Throughout his long career, Aaron Sorkin has kept the flame burning for a certain American idea. His stories cover every center of power—politics, entertainment, media, tech—and take place in an America flourishing thanks to a fair, smart, sometimes smug, but ultimately heroic centrist establishment. From The West Wing to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from The American President and A Few Good Men to Mr. Wilson’s War and The Newsroom, almost every protagonist in a Sorkin drama represents this unifying ideal. His vision is capacious. Sorkin nods to the conservative skeptic, winks at the leftist radical, owns up to every historical grievance—and then plows on, his cast of quick-witted characters relentlessly pursuing social progress while enjoying extraordinary personal success.
Last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 could be seen as the high-water mark of Sorkin’s project: it somehow manages to integrate the subversive vision of those famous utopian revolutionaries into the Sorkin worldview. This vision is closer to the civic-mindedness of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) than to any radicalism, but it is also wise to the moral and political lessons of the fifties and sixties. When I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 during the gloomy winter of 2020, I was struck by how comforting its image of America was.
But is it a true image? In Armies of the Night (1967) and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Norman Mailer’s famous books about the sixties, counterculture icons like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Allen Ginsberg come off as apocalyptic, distinctly discomforting characters. You probably don’t want to listen to these disturbing men but, Mailer insists, you must, for they know a terrible truth. In Sorkin’s film, these same figures appear as quirky and challenging but ultimately reassuring. Perhaps Sorkin calculated that, during a political and public-health crisis, American viewers didn’t want an apocalypse; they wanted to feel that everything is going to be okay, that the center was holding.
This December saw the release of a new Sorkin film: Being the Ricardos. The movie folds several real events into a single eventful week in the lives of actors Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). The married couple worked together on the I Love Lucy show and its successor, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, playing the parts of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from 1951 to 1960.
The movie struck a personal chord. My siblings and I grew up on I Love Lucy reruns, thanks to the nighttime programming of Nick at Nite. We loved Arnaz in part because, with his strong accent, he sounded like our parents. But while Arnaz was a fine entertainer, he was no Lucille Ball. We loved Lucy because she was a comedy genius: Lucy stuffing chocolates in her mouth and under her shirt on an assembly line; Lucy stomping on grapes at a vineyard; Lucy getting drunk on Vita-meata-vegamin; Lucy swooning over old Hollywood stars we had never heard of; Lucy marooned on the pre-Schengen border between Italy and France. From 1994 to 2000, Nick at Nite broadcasted a marathon “Block Party Summer”—each weeknight was devoted to a different sitcom from the fifties and sixties, including I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. It never seemed to end: the seemingly eternal 1950s of Lucy reruns, combined with the apparently endless summers of our childhood, generated a mirage of everlasting tranquility, a historical oasis oblivious to half-a-century’s worth of troubles. This experience fed into our natural optimism about the American future, a feeling shared by many immigrants when they first move to the United States.