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From Howard Beale to Aaron Sorkin

We think we know what an “anchor” is—that quaint tri-form hunk of heavy metal that vessels throw overboard when they want to stop. That action and the word promise stability and security. So “anchor” has passed into the collected metaphors of our survival: A sentence is anchored to its main verb; a country is kept steady by its constitution; Citizen Kane holds the cause of film history in place. Your family is what keeps you where you should be in the rising swell and cross-currents of life. Aaron Sorkin is a mainstay of old-fashioned adult optimism. Et cetera—a simple phrase that anchors us to the hope that we are trying to stay aware of everything. But “anchor” has sub-texts, too, like our being all at sea, as in “lost.”

“Anchor” has a more everyday usage, of course. Most of us lack yachts, but we have television sets. From its earliest days, television perceived a vague but demanding duty: If it was a mass medium, then its task was to hold us together. Long before the remote control device, there was a fear within the medium that it might be poised on the brink of chaos. It could show us anything and everything, in a montage that acquired its own perilous momentum. It felt the danger in the prospect of kids anchored to the sofa and flipping from one channel to another in a helter-skelter delirium. Television had the power to teach us that the world was a “global village,” coherent and connected; but it might be disorder, too. And we are terrified of that chaos. 

Especially in those moments when it dealt most directly with the world at large, or the news, TV developed its own “anchors.” They were beloved and trusty familiars. They were Walter Cronkite unable to hold back a tear when he had to announce that John Kennedy was dead; Howard Cosell assuring us that it really was Monday night; Dan Rowan and Dick Martin heading off towards the Laugh-In “party,” the riot of cheerful, subversive disorder that was for a couple of seasons an imprint of the late ’60s, bolder or more reckless about admitting that things were out of control than Cronkite, Johnny Carson or Mr. Rogers.

You will know by now that Aaron Sorkin has created a new series, for HBO, called The Newsroom, in which the endlessly likeable Jeff Daniels has to play a curmudgeonly TV anchor, Will McAvoy. By the way, HBO was so sure of Sorkin as an anchor that they told him to write whatever series he wanted. The prestigious success of The West Wing had made him free. Of course, the freedom had gentlemanly boundaries: McAvoy was going to be or want to be a hero, and he was far more likely to be Jeff Daniels than, say, John Malkovich, Alec Baldwin, James Woods…or Howard Beale.

Beale was the volatile character in the 1976 movie Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. As presented by Peter Finch, he seemed to have a judicious experience, a mixture of Brinkley and Brokaw, a reliability that no one would attribute to Malkovich, Baldwin or Woods. That is not a personal criticism of those three actors. It is a way of explaining why they are always so watchable. But Beale went crazy. He became “the mad prophet of the airways,” and while he was a danger to himself and the nation, his network kept him on because Beale’s audience share was rising. I don’t know if Network counts as “a great film” (in the realm of Ozu, Fassbinder or Bergman), but it is one of the most significant ever made in America, and one of the most alarming.

No one thought Sorkin was going to offer so threatening a figure in The Newsroom. Yet McAvoy starts off as someone close to breakdown. What will redeem him (clear in the first episode) is devotion to the old idea of anchors as smart, brave, liberal intelligences try to speak the truth. Sorkin himself spoke of the show as a “love-letter” to the news. This was a conception of character tried and tested by President Jed Bartlet, otherwise known as Martin Sheen, a beloved guarantor of humane attitudes and the faith in reason and compromise keeping democracy afloat. Sheen is a likeable man, a loyal father, more a token than a movie actor. That he is Charlie’s dad, too, is forgiven or overlooked, though the idea of that father-son disconnect may be the greatest potential in Sheenism.

Will McAvoy isn’t going to exhibit the struggle of such family genes. He may compromise along the way, he has to regain his ex-girlfriend, but he will stand up for TV news just as surely as Bartlet embodied the hope for a functioning democracy. Such sentimental hokum sits uneasily in the wild head of Sorkin (I suspect he fights a daily bipolar contest between Charlie and Martin), beside his high skill with dialogue and narrative. But he is way behind the insights of a modest but pretentious movie like The Ides of March, which shows innate corruption dissolving every iron anchor in sight, or the passing insight of his own The Social Network, that Mark Zuckerberg is a brilliant black hole while the president of Harvard may be a high-minded scoundrel. That is the most challenging work Sorkin has done because it coincided with director David Fincher’s misanthropy, to show that the world was adrift on a sea that no longer honored or insured anchors.

But Sorkin’s range of work is closed to the horrible recognition that our anchors now are papier-mâché. In Network, when Beale is told by the ultimate figure of corporate America (played by Ned Beatty) that he must preach the gospel of business, the dumbfounded anchor asks, “Why me?” to be told, “Because you’re on television, dumbie.” In 1976, before the presidencies of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama, Network was the gleeful diagnosis of our TV state and the way leaders had become ghostly pursuers of a share and camera confidence. So we now have counter-culture anchors—like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Charlie Rose—who like to come on as brainy, cool, and unfoolable. Believe that if you wish, or look at the closing shot of The Ides of March (not even a good film) where the chilled political manager played by Ryan Gosling simply stares into the camera, impassive and abandoned, daring us to speak or exist. Anchors are away, but The Newsroom is just an entertaining throwback to His Girl Friday (1940), that inspiring comedy of remarriage in the newsroom. 

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.