One of the highlights of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival was not seeing a film per se, but an advance look at the new HBO series, The Newsroom, which premiered this past Sunday night. Audiences were shown the 75 minute pilot followed by a panel discussion that included the brilliant creator and writer of the pilot, the venerable Aaron Sorkin. This was a terrific packed out LAFF event, and while watching a television how on the big screen is not as visually palatable as one might like (it was very grainy but then I was in the front row) it is fascinating to watch something like this with hundreds of people. If you missed the pilot when it officially aired on Sunday night, you are missing out on a treat despite some mixed and unfair reviews.
At the center of this compelling drama is veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), often referred to as the “Jay Leno” of newsmen — a conservative, safe kind of guy who found his groove with solid ratings by delivering the news down the middle of the road, and refusing to make waves.
But things change when Will delivers a very public, mad-as-hell meltdown at a prestigious university, where he dares tell his student audience that America is not, as has been suggested, the greatest country in the world, shattering perceptions. Forced to take a subsequent management-enforced vacation, he returns, stunned, to discover that his cynical boss (Sam Waterston) has hired former war correspondent, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), to executive produce his show.
For Will, this new arrangement is a nightmare, because he and MacKenzie once dated, and their relationship apparently ended disastrously. On the other hand, she’s the one person who can jolt the apathy right out of him.
We then discover that the show takes place at the tail end of 2010, turning the show into a period piece as actual news events are explored, beginning with the 2010 BP disaster that engulfed the Louisiana coast. It’s a story that indeed, puts the once safe anchor into aggressive attack mode and out of an apathetic slumber.
Audiences who are not liberals will hate this show. Despite what he might claim, Sorkin wears his politics on his chest. He did so with The West Wing and things aren’t that different as he explores the frenetic pace and urgency of cable news in this new era of the instant sound bite. But Sorkin is a genius when it comes to heightened reality and this is no exception. He takes real events and uses them to explore these larger than life extraordinary characters who speak fast and curios with unending witticisms. This is not supposed to be the real world. Even Sorkin will be the first to admit its all fantasy embedded in a certain historical reality.
It’s still compelling to watch and listen to. Great speeches enunciated by great actors from the always magnificent Jeff Daniels to a luminous performance by the underrated Emily Mortimer to a delightful turn by vet Sam Waterston. Briskly and energetically directed, the 75 minute pilot goes at breakneck speed and never lets up. It’s ferociously good television.
At the panel discussion, the verbose Sorkin dared say he doesn’t know anything, would not admit to me when I asked him if he was Don Quixote or Sancho Panza (there are quixotic references in the pilot) and also told me that he chose to set the series in the past to avoid creating fictional news stories. Fascinating television and equally fascinating discussion.