighters the Wilson works so desperately to get defensive anti-aircraft missiles to, would end up recruiting young men to fly planes into buildings. The film nods at this, with Wilson failing to raise even a paltry million for investment in education and healthcare in Afghanistan post-Soviet occupation (after raising billions for weapons to fight the Soviets). But we don’t get a sense of the bigger picture here. How did hatred for the Russians, with the Americans as allies, flip into fury at the West? The film doesn’t want to think about it.

Instead this is a light bit-of-fluff. It’s a comic drama of the sort Hollywood loves: the playboy with immense depth. The hero whose heart melts at a refugee camp and dedicates himself to helping people. The film uses as a framing device a medal ceremony, with Wilson being praised for his vital role in bringing about the defeat of the USSR. It’s all feel-good – and for all we see at the end a brief moment of Wilson in tears at his failure to ‘finish the job’ by offering real hope to the Afghans – and that doesn’t feel like the whole story.

There is plenty of comedy though, even if the political awareness is light. Gust and Charlie’s first meeting is a well-staged farce of Wilson juggling geopolitics with heading off oncoming scandal, that requires Gust to frequently step in and out of his office as two different conversations take place. Comic material is mined from Wilson’s handpicked office staff of attractive women who, contrary to expectation, turn out to be brilliantly insightful and hyper-competent. CIA agent Gust is a gift of a role for Philip Seymour Hoffman (who is great fun) as a foul-mouthed, just-this-side-of-OTT maverick who genuinely cares about his job.

Hoffman fares better than the other two leads, both of whom feel miscast. The casting of Hanks and Roberts seems designed to keep a film that could have been a sharp attack on America’s world policy feeling as cosy as possible. After all, this is America’s uncle and America’s sweetheart: they couldn’t be part of geopolitical shenanigans! Sadly, Hanks doesn’t have the touch of smarm and cocksure lightness with depth the part needs (Tom Cruise would have been better). Julia Roberts seems too wholesome for a sexual femme fatale (Michelle Pfeiffer would have been better).

Nichols does keep the pace up and his direction is assured and professional. But this is a strange and toothless film which, after the initial energy of Wilson managing to get the funding the Afghans need, has no idea where to go. So instead it slowly drains out to nothingness. A late scene as Gust explains the dangers of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban to Charlie (with the accompaniment of plane sounds on the soundtrack) hints at the film this could have been. But instead, this sticks for being a romp about how an unexpected hero changed the world. The fact it was partly for the worse doesn’t fit this narrative.

The American President (1995)

The buck stops with Michael Douglas in Aaron Sorkin’s dress rehearsal for TV, The American President

Director: Rob Reiner

Cast: Michael Douglas (President Andrew Shepherd), Annette Bening (Sydney Ellen Wade), Martin Sheen (AJ MacInerney), Michael J Fox (Lewis Rothschild), Richard Dreyfuss (Seantor Bob Rumson), David Paymer (Leon Kodak), Samantha Mathis (Janie Basdin), John Mahoney (Leo Solomon), Anna Deavere Smith (Robin McCall), Nina Siemaszko (Beth Wade), Wendie Malick (Susan Sloan), Shawna Waldron (Lucy Shepherd), Anne Haney (Mrs Chapil)

Taken solely on its own merits, The American President is a charming, witty romantic comedy which makes some shrewd (liberal-tinged) comments about American politics. But no-one is ever going to take The American President on its own merits. Because this Sorkin-scripted bundle of joy is so clearly a dry-run for The West Wing, it’s hard to watch it without spotting the roots of it here: everything from shared characters to scraps of dialogue. Perhaps only M*A*S*H stands with this film as so dwarfed by its spin-off.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a widower, raising his daughter Lucy (Shawna Waldron). Heading into the third year of his first term, he’s got a domestic agenda dominated by his new crime bill (although Shepherd won’t risk increasing gun controls). Charming, articulate and passionate – he’s also lonely. But his life changes when he falls for environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), their courtship seeing them fumble through “boy-meets-girl” when boy just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. Will the President’s popularity survive him dating someone outspoken and passionate? Or will it be a tool for his Republican rival Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) to hit him on everything from family values to patriotism?

It’s impossible not to enjoy The American President. Sorkin’s playful, articulate and smart dialogue is of course an absolute triumph. The cast are extremely well-chosen. Few actors look as damn Presidential as Michael Douglas, not to mention carrying with them an air of impassioned authority and commanding bonhomie. Annette Bening is spot-on as exactly the sort of feisty and intelligent woman that would attract a liberal minded President, but turn off pundits and regular people. Martin Sheen was obviously so comfortable with Sorkin’s dialogue style that promotion to the President seemed inevitable (seriously it’s very odd watching the film and seeing Sheen not being treated like the President!). Michael J Fox’s entire career was revitalised by Sorkin tapping into the frantic, fast-paced comic energy that is the actor’s forte.

Rob Reiner’s direction is fresh, relaxed and perfectly complements the dialogue. We get a few West Wing style walk-and-talks (does this make Reiner the inventor of it?). The film superbly balances romantic comedy with serious political discussion on military intervention and proportional response (“the least Presidential thing I do”), the environment and gun control. It also gets a neat idea of the shady, and dirty, business of generating votes in the House – and the deals that need to be done to secure legislation. Reiner gets great stuff from the actors (Sorkin didn’t question his casting, since so many of them ended up in The West Wing) and keeps the momentum up beautifully.

The film has a lovely Capra-esque feel to it. Sorkin is even witty enough to lean on this by having Sydney discuss Capra openly with a White House security guard – also a lovely moment to establish Sydney’s genuineness and openness, as compared to the jaded I-don’t-care attitude of her colleague. There is a real feel in it – and of course this optimism carries across to The West Wing – that good people in the right place can change the world. That decency and compassion can trump (so to speak) the cynicism of Washington insiders. (The idea appeals to everyone – what is Donald Trump but a nightmare version of a plain-speaking man in Washington who says what he thinks?).

Balanced with some lovely comedy, it works extremely well. Along with the debate, Sorkin has a great feeling for the absurdity of the Leader of the Free World trying to work out how he can behave like a regular Joe and ask a girl out on a date. Simple ideas, from sending flowers to the etiquette of having someone stay over, are laced with difficulties. The film gets a wonderful sense of how the public eye can unjustly tear people apart – all drummed up by Dreyfuss’ eminently hissable villain.

There is some great chemistry between Douglas and Bening. Douglas is at possibly his most charming and authoritative here, effortlessly selling the lightness but also the powerfully effective speeches Sorkin crafts for him (his final press conference speech that effectively closes the film is a barnstormer). Bening, as well as being perfectly cast, walks a neat line between serious professional and girlish crush, that comes across extremely well.

It’s hard though, for all the film’s romantic charm, not to look at it through the filter of The West Wing. It’s both a first pass, and a historical curiosity. Sorkin recycled many of the ideas touched upon here (most noticeably Sheen’s President would spend an entire episode discussing proportional responses) and also expanded several characters. Douglas’ teacher turned President, widely read and with a liberal outlook, is a clear forerunner of Bartlett. Sheen himself plays a character who is all but Leo. Fox plays a character combining elements of Josh and Toby. Anna Deavere Smith is a CJ without those distinctive touches Allison Janney bought to the role. Names, plot developments, concepts are all recycled. Stylistic flourishes in the writing match.

The American President isn’t as good as The West Wing of course – few things are. But as a boiled down, Hollywood version with a romantic twist, it’s still pretty damn good.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Sacha Baron Cohen leads a campaign for justice in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richard Schultz), Mark Rylance (William Kunstler), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale), Michael Keaton (Ramsey Clark), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), John Carroll Lynch (David Dellinger), JC MacKenzie (Tom Foran), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), Ben Shenkman (Leonard Weinglass), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Kelvin Harrison Jnr (Fred Hampton), Noah Robbins (Lee Weiner), Daniel Flaherty (John Froines), Caitlin Fitzgerald (Daphne O’Connor)

Aaron Sorkin’s work celebrates the great liberal possibilities of America. Is there any writer who has more faith in the institutions of the American state – while being so doubtful of many of the actual people running those institutions? You can imagine Sorkin sees more than a bit of himself in Abbie Hoffman, jocular prankster and wordsmith, angry at his country in the way only someone who really loves it can be. This idea is at the heart of Sorkin’s biopic of the trial of seven activists for promoting violence in the build-up to the Democratic convention of 1968 in Chicago.

Vietnam is in full swing with young men dying in their thousands to defend a cause many are starting to believe isn’t worth it. Nixon has just been elected – and his government wants to make an example of these left-wing, hippies he believes are drowning out “the silent majority”. Student leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), hippie activists Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) are arraigned in court for conspiracy to incite a riot, facing a ten year prison sentence. Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who wasn’t in Chicago at the time, is thrown in to make them look more threatening. With radical lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) in their corner, the defendants deal with a slanted case from the government, being backed all the way by the judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) who can’t hide his contempt for them.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like it’s on the cusp of making a grand statement about the rights and liberties of Americans, at a time of great civil unrest. With the country more divided now than it’s  ever been since the events of the film, this should be a timely message. But somehow the film doesn’t quite manage to deliver it. There is too much going on – an attempt to cover divisions in the left and counter-culture, the events in Chicago in 1968, the trial, clashes outside of court – it’s almost as if Sorkin the director has failed to marshal Sorkin the writer into making a clear and coherent thematic point. Instead the film becomes a chronicle of shocking courtroom events, affecting, but not as earth-shaking as it should be.

Part of this is the fragmented script. An occasional device is used, whereby Hoffman turns the events of the trial into a lively stand-up routine at some unspecified future point. This is a pretty neat idea as a framing device – however it only pops up at odd moments rather than giving a spine to the film (as well as missing the chance to filter events through the perception of one member of its sprawling cast). You end up thinking it’s just Sorkin the writer coming up with a way of giving us information Sorkin the director can’t work out how to do visually.

This tends to affect a lot of the stuff outside of the courtroom. Sorkin’s dialogue is surprisingly plodding here, too often ticking the boxes or establishing backstory and motivation that will play out later. He has his moments and his gift for capturing revealing details make for brilliantly inspired speeches and dialogue riffs that reveal acres of character while feeling very light. But, considering what he is capable with (and could have done with this material) it feels like autopilot.

That’s the problem here: it’s a little too pedestrian. Only an argument between frustrated liberal Hayden and his lawyer Kuntsler captures something of the dynamic pace of Sorkin at his best. Other scenes – such as an out of courtroom scene between decent just-doing-my-job prosecutor Richard Schulz (a low-key but very good Gordon-Levitt) and Hoffman and Rudin – are a little too on-the-nose in making their points about liberty, truth and justice. 

The strongest moments by far are in the courtroom – and the true-life staggering lack of proper procedure followed there. The film is rightly angry, without tipping too much into outright preaching. It’s shocking to see how little the rights of the defendants were respected. Much of this came from the attitude of the judge, Julius Hoffman: a traditionalist, his contempt for the defendants clear throughout, handing out contempt of court charges like sweeties. Frank Langella stands out as a man so convinced of his own morality – and so locked into his own certainty about right and wrong – that he is completely unaware many of his rulings are biased and is deeply hurt at being accused of racial imbalance, while having the only black defendant literally bound and gagged.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is superb as Bobby Searle, the Black Panther leader furious at being roped into the trial. Searle loudly – and vigorously – protests the trial has not been delayed to allow his lawyer to attend and that he has been refused (consistently) by the judge his right to represent himself. The treatment of him is shocking and appalling. But it feels like no attempt is made to put this in wider context either of civil rights at the time or in America since. And that feels like a major miss. We’re only a few degrees from the same effectively happening today.

This is part of the film’s general problem in finding its real focus, or wider context. I suspect its heart is probably in the views expressed by Hoffman on the stand – particularly those around not having his thoughts on trial before – but this film is too scatter-gun.

What the film does do well is with the quality of its performances. Sorkin may be a rather a visually flat director – his shooting of the convention riots completely fails to conceal the lack of budget – but he encourages great work from actors. Redmayne and Cohen give skilled performances as the acceptable and radical faces of left-wing politics. Strong is wonderful as a hippie with a firm sense of right and wrong, while Carroll Lynch is great as a pacifist driven to the edge. Mark Rylance excels as radical lawyer Kunstler, softly spoken but passionate, who brings fire to proceedings.

It’s a shame though that The Trial of the Chicago 7 settles for mostly being a walk-through of the trial. An attempt to really capture a sense of the deeper politics gets lost, and the failure of the film to really draw parallels with today or place these events in their wider context feels like a missed opportunity. Even the film’s end captions don’t give you as much information as you would hope – especially telling considering its abrupt ending. A well-meaning effort, but a middle-brow film.

Molly's Game (2017)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba excel in Aaron Sorkin’s dynamically scripted Molly’s Game

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Molly Bloom), Idris Elba (Charlie Jaffey), Kevin Costner (Larry Bloom), Michael Cera (Player X), Brian d’Arcy James (Brad), Chris O’Dowd (Douglas Downey), JC MacKenzie (Harrison Wellstone), Bill Camp (Harlan Eustace), Graham Greene (Judge Foxman), Jeremy Strong (Dean Keith), Angela Gots (B)

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is all set to join America’s Winter Olympics team, under the guidance of her ultra-demanding psychiatrist father Larry (Kevin Costner), when a freak accident ends her career. So she heads to LA and becomes embroiled in the world of high-stakes poker, eventually setting up and running her own high stakes games in LA and New York, earning millions. But, over a decade later (in a parallel plotline) she has had a millions seized and is battling against imprisonment for her connections to the mob, with only lawyer Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba) on her side.

Sorkin’s zippy new drama has plenty of sparkling dialogue – as you could expect! Sure this film probably also proves he’s not really a director (it’s over-long, a little flabby, and structurally not very clean) but the guy can certainly put a speech together. My main issue with Molly’s Game is I’m just not quite sure what its point is. Maybe it only exists to entertain, but it feels like it wants to put together a touching story about family, faith and the value of your word. I’m not sure it really manages to achieve any of this. 

The parallel plotlines don’t always do the film a lot of favours. The present-day plotline of Molly and Jaffey working to clear her from the various charges she has been accused of, continually hints at some serious gangsterism set-ups later on: largely these never really transpire. Actually, the film heads into pretty standard “my-Daddy-didn’t-love-me” territory. It shy’s away from being something different and interesting about excess and punishment into psychiatry solving our problems.

Sorkin doesn’t always get the structure right, as if he hasn’t got the patience to actually make sure the fundamental plot information was clear enough, so eager was he to get on with the verbal pyrotechnics. Time is spent carefully exploring several poker hands – but the exact nature of the illegality of what Molly does running her poker games gets glossed over in seconds. 

But then this is a film that isn’t really that interested in plot dynamics, or even in over-arching themes. What it’s interested in is sizzling dialogue, and letting actors deliver it. The camera sits back and watches. So it’s not a surprise the most memorable scenes feature Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba (both superb) in a room, talking (or arguing) with each other. It’s the moments like these where the film really works – and Sorkin the director basically stays out of the way, using a two-camera set-up to record the scenes, like a filming of a Broadway play. 

Those two actors dominate the film. Chastain is excellent as Molly – ambitious, driven, playful but also vulnerable and ever-so-slightly bitter, who gets where she is through her own intelligence and hard work. Chastain also embraces playing a character with such a strong moral code – she’s terrifically warm and human in the part. Elba is equally fine, a wry professional with his own strong moral code (yup, The West Wing writer still loves those liberals of great conscience), an articulate (of course!), passionate advocate who is far warmer than he first appears.

The rest of the film never quite lives up to this, maybe because the poker games are never really that interesting, or because the life Molly leads among the rich and famous seems ill-defined (she has possibly the least impactful drugs addiction seen on screen). For someone who remains loyal to the end to her clients, we are never really clear why other than a suggestion of her basic sense of honour. Her projects are all set-up with ease, and the film builds towards a solution buried in psychiatry speak that similarly feels a little too easy.

Because while it is great that Molly is not defined by a romantic relationship – she is defined by men in virtually every other way. Her entire career is based on pleasing rich, middle-aged men (from whom she frequently has to bat away expressions of devotion or sexual interest). Three times she falls victim to senior male partners in business relationships. Above all, she is defined by her relationship with her overbearing father (well-played by a low-key Kevin Costner). The scene where this comes to a head, a father-daughter exchange late at night on a snowy New York bench, is so well-written and played you almost overlook its pattness.

Sorkin’s script is the most important thing here – and the film is built around it. Like Scorsese’s Casino(a film he must have seen a couple of times!) most of its opening act is structured heavily around Chastain’s expertly delivered voiceover. The actors get to enjoy delivering his engaging rat-a-tat dialogue, the expert playing and sharp dialogue ends up carrying a lot of uplifting moments in the film. It’s a film that embraces Sorkin’s scripting, and doesn’t worry about being too filmic about it: the zippiest moments of editing are so because the dialogue or voice-over demands it.

Some of the roles aren’t quite so well drawn: Michael Cera is just plain miscast in a role that needed a young Rob Lowe as an absurdly glamourous Hollywood poker addict (I can’t imagine people crossing a street let alone a continent to play cards with Cera). The rest of the women in the script get short shrift – even Molly’s mother is little more than a walk-on part. 

Molly’s Game is a lot of fun, even if it’s probably about 15 minutes too long. It’s got some great dialogue and, if Sorkin turns out not to be the best interpreter of his own work, he’s certainly no dud as a director. Overall, the themes and plot don’t quite come together as well as they should. But it’s very well acted – Elba and above all Chastain are absolutely terrific – and it has more than enough sparkle to it for an enjoyable Friday night.