“America thinks Bin Laden’s alive. If I can make him dead one minute sooner, my entire life in journalism will have been worth it.”
It didn’t take long to work out what big news story from a year-and-a-bit ago The Newsroom would be covering this week. If you didn’t get it from the portentously earnest date-only episode title, the opening scene let the cat out of the bag fairly early on. After a sub-Watergate mysterious phone call to Charlie (“I’m not calling you Deep Throat, that name is sacred.”), we were ushered into a party at Will’s to celebrate “one year and one week” since the first broadcast of “News Night 2.0”.
It looked like a fun bash, though some of the US party games left this Brit a little baffled. What was that thing with everyone flapping their arms up and down? I was on more familiar territory when Will was presented with a bag of highly strong ‘hash brownies’, only to disclose that he’d already eaten two. After taking Vicodin. This set in motion a slightly bizarre but rather funny plotline of Will being pretty much baked throughout, leading to a beneficial state of Zen-like calm only hampered by his inability to tie a tie or distinguish between the names ‘Osama’ and ‘Obama’.
For indeed, as Charlie waited anxiously for the call from the White House promised by his mysterious informant, the clues began to stack up that this was, definitely, the night the President announced Osama Bin Laden had been shot dead by US Special Forces. It was interesting to see how this announcement played out, since it took place in the middle of the night for us in the UK, and we awoke to find it leading story on the early morning news.
But as I saw from this episode, it was played very cagily by the White House in the US, as they announced that the President would be making a very important broadcast (important enough to interrupt Desperate Housewives), but wouldn’t tell anyone what it was about ahead of time. This led to the basic plot of this episode, which took place over a mere three and a half hours of time, as the ACN crew scrambled to try and work out what was so important.
If you had worked out what the story was going to be already (and did The Rock really scoop everyone with an enigmatic Tweet hours before the announcement?), then there wasn’t much suspense in watching them trying to figure it out. But I suspect that wasn’t really the point; what Sorkin was doing here was showing what happens in a news room under such dramatic and unusual circumstances. Well, in the ultra-perfect ACN news room anyway – he couldn’t resist a dig at Fox News by showing the contemporaneous clip of Geraldo Rivera confirming that the President was about to announce the death of Colonel Gaddafi.
It was clear that, for an American news outlet, this might be the biggest story they could ever broadcast, so they had to be sure. This led to a scramble of research into any likely contingency – and I do mean any. Asked to think “outside the box”, Neal (predictably) suggested that the President was about to announce first contact with extra terrestrials (“get back in the box, Neal.”). The other, more plausible story was the death, as announced by Fox, of Muhammar Gaddafi (“Why can we never reach a consensus on how to spell his name?” Will asked, rhetorically).
But Will had already ruled this out with a call to the NSA (while buying a falafel to sate his munchies), so clearly Bin Laden it was. With other news outlets beginning to gain confirmation, Mack was impatient to run with the story, but Charlie had more caution. He remembered broadcasting missile locations during the 1991 Iraq war, and thereby giving the enemy exact targets to aim for. The point was clear – the White House could be embargoing the story for a reason, perhaps involving danger to troops in the field, and it shouldn’t be broadcast until the go-ahead was given.
Which it actually had, but Will had been too stoned to remember to check his email and discover the message confirming this from none other than Joe Biden (apparently they used to play softball together). So it was on with the story that Will went, intoning the news solemnly with a short but distinguished speech that (with contrived convenience) happened to end at the exact second Obama stepped up to the lectern to begin his address. This being a story of great import, Sorkin made the decision to let Obama’s speech play out over the end credits, which might have worked better if there’d been a climax to end on rather than just fading the President into the distance for the HBO logo.
It was a somewhat uneven episode, its convincing attempt to show a news room hard at work in a crisis rather undermined by the reverence for the story’s subject matter. This is the first time the show has done an episode dealing in depth with a single news event, and while this was a good candidate to do that with, the air of mounting jubilation as the certainty grew about the President’s announcement left me faintly uneasy – as uneasy, in fact, as I was at the time, watching frat boys partying in New York streets to celebrate their leader’s execution of a major criminal without due process.
Now, I can see that this might come across as ultra-liberal whinging from a Brit who was thousands of miles away from the emotively charged crime of the 9/11 attacks. I can also agree that we in Britain acted in a pretty similar fashion on April 30, 1945, after hearing of the death of Adolf Hitler. But Hitler had been raining death on the UK, Europe, Russia and Africa for the last five years, and his death was at his own hands. I still think it would have been far preferable to bring him to trial at Nuremberg, alongside his lackeys.
And I felt/feel the same about Bin Laden, who (unlike Hitler) had not been consistently killing thousands more since his initial attack, but hiding away. Yes, finding him was (as it should have been) a matter of paramount importance. But not state-sanctioned execution without trial. To be fair, the details of what went on that night in Pakistan are still hazy, and it may well have been that the Special Forces troops had no other option than to kill him. But at the time, even suggesting the alternative was tantamount to admitting support for Al Qaeda, as though it was a binary choice – you either wanted Bin Laden killed without trial, or you supported him.
I know that this was felt very differently in American culture than it was here, with a proud country still smarting from the realisation that it was neither invulnerable nor impregnable, and catapulted into fear and paranoia as a result. I can see how Bin Laden’s death came as a huge catharsis. But getting drunk on the streets? Smiling as though you’ve been given the best news of your life? It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable now.
Even at the time, there were voices saying this, even in the US, and I’d hoped Sorkin might be even-handed enough to address that. For a moment, it seemed that he had, with Neal’s girlfriend Kaylee (The Middleman’s Natalie Morales) leaving the room quietly. But no, it turned out that she only felt it a huge anticlimax – her father had died in the Twin Towers, and the perpetrator’s death hadn’t been the all-purpose cure for her grief that she’d expected. Still, it was a note of scepticism, and we should be grateful for that.
All that aside, the big news story angle meant that there was little room for the ongoing ‘romcom’ aspects of the show. But they weren’t entirely absent. The Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa ‘love quadrangle’ was a major player for screen time, with Jim having to admit that he’d been surprised by Lisa’s declaration of love for him into saying that he reciprocated the feeling. Which he didn’t, leading a horrified Maggie to insist that he should break up with Lisa immediately.
As it turned out, Lisa had worked half of this out (from seeing Maggie’s horrified expression in the background of her and Jim’s Facetime conversation), and graciously but improbably offered Jim an out. She could tell (like every character on the show and its entire audience, but not the characters concerned) that Jim and Maggie were made for each other, and offered to stand aside in their best interests.
This seemed slightly less than believable. Yes, I know we’re often prone to saying “I love you” a bit too early for one partner in a nascent relationship, but it’s usually because the partner saying it really has that depth of feeling. I’m doubtful whether that would be so instantly negated, or whether the partner concerned would bow out of the relationship quite so sanguinely as Lisa did. It smacked a little of a disturbingly male-compliant fantasy woman. Still, I thought, at least the plot’s finally working itself out. One down, one to go – we only need Maggie to realise what an asshole Don is and get together with Jim instead. But then – d’oh! – Jim feels guilty enough to offer Lisa another try, with a new ‘first date’. Damn, I thought this thing was working itself out!
And Don certainly was being an asshole this week, in a surprisingly effective B plot which saw him, Elliot and Sloan stranded on the tarmac at La Guardia, unable to exit their plane, while the biggest news story of their lifetimes unfolded without them. Early indications of Don’s continuing assholery came as he turned on his phone while the plane was still in the air (“I can see the runway. Do you need navigation to drive from your garage to the street?”).
This unfortunately led to him, Elliot and Sloan finding their emails as to the Bin Laden story, and trying frantically to swap seats so they could confer about it confidentially. Opposing them was a harried cabin stewardess who initially seemed like a bit of a jobsworth for not letting Don undo his seatbelt on a stationary plane. But I’ve worked in the service industry, and I’ve had to deal with customers as obstinate and annoying as Don was – my sympathies were with the stewardess the whole time.
There was also much frothy toing and froing with their seatmates, stuck unwillingly between them. Sloan had to contend with the attentions of a cute (but far too young) guy called Lester, played by Ashton Moio – usually a stunt player, but on this basis, I’d like to see more of him.
It was a fairly disposable plot that could have been excised without any detriment to the episode, but it worked both as a counterpart to the frenzy of the news room and as a piece of drama in its own right. Don was finally convinced (again) to have some sort of empathy with his fellow human beings by the sight of the Captain’s wings and name badge – not being a frequent flyer, I had to Google it, but yes, it was United Airlines. Recalling the bravery of the 9/11 aircrews finally gave Don some sort of perspective, and he quietly explained to the crew what was happening rather than peremptorily broadcasting it himself to the concerned passengers.
As I say, a slightly unbalanced episode, if undeniably exciting, though this probably comes as much from my own misgivings as any fault of the writer’s. I had expected a little more perspective from Aaron Sorkin, but I recognise that, for many Americans, there is no bad side to this story. My perception is that of an outsider, and one from a different culture at that.
Still, at least during the drama, we had the seeds of another plotline which sounds really interesting, and definitely a subject for timely debate. Charlie’s mysterious NSA informant, it transpired, had only forewarned him of the White House announcement to prove credibility for his real revelations – that ACN’s parent company AWM has been merrily hacking people’s private phone messages with the gleeful abandon previously displayed by News International.
With the various inquiries into this issue still ongoing in real life, together with the show’s own gossip magazine’s vicious campaign against Will, I can see this being an interesting twist that could come back to bite the network’s would-be saboteurs of Will and Charlie’s campaign for integrity. Not to mention being a very interesting subject for debate about the press’ right or need to intrude on privacy in the public interest…