Sorkin’s Reality

Aaron Sorkin has come under fire in his career for what his detractors claim is a myopic view of American politics. Ever since the intelligent, likeable, sympathetic Andrew Shepherd in The American President faced off against a darkened room of cigar-puffing Republicans – one of whom, upon finding a photograph that could bring down the Presidency, actually begins to sing ‘It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas’ – it was pretty clear where his political affiliations lay. Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom have also not dissuaded us of his liberal sensibilities, and yet each of those shows have all at least featured intelligent, likeable, sympathetic Republicans espousing Republican views in a convincing manner.

Sad to say, his latest project has lost all objectivity.

In the United States of America’s 2012 election, Aaron Sorkin has thrown his remaining modicum of bipartisanship out the window. His Democratic characters (Barack Obama, Joe Biden, The Clintons) are eloquent and virtuous, while his Republican characters (Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, John Boehner) no longer hold bear any resemblance to reality.

Warning bells should have gone off when he introduced the Republican nomination plotline. His list of improbable candidates included the Bible-bashing Rick Santorum, the arch-conservative Michelle Bachman, the drawling gasbag Newt Gringrich, the poorly-disguised George W Bush callback Rick Perry, and, in an effort to appear even-handed, the Democrat-in-Republican-clothing Jon Huntsman.

It was a lazy field of candidates, made even lazier when Sorkin eventually went with the most predictable candidate of the lot: square-jawed millionaire Mitt Romney. In order to make Romney comply with Sorkin’s one-dimensional concept of modern Republicans, Romney was ret-conned from a progressive moderate into a mealy-mouthed, pro-life, anti-healthcare spokescliché. Sorkin had altered characters in the past to suit current storylines, but he’d never made any changes approaching this level of absurdity.

At the same time, he was clearly struggling with his portrayal of Obama. Clearly attempting to handicap him in some believable manner, Sorkin – rather than having him make a campaign-halting gaff, or reveal some sort of personal demon – simply took a reasonable statement and worded it in such a manner so that an out-of-context sentence could be cherry-picked as an example of his inferred socialism. It was a pretty long bow to draw, and Sorkin’s Republican stereotypes lapped it up, wilfully misinterpreting it so it would become what to them was the defining moment of the campaign. The mere idea that Sorkin would consider something so benign and easily-explainable as a satisfactory portrayal Obama’s biggest stumble reflects an extremely low opinion of the conservative electorate.

In fairness, his portrayal of the American media holds more focus. Rather than deifying Obama’s achievements – or even recollecting them – the media frequently criticises him for taking too much credit for the death of Osama Bin Laden; he is lambasted for a fairly straightforward healthcare plan that would bring America up to global first world standards; every diplomatic interaction is painted as ‘apologising for America’. Even if none of Sorkin’s politicians are believable, the media and citizens sure are.

Look, I’m a long-time fan of Sorkin. I was a stringent defender of the election, and when critics pointed to recurring characters like Sarah Palin as proof that he couldn’t write intelligent female characters, even after established that they’d risen to great political heights, I’d go to pains to point out the similar flaws in endless male characters. I was on the front line, standing up for Sorkin’s writing, and confidently telling anyone who’d listen that he surely had something big up his sleeve.

But then we came to the conventions.

The Republican National Convention was a complete joke, and any Republican watching would surely have taken umbrage at its depiction. There was the parroting of the warped ‘You didn’t build that’ line. There was Romney’s policy-devoid speech. There was the shameful Clint Eastwood parody, in which the filmmaking legend was portrayed as a bumbling old man speaking to an empty chair for fifteen minutes. (In Sorkin’s defence, this came after Clint Eastwood had directed 2010’s Hereafter, so it wasn’t a huge stretch to buy this sudden turn for the senile.)

Even if you could forgive any of that rubbish, the following week he showed us the Democratic National Convention, and in typical Sorkin style, returning character Bill Clinton gave one of those standard electrifying speeches. As with all characters in Sorkin Fantasy Land, the crowd and the country were all roused by an eloquent statesman spouting a barrage of facts and figures. Keep dreaming, Aaron.

Normally I can let this stuff go, as Sorkin’s sparkling dialogue heals all wounds, but this week he has stepped way over the line. And I’m not even talking about Rick Santorum’s claim that the Republican party will never win over ‘smart people’, allowing liberal subtext to spill into actual text. No, it was his depiction of Mitt Romney that truly slipped into liberal absurdism. In a leaked video, Romney is caught telling his supporters that he’s essentially written off 47% of the country; not just their vote, but their basic value as human beings. He makes no bones about considering them to be entitled, dependent victims. I mean, how do you write a character who accuses the poor of not paying taxes as he himself keeps funds in off-shore accounts and refuses to release more than a single year’s tax returns? How do you that and look at yourself in the mirror? To Sorkin’s credit, he stopped just short of having Romney twirl a moustache as he tied Sandra Fluke to a railway track.

It shouldn’t be hard to write a believable, sympathetic Republican character. In the past, Sorkin has had conservatives such as Ainsley Hayes, Joe Quincy and Cliff Calley (The West Wing), Harriet Hayes (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Will McAvoy (The Newsroom) making complex, multi-faceted arguments on topics such as the economy, healthcare, the role of government, abortion, defence, international relations, states rights, welfare, you name it. These characters sounded intelligent, and you could actually believe that they’d risen to some level of prominence within politics or the media.

His latest crop holds none of this believability. If Mitt Romney is going to continue to be a caricatured, out-of-touch implausible character, then I guarantee the audience is going get fed up with him pretty damn soon.

Adventures In Constriction

This past Saturday, I woke up at 6am with something lodged in my throat. My instinct was to try to cough it up, which proved difficult when I eventually realised it was my uvula. Something was swollen back there – most likely my throat – which prevented me from swallowing or talking with any ease. Concerned that ‘breathing’ was next on the list, and me an avid breather, I figured I should probably go to the hospital. But how to communicate this idea?

Regular reader of this site knows that I’m in Sydney for the next few months on work. So I wrote a note for my housemate Stephen saying that he shouldn’t be too concerned, but could he drive me to the emergency room? Then, in an act of character contradiction that would rock several pages of a Jonathan Franzen novel, I began tapping on his door in a manner designed to get his attention without actually waking him up.

(This, I am compelled to point out, is the first time in my life I’ve ever asked to be taken to the emergency room. I’m one of those people who will watch as his limbs drop off and resist bothering a doctor about it in case they reattach themselves.)

Stephen leapt into action, and we were soon at the emergency room. The triage nurse, clearly concerned that at 6am on a Saturday morning I was suffering a bad reaction to some illicit substances, asked if I knew where I was. ‘Hospital,’ I mumbled through my John Merrick swelling. ‘Which one?’ she asked. ‘I’m from Melbourne,’ I explained. She seemed satisfied by this, either because it indicated I wouldn’t know the names of hospitals, or because it allowed her to determine which drug I’d been taking.

I changed into the regulation paper napkin and they ran some tests. I tried to be the upbeat, jokey patient that doctors no doubt whisper about to one another in the staff room, but the best joke I could manage was choking on my tongue and dry retching. And they’d heard that one before.

There was some trouble identifying the cause. My last meal had been ten hours earlier, and that’s a long time to wait for an allergic reaction. Even for a teriyaki stir fry that bad. It might have been a flu symptom, but it was the only one I was suffering from.

I helpfully suggested a spider might have crawled into my mouth and bitten me, something I’ve been perpetually, constantly concerned since my childhood when this erroneous fact was imparted to me. The doctor nodded and looked at me in a way that confirmed she would indeed be whispering to her colleagues about me in the staff room.

It was eventually decided that I had some sort of respiratory infection. My throat was beginning to improve, but they kept me in there for seven hours so they could be sure. At about 1:30pm, they handed me a discharge letter, directed me to buy some antihistamines and sent me on my way. ‘Do I have to sign anything?’ I asked. ‘No,’ they said, in a far less collective manner than my wording is suggesting. ‘It’s been taken care of.’

The ‘taken care of’ referred to the Medicare card I’d handed over as they were checking me in. I barely remembered doing it. All I’d had to do was hand over this card and some photo ID for two minutes, and everything that followed was on the house.

It wasn’t just seeing it in action that impressed me. It was seeing it in action after reading the ongoing healthcare debate across the pond. The Pacific, not the Atlantic. (That can be a pond too! Why can’t it?)

A similar thing happened to my friend Tim, who a few weeks ago was hit by a car, suffering a broken shoulder blade and fractured left elbow, with a possible dislocated shoulder. He spent three hours in the hospital, which included being given painkillers, having his blood pressure taken, x-rays, and a sling. (It turns out it’s impossible to set a shoulder blade in plaster, but they were confident it would heal on its own.) The grand total of this visit was $25 for the painkillers. And he’s been told he can reclaim that.

The first time I really understood that healthcare was any different in other parts of the world was when I was a kid and saw a US-based actor giving a talk. He drifted from his career to the American health system, saying that he and his neighbour had a deal that if either of them found the other lying on the floor, they wouldn’t call an ambulance because the crippling debt would be worse than death. And he didn’t sound like he was kidding.

I left the hospital and went back to my place in Bondi. I immediately did was do a search to see how much my visit would have cost if I’d been living in America, with no public health insurance to cover me.

Much of what I read was anecdotal, but it seemed like seven hours of ER care with blood tests thrown in would have cost me in excess of $5000. And that’s a very conservative estimate.

I don’t want to get into all the arguments about the rights of the individual vs a government-funded healthcare… actually, that’s a lie. I do want to get into those, but I’m not going to. This isn’t what this is about.

I know that everybody has a different concept of liberty, and that some feel government-run healthcare infringes upon it. In both an idealistic sense and, after Saturday, a very practical, first-hand sense, I do not feel as if my liberty has been infringed upon. In fact, this system fortifies my sense of liberty.

And not to mention that having public health care is one of the reasons we’re the wealthiest nation on Earth. No, really, I’m not going mention it.

A big thank you to Stephen and to the staff of the Prince of Wales Emergency Room, all of whom were incredibly professional, personable, and, for some reason, British. (I picked accents from Scotland, Ireland, Liverpool, from at least a dozen nurses and doctors. This isn’t a problem, I’m just concerned for the dazed patient who wakes up to overwhelming evidence that their all-night bender somehow landed them in the UK.) It’s nice knowing that both my country and the people around me have my back. Or my throat. Or the back of my throat. You know what I mean.