big block of cheese, pt. 3

Mr. Sorkin’s first mainstream success was the film, taken from his play, A Few Good Men. The movie is awful, stagey and hammy, and became an almost immediate self-parody (“You can’t handle the truth!”), but somewhere at its core is a serious question, maybe, about whether the way we train our soldiers and Marines encourages barbarism in them. Unfortunately, this question is pretty well buried under a mountain of crap — including a story about living up to a father’s expectations, and a dramatic revelation on a therapist’s couch… I mean, on the stand in a courtroom.

Mr. Sorkin treats his military subjects with a great deal of respect, going out of his way to understand and elucidate the minor details of military courtesy, for example. But this makes it all the more annoying that the fundamental argument in the film gets so muddled. For the record, the argument goes: we want young men in our armed forces who are both fanatically loyal to their leadership and capable of hair-trigger violence. But those qualities, when not stringently and carefully regulated by a higher morality, lead to war crimes or, in the case of this story, intrafamilial hazing that can turn into torture or manslaughter.

This is an important idea, and deserves a careful examination in film. In fact, it’s had one — in Full Metal Jacket. It could certainly stand another, perhaps less nightmarish look, but it doesn’t get one here, apart from a rather damp, if sincere, speech by the Lance Cpl. Dawson character at the end.

We should not wander too far here from Mr. Sorkin’s television work, and I bring up A Few Good Men only to point out an early trend — his interest in and obvious respect for those serving in the military, and his inability to fully connect with military characters and stories in his writing.

In The West Wing, this manifests itself in a certain awkwardness around the characters — wanting use them to signify something, but being unable to arrive at exactly what that is. For example, the character of Coast Guard Lieutenant Emily Lowenbrau, who shows up first in the episode “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” as a name, and is later fleshed out by Jacqueline Kim in “Bad Moon Rising.” She is a professional and calming voice for Sam, first regarding the weather, and then regarding a wrecked oil tanker. There is nothing odd about this, except that for a one-scene character, she sticks out bizarrely; the show absolutely cannot find the tone for her. Why is she played by a relatively high-profile guest actress, when the part seems to call for a faceless nobody? Why does Sam flirt with her, and why does she seem to be flirting back? And, more germainely, why do they go into an unprompted digression about military personnel wearing dress uniforms to the White House?

Similarly, Lt. Cmdr. Jack Reese, who appears in the middle of the fourth season and is played with some prickliness by Christian Slater, never really finds a place on the show before being summarily ejected a few episodes later. Again, he is used as a vehicle to deliver a piece of information about military life (ashtrays on submarines cost $300 because they have to be made from safety glass — though why the hell smoking is allowed on subs is never explained), and again there’s a stab at giving him a relationship with one of the main characters (Donna), this one going beyond mere flirtation. But again he surfaces, like his sub, and then disappears, his mission in the plot never clear, except to get Donna in a pickle over a background quote to a reporter.

My objection is not that these characters come up, and then are abruptly dropped — it feels like poor story editing, but that happens all the time on The West Wing, most famously when Moira Kelly (Mandy), a full-time cast member, simply vanished near the end of the first season. My objection is that even while they are in the story, no one exactly knows what they’re doing there.

One can contrast the brief appearance of the Reese character with the brief appearance of Special Agent Simon Donovan, who comes on as CJ’s Secret Service bodyguard and love interest at the end of the third season. Simon’s sudden appearance and importance in the last four episodes of the season, and his sad and schocking death, might seem a little manipulative, but there is no question that Sorkin has a strong sense of what he’s doing with the character and his function in the narrative — not to mention his function in the White House. Jack Reese, on the other hand, is a military aide to the National Security Adviser — and why we should care about that is never made clear. He has a weak function as Donna’s new crush, and he eventually provides a plot point that makes Donna just that much cuter in Josh’s eyes… but apart from a rather witty scene outside Donna’s apartment building, the whole subplot seems insubstantial and poorly conceived.

It was Mr. Sorkin’s habit (hardly unique) to end each season with a major crisis, although the addition of a lesser crisis as well was an interesting innovation. The first season the minor crisis was a cathartic admission that the presidency was going nowhere, and the major one was the assassination attempt. In the second season, they were the death of Mrs. Landingham and the revelation of the President’s illness, respectively. In the fourth, they were Zoe’s kidnapping and the President’s resignation. And, of course, in the third, they were Simon Donovan’s death and the assassination of Qumari Defense Minister Abdu’l-Shareef.

The decision to kill Abdu’l-Shareef (often, irritatingly, shortened to “Shareef” on the show, as though “Abdu’l” were a first name) is taken with a great deal of gravity and forethought. He is the foreign minister of a putative ally, yet it has become clear that he is also a leader in certain terrorist networks that carry out attacks against Americans. Yet it is typical of Mr. Sorkin’s inability to really get his hands around military/foreign affairs that he can’t quite make the case for us. Consider the climactic discussion between Leo and the President as he struggles with his decision at the eleventh hour:

President Bartlet: Civilians get trials.
Leo McGarry: I’d argue he’s not a civilian. So would the Attorney General.
President Bartlet: They’re gonna find out it’s us. We can make it look like the plane went down, but they’re gonna find out it’s us. And I’m gonna be running for re-election while I’m fighting a war against Qumar.
Leo McGarry: That’s why you want to say no?
President Bartlet: I want him tried.
Leo McGarry: That can’t happen….
President Bartlet: I understand.
Leo McGarry: I was talking this morning about how Mallory names all the lobsters in the tank….
President Bartlet: Yeah.
Leo McGarry: Would it be helpful if I brought you a list of names of Shareef’s victims?
President Bartlet: What do you want from me?
Leo McGarry: Who is the monk who wrote, “I don’t always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you”? … You have two minutes, sir.
President Bartlet: This isn’t a matter of religion.
Leo McGarry: Yes, sir.
President Bartlet: I recognize that there’s evil in the world.
Leo McGarry: What is your objection exactly, sir?
President Bartlet: Doesn’t this mean we join the league of ordinary nations?
Leo McGarry: That’s your objection? I’m not going to have any trouble saying the Pledge of Allegiance tomorrow.
President Bartlet: That’s not my objection.
Leo McGarry: Sir —
President Bartlet: It’s just wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.
Leo McGarry: I know. But you have to do it anyway.
President Bartlet: Why?
Leo McGarry: ‘Cause you won.
[long pause]
President Bartlet: Take him.

Leo’s defense of the decision here is completely unsatisfying, but perhaps not unrealistic. For all I know, this is how the most difficult decisions are made — in a haze of poorly stated half-thoughts. Perhaps at the end, any President who ventures into such a moral quagmire is simply unable to give an articulate voice to his conscience; and perhaps his advisors really do importune him with irrelevancies and knee-jerk appeals to patriotism.

But the same fudging and circular reasoning show up when the idea is first being considered — at a time when, one would expect, cooler and more perceptive lines of argument would hold sway. Read the following exchange, an episode earlier:

Leo McGarry: Stop it.
President Bartlet: What?
Leo McGarry: Just stop it already. This is the most horrifying part of your liberalism. You think there are moral absolutes.
President Bartlet: There are moral absolutes.
Leo McGarry: Apparently not. He’s killed innocent people. He’ll kill more, so we have to end him. The village idiot comes to that conclusion before the Nobel Laureate.

This hardly needs analysis. Seconds after chiding the President for believing in moral absolutes, Leo himself invokes a moral absolute, a truth so universal it is acknowledge by “the village idiot,” to advance his position.

There’s a more pointed, more interesting, and nearly on-target conversation earlier between Leo and Admiral Fitzwallace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The concepts, as introduced, are relatively clear — but here Mr. Sorkin again runs up against a weird inability to write plainly about military action, this time in the form of some peculiar historical arguments:

Admiral Fitzwallace: Can you tell when it’s peacetime and wartime anymore?
Leo McGarry: No.
Admiral Fitzwallace: I don’t know who the world’s leading expert on warfare is, but any list of the top has got to include me, and I can’t tell when it’s peacetime and wartime anymore.
Leo McGarry: Look, international law has always recognized certain protected persons who you couldn’t attack. It’s been this way since… the Romans….
Admiral Fitzwallace: In peacetime.
Leo McGarry: Yes.
Admiral Fitzwallace: The Battle of Agincourt. This was the French fighting the British archers. This was like a polo match. The battles were observed by heralds, and they picked the winners. And if a soldier laid down his arms, he was treated humanely.
Leo McGarry: Yeah.
Admiral Fitzwallace: And the international laws that you’re talking about, this is where a lot of them were written. At a time and a place where a person could tell between peacetime and wartime. The idea of targeting one person was ridiculous. It wouldn’t have occurred to the French to try to kill William Pitt. That all changed after Pearl Harbor —
Leo McGarry: I don’t like where this conversation’s going —
Admiral Fitzwallace: Leo —
Leo McGarry: In the Situation Room, Fitz —
Admiral Fitzwallace: We killed Yamamoto — we shot down his plane —
Leo McGarry: We declared war.
Admiral Fitzwallace: If Dietrich Banhofer had been successful —
Leo McGarry: And the plot to kill Hitler was an internal rebellion.
Admiral Fitzwallace: — there would have been statues built of an assassin. We’d have had to explain that to our kids.
Leo McGarry: [rising to go] I’m gonna get back to the office.
Admiral Fitzwallace: We measure the success of a mission by two things: was it successful? and how few civilians did we hurt? They measure success by how many. Pregnant women are delivering bombs…. You’re talking to me about international laws? The laws of nature don’t even apply here! … I’ve been a soldier for thiry-eight years, and I’ve found an enemy I can kill. He can’t cancel Shareef’s trip, Leo — you’ve got to tell him, he can’t cancel it.

The reference to the battle of Agincourt is only distantly related to the question of sanctioned assassination, and the argument Admiral Fitzwallace makes is totally specious — does he (or Sorkin) really believe that political assassination was unthinkable in the High Middle Ages? But, more to our point here, the usually impeccably researched and fact-checked show lets slide certain strange historical oddities which only muddle the discussion further. First, the battle of Agincourt took place in 1415, while William Pitt was Prime Minister of Britain in the 1760’s. It’s not impossible that Fitz is simply switching historical references here, but it’s a bizarre jump. Likewise, why is Dietrich Banhofer’s plot to kill Hitler the one referenced, when there were many other, better-known, and more nearly successful plots?

Although the decision to use the sword is made badly in these episodes, it is at least made seriously. But what are we to think when, late in the fourth season, President Bartlet embarks on a new, more aggressive foreign policy, committing U.S. forces abroad to defend the helpless, after, I’m not kidding, watching a Laurel and Hardy movie? Martin Sheen and director Lesli Linka Glatter conspire to make the nonverbal scene as thoughtful and portentous as possible, but it winds up instead being both superficial and disturbing as hell. The intercutting of news footage of American soldiers and the toy soldiers from the movie seems to indicate that President Bartlet launches the new policy, a policy sure to put Americans in danger for scant direct national benefit, based on his equating our armed forces with mechanical playthings. I really hope to God this isn’t what Mr. Sorkin meant, but this is how it comes across.

There is another, more troubling aspect to Mr. Sorkin’s apparent discomfort with the military and the use of force abroad: I think it leads him to places he doesn’t necessarily want to go, philosophically. Between the two major plotlines described above — the targeting of a foreign leader ostensibly (but not proven to be) tied to terrorism and a new policy of direct action to create democracy and protect human rights abroad — one can’t help feeling that he is veering perilously close to a justification of the Iraq war. The most hair-raising piece of dialogue, perhaps, in any West Wing episode comes from the normally clear-sighted Toby, but here he could be our real President, Vice-President, or Bill O’Reilly:

I don’t remember having to explain to Italians that our problem wasn’t with them, but
with Mussolini! Why does the U.S. have to take every Arab country out for an ice cream cone? They’ll like us when we win! Thousands of madrassahs teaching children nothing, nothing, nothing but the Koran and to hate America. Who do we see about that? [beat] Do I want to preach America? Judeo-Christianity? No. If their religion forbids them from playing the trumpet, so be it. But I want those kids to… look at a globe. Be exposed to social sciences, history. Some literature…. They’ll like us when we win.

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