I guess I was expecting The Newsroom to open with a broadcast of the news from the newsroom. You know – behind the scenes. What happens before the anchor gets into the chair, and what happens after. But what do I know? That’s why I am writing a recap, and why Aaron Sorkin is writing the show. But that’s not news either. So let’s get started.
By the way, these recaps will be spoiler rich. I’m writing them, and commenting as I go, whether appropriate or not.
We open with four people sitting on a stage arguing. We don’t know three of them, and the one we do know is Will McAvoy, the ACN News Night anchor, played by Jeff Daniels, and he isn’t saying anything. He’s taking it all in. As the camera circles around, we get that this is a panel discussion of sorts, and there’s an audience. We will later learn that the discussion is going on in an auditorium at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois.
It is pure Sorkin – the camera swirls and people are talking, often at the same time, and passionately, loudly, and with satisfaction stemming from their inner belief that what they say is not only correct, but is certainly the only possible answer. It’s a lot to take in. But very quickly we come to understand that we can’t take it all in because we’ve arrived long after this began. We’ve no starting point. We begin to mentally distance ourselves from it.
As does McAvoy. They help us tune it out by lowering the volume and instantly we are in the same space as McAvoy, not really listening, and certainly not caring. McAvoy scans the audience and he thinks he sees a woman he knows, then he’s not sure.
JMM: That’s because they switched the woman – meaning we know but he does not.
Eventually the moderator takes another question from the audience. The question concerns McAvoy’s political leanings. McAvoy adroitly avoids giving a direct answer. Rather than admitting to which of the two political parties he supports, he answers that he supports the New York Jets.
JMM: Is Sorkin pals with Jet’s coach Rex Ryan, or maybe it is the Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum. Whatever – this came out of nowhere and caught everyone by surprise. It does give us an indication that McAvoy has more than just a bit of the self centered sensibilty to him, and also that’s he’s a bit of a maverick. Maybe an asshole too. That’s a maybe.
McAvoy’s quite skilled in that kind of avoidance, and equally capable of enjoying this kind of mental gymnastics – that of never giving a straight answer when he chooses not to.
Another woman in the audience stands at the podium. Hi, my name is Jenny, I’m a sophomore, and my questions is directed to the three of you. Can you say in one sentence or less, why America is the greatest country in the world?
Panelist One (Sharon): Diversity and opportunity.
Panelist Two (Louis); Freedom and freedom so let’s keep it that way
Will McAvoy: The New York Jets…
But the Moderator isn’t going to let Will slide this time. He says that he’s going to require Will to answer the question, and he repeats it; What makes America the greatest country in the world?
Will stalls. “Well Louis and Sharon said it, diversity and opportunity and freedom and freedom…”. He thought that he had seen that familiar face in the audience. He looks for her again. He finds her – she holds up a sign “It’s not“, then another sign, “But it can be...”
Will continues to stall. The Moderator says that he won’t let Will leave for the airport until he answers.
Over the next few moments, Will first gives a litany of reasons why America isn’t the greatest country in the world. He rattles off stats, gives rankings, destroys the other panelist points about liberals and freedom.
We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy. 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined…
Let me repeat his conclusions: 1) the number of people incarcerated per capita, 2) the number of people (adults) who still believe in angels, and 3) in defense spending. He pauses for a moment then continues.
“Its not the greatest country in the world. That’s my answer. You think we are the only country that has freedom? Canada has freedom. So does Japan. Britain, France, Italy, Sweden. Australia. BELGIUM HAS FREEDOM! There’s 207 countries and 180 of them have freedom.”
The speech continues. Every one is halted in their tracks. No has ever heard anything like this. No one has ever said anything like this in a public forum [JMM: or on television], much less from a well known news anchor. Sorkin through McAvoy has grabbed us by our collective lapels and given us a thorough shaking up. We are speechless.
He pauses to catch his breath and let the audience absorb what he’s just uttered [us too!]. Then that sign appears again – ‘But it can be’
So McAvoy takes his foot off the vocal gas pedal that he had just pressed right down to the metal. He softens his tone. It’s not quite an apology. It’s more like a rememberance of things past – of better times.
“Sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists, and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars. Acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election. And we didn’t scare so easy. We are able to be all these things, and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
Pow! McAvoy has just delivered one of the greatest TV speeches ever. Even if you didn’t agree with a single word of it. It was powerful. It was rich. You couldn’t take your eyes off the screen. It was riveting. It was Sorkin at his best. We are now 8 minutes in, and it is now, after that socko and stunning opening segment, time to roll the intro.
The intro has shots of old TV news studios. Of Murrow, of Cronkite, and of Chet Huntley. Icons each and every one. Of newsrooms as they once were – with the huge TV cameras, the tiny control rooms with their eight inch monitors, the crew stuffed into a tiny spaces. It looks so antiquated which is why these images of newrooms past merge with this newsroom, the one we will share with the cast and crew. The one with shiny, sleek, and modern equipment, the one that’s spacious and up to the minute, with every technological advance known to mankind on every desk. The one that will be humming with activity as this team will create the presentation of the news every night.
So begins The Newsroom, HBO‘s new Sunday drama series. Following McAvoy’s tirade/meltdown – which was just the first part of his speech that ended with, ” When you ask is America the greatest country – I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?” People tended to ignore the second part. On the way out, McAvoy apologized to the other panelists by blaming it on his medication for vertigo as the reason for his tirade. Naturally, a shitstorm followed, and McAvoy has been told to chill out and clear out. Take a vacay in St. Lucia. Take two weeks, and don’t call us.
When the show resumes we are in the ACN newsroom. It is a few weeks later. The huge newsroom is sparcely populated. A man and woman are discussing their plans for the evening. She has arranged a dinner: she and her boyfriend (the folks before us) and her parents who have flown in from somewhere. He’s not going to go.
Don: Tell them, Ive got to work late late.
Maggie: That’s a lie.
Don: Tell them anyway, you can sell it.
They’re Don, the Exec Producer of Will McAvoy’s news show. She is his girl friend Margaret ‘Maggie’ Jordan who is McAvoy’s new assistant whom Will has never met. They’re arguing in front of Neal, played by Dev Patel. They ask him to referee the situation but he declines.
Dev patel as neal. He’s not the IT – his job is write Will McAvoy’s blog
Just then McAvoy arrives at the ACN headquarters and appears in the newsroom heading straight for his office. He’s just returned from his vacation, and he finds that his Exec Producer, Don, played by Thomas Sadowski, has decided to leave the show, and he’s taking most of the staff with him. Now remember, McAvoy was off to St. Lucia and incommunicado. No one could reach him. Now McAvoy is back, and only a couple of his staffers are left.
He has no idea. He asks the girl sitting where his assistant used to be. She has been replaced by Maggie Jordan who is played by Alison Pill.
Where is everybody? Where is my staff? Who are you?
Maggie is quaking in her boots. “Please go upstairs and talk to Charlie Skinner.
Maggie: I was told to tell you as soon as you came in
McAvoy is expected and is told to go right in. Skinner is at the top of the News Division. There may be people higher in the network, but no one is higher in the News Division. Sam Waterston has the role. He’s a tweedy/hounds tooth/glenplaid type of guy who wears a bow tie. He’s not quite John Houseman‘s Kingsfield from The Paper Chase, who wore a bow tie, and he’s not quite Lou Grant, the coatless – sleeves rolled up – tie loosened News producer from The Mary Tyler Moore Show – one of TV’s earliest series about the news. But he’s somewhere in between and … he’s an ex-marine.
Skinner tries to talk calmly to McAvoy. When McAvoy hears that Don and the staff have left because they chose to – he heads off down the hall. He’s steamed and immediate confrontation is on his mind. There’s going to be wild argument between Don and McAvoy. Don is cornered and finally lets it out that McAvoy isn’t all that nice. He berated the staff, he berated Don, his Exec-Producer in front of the staff, and he bigtime blew a big interview with a high ranking US Army General. It rages on hotly for a few minutes – it’s wild, loud, profane and exquisitely done. Near perfect timing, great angles, with quick cuts – a one shot, then a two-shot. We see all the facial reactions, the testosterone building, building, building. Rage is imminent. In short – the works.
l to r – Don, Charlie Skinner, and Will McAvoy. This is a 3 shot.
Finally Skinner gets between them, threatening to kick ass, as he’s an ex-marine as well as looking like he’s in his early 70’s. He ushers McAvoy off to a watering hole for a scotch or three. This is where Skinner is going to give McAvoy the rest of the news. As he breaks it down for McAvoy, he tells him that he’s hired a new Exec Producer for him. She’s arriving today, and she’s bringing in some people.
McAvoy begins to sputter … She?
A peaceful moment between Mackenzie McHale and Will McAvoy
Yes, she, says Skinner. The new EP is to be Mackenzie McHale. This is the last person in the world that McAvoy wants for the job. You see, McHale is not only his ex-girl friend, but they also worked together as the talking head and the producer of the talking head’s TV show. Stormy and tempestuous only begin to describe their relationship. McAvoy is incensed. He rants that he has it in his contract that he has final approval for any ExP. Only he doesn’t. They go round and round until finally McAvoy says he heading out to his agent’s office. He intends to pull a power play, and renegotiate his contract to give him that power.
As he leaves, after screaming to Charlie Skinner about how much revenue he brings in – ‘I brought in 210 Million by myself. That may be chicken feed to this big company, but it’s not nothing!‘ Just as he’s about to leave our view, we get this last exchange as Skinner calls out to him:
Skinner: Will, when was the last time you saw her?
McAvoy: I don’t know. About three years ago.
Skinner: Coincidentally that was the last time you were a nice guy!
There you have it. We ‘ve already seen it for ourselves. McAvoy isn’t a nice guy. Harrison Ford played a pompous ass of a TV News Anchor in Morning Glory, but he had nothing on Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy.