AFI FEST 2010: Cinema’s Legacy with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
November 11th, 2010

The Cinema's Legacy presentation allows influential filmmakers (past guests have included Oliver Stone, Dennis Hopper, and Jason Reitman) to discuss and screen a film which has helped to influence the creation and inspiration of their own art. This year’s presentation featured screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose film selection was ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Written by William Goldman, one of Sorkin’s mentors, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN tells the story of two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), as they unravel the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration. As Goldman had helped turn Sorkin from a playwright into a screenwriter, the selection of one of his films was appropriate. Not to mention the fact that Sorkin himself considers the film one of his personal favorites that has held up to the test of time.

Sorkin is no stranger to the world of politics, having written and produced the television series The West Wing, and is currently working on a new project revolving around the political landscape. Sorkin noted that writing for a program like The West Wing allowed him to explore an almost “idealized” version of the White House that differed from the staff that actually occupied the administration at the time.

Unlike his experience with a fictionalized political landscape, Goldman’s film took on the real life events that happened to two actual people. Sorkin noted that both Bernstein and Woodward had a hand in helping create the screenplay, with Bernstein even going so far as to “enhance” his character a bit. Bernstein apparently was not as much of a “ladies man” as he wanted Hoffman to portray him to be in the film. Sorkin pointed out that creating a story based on events that happened to real people is always a challenge because you want to be accurate, particularly when dealing with recent history and people who are still alive to experience the impact of your work.

Sorkin hesitated to compare his recent film, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, which was based on the founders of Facebook, to Goldman’s film. However, he did note that in both cases the film’s subjects were around to comment on the work and, in Sorkin’s case, were still young men making the risk of misrepresenting their character all the more precarious.

Sorkin had recently been misquoted in saying he did not put much stock in accuracy when it came to filmmaking and he made a clear point to correct this mistake. Sorkin explained he meant he did not believe in adhering to every detail if it did not help (or affect) the telling of the story. Sorkin noted that when Goldman took him around the set of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, he pointed out how even paper crumpled up in the trash was time accurate. Since no one outside of the prop crew would ever know (or see) such details, Sorkin found that level of specificity unnecessary.

Sorkin did acknowledge that whenever you deal with politics, you run the risk of losing half of your audience right off the bat. He noted that politics have been polarized since the Civil War, but have never been more so than in today’s political climate. To that end, last Sunday’s discussion was no different, as audience members did not refrain from shouting out their differing opinions and Sorkin pulled them right in to the conversation. It was refreshing to not only see Sorkin’s unwavering passion when it comes to topics ranging from filmmaking to politics, but that he is also open and willing to share in that passion with others.

When talking about the perception of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Sorkin said it seemed to make journalists aspire to be “rock stars,” aiming for notoriety rather than factual reporting. Sorkin pointed out that this change in attitude has only hurt our population because it has kept us from being truly educated and able to make informed decisions. Reporters seem to more often be chasing the next “big” story rather than reporting the plain (if sometimes boring) facts. It is an appropriate topic during a time when the media is no longer an exclusive outlet and anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now “report” the news.

Sorkin pointed out that the major networks have always had a deal with Congress to show at least one hour of news a day, but Congress left out an important detail when making this deal – to prohibit commercials to run during this time. Once advertisers get involved the goal becomes making revenue gained by having the most viewers see the product they are selling. In order to get viewers, you want to play to what is most popular and even though we get an hour of “news” each night you begin to wonder if the most sensationalized stories that make it to air are really the ones we need to be paying attention to.

Sorkin wrapped up the discussion saying that he of all people stand by the first amendment and the right to freedom of speech, saying he would have no career otherwise, but although everyone is entitled to have a voice, “a microphone has to be earned.”

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