Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Figuring Out The Newsroom

"Do we get to win this time?"

That's what John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) asks his CO (Richard Crenna) at the beginning of 1985's Rambo: First Blood, Part II after being given a covert mission into Vietnam. That line was later re-purposed by Ronald Reagan, and it ended up becoming something of a rallying cry for those who were hoping to re-litigate the mistakes of that war (which was still relatively recent at the time) with the benefit of hindsight now guiding them.

"Oh, if only we'd listened to the military." "Oh, if only we'd gotten out of the way of guys like Rambo and let them do their job." It's easy to forget what a dominant pop culture force Rambo was for a brief moment in the mid-'80s (remember this?), and either as a result of that or perhaps completely unintentionally, John Rambo morphed into a sort of messianic figure for some folks on the right -- the iconic stand-in for all that they wished they could be and do.

I bring that up because I happened to catch the early moments of Rambo II on TV yesterday, just as I was queuing up the third episode of The Newsroom on my DVR. And seeing the two in such close proximity got some neurons firing in my brain that helped me finally figure out what's going on with creator Aaron Sorkin's wildy-divisive new HBO skein (which I happen to like, but a whole lot of very smart people whose opinions I respect don't).

By setting his show about a crusading journalist in the recent past (i.e. 2010 and on) against the backdrop of real events, Sorkin has given himself license to re-imagine the media's response to those events if only we'd gotten out of the way of guys like Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy and let them do their job. Here's the opening from last week's episode, "The 112th Congress," with Daniels delivering a monologue that pretty much explicates that exact point: 

It's a liberal panacea that's on display even with all of Sorkin's protests-too-much to the contrary (and even with the plausible deniability of making Daniels' character a Republican). For evidence of this, look no further than the most recent episode, which served as essentially an hourlong critique of the Tea Party movement with occasional pauses for gooey relationship stuff.

Leveraging our foreknowledge of real history to its fullest, Sorkin has McAvoy engage in heated questioning of a newly-elected Tea Party congressman, literally moments after winning a seat in the 2010 midterms, on whether or not he'd vote to raise the debt ceiling, with the congressman's ready dispatch of Tea Party talking points in lieu of answers serving as an "Oh, crap..." moment for the audience.

But that "Oh, crap..." only happens because hindsight (there's that word again) already tells us how the debt debacle played out last summer. By imbuing his lead character with the Kreskin-like ability to divine how impactful it would end up being where no one else did, Sorkin risks undercutting the delicate dance of verisimilitude that this show would seem to require.

Unless, as I've come to believe, verisimilitude really isn't the design at all. The Newsroom isn't about offering a warts-and-all look at a real life newsroom anymore than Star Trek is a documentary about space travel. It's Aaron Sorkin's left wing approximation of the Rambo syndrome referenced above, re-litigating the past in such a way that "we get to win this time." 


Richard said...

I agree with you, but...aren't the characters in The Newsroom then doomed to fail? The show will presumably always be set in the recent past. Which means that none of Will's monologues or tough questions will ever change the outcome of anything. The Tea Party will still win. The debt ceiling will still turn into a debacle. And on and on. Sorkin thinks he's made a show about how one small voice can change the world--but the very structure of how show ensures that the actual message will be the opposite.

Fortunately I doubt he cares very much as long as he eventually gets to pair off Jim and Maggie.

Zaki said...

It may well be a Quixotic quest for the characters, but I think for Sorkin it's more about winning the moral argument. The "I told you so" after the fact.

Anonymous said...

IN Brasil Rambo is a
children hero !

Ms. Syed said...

Richard's comment makes me think of some works of literature that are similar. I've been wondering the same thing about the show, but then I thought about Arthur Miller and Mark Twain. Miller used the Salem Witch Trials to comment on McCarthyism/Red Scare. Twain published Huck Finn about thirty years after slavery ended, so it seems stupid unless you argue (as some critics and I do) that it's more a criticism about failing Reconstruction and the aftermath of slavery. So maybe Sorkin can or is doing that using news that's just a little bit in the past? Or am I giving him too much credit?

Zaki said...

That's another interesting read on Sorkin's intent. I certainly don't rule anything out!