Before The West Wing and The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin was a respected screenwriter who was still honing his unique voice: scripts full of smart, good-natured characters who had no problem transitioning from quips to polemics. I have a love/hate relationship with Sorkin: his scripts can be electric, with dialogue that has the energy of a good action scene, but too often he indulges his worst impulses, codescends to his female characters, and repeats the same silly phrases.
You can see the beginnings of The West Wing in The American President, a romantic comedy about a bachelor President who falls for a lobbyist. He digs into the lives of West Wing staffers like the communications director and chief of staff, and Michael Douglas’ Andrew Shepherd shares the same politics as Jed Bartlet, the President on The West Wing. It is a good DC movie – there is a repeated joke about the traffic near Dupont Circle – but this week there is one scene in particular that deserves our attention.
President Shepherd falls for Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) during an official State Dinner with the President of France. Our current President just finished his first official State Dinner – also with the President of France – just last night. Although press was not allowed into the event, it is hard to imagine the events going the same way. These characters are articulate, guarded, and warm. Sydney charms the French President with her flawless French, then she dances with Shepherd in a way that has echoes of Frank Capra at his most idealistic. Trump and Macron are nothing like Shepherd and this French President – for reasons that are too many to count – and even if the dinner helped bolster relations between the two countries, I’m sure it was awkward for everyone involved.
That is the central appeal to Aaron Sorkin: he offers an idealized world where everyone is smart, and they can think/speak simultaneously. It’s a nice fantasy, particularly when he offers it without any of the sanctimony of his later work.