By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood July 8, 2012 at 8:00PM
In a canny bit of Sorkin script engineering, the "News Night" team tackles Tea Party politics for six straight months with nary a peep from the 44th floor. But as with Jane Fonda's silent lioness Leona Lansing, a period of quiet comes before the roar.
Will gives an opening editorial comment at the beginning of "News Night" apologizing for his past failure to responsibly report the news.He and the show are "quitting the circus" of ratings-oriented human interest stories and will now strive to be a "champion of facts."
This episode toggles between two points in time -- or rather, one point in time and one duration of time. Charlie meets with ACN heads Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and her son Reese the morning after the election of the 112th congress. As they sternly berate Charlie for the recent direction of "News Night," we flashback to various moments in the newsroom over the past six months, between May and November of 2010, which have been the causes of concern for the 44th floor.
The main dissatisfaction stems from Will's "epiphany" that the Tea Party has been co-opted by the radical Right, and that the show's focus up until the congress election should be confronting Tea Party politics. Mackenzie is on the board with this, and Charlie, the fairy godmother of "The Newsroom," planted the idea in Will's head. From May to November Will goes head-to-head with a number of interviewees who represent the various facets of Tea Party politics at work, from anti-gay marriage proponents, to a Republican congressman whose re-election was sabotaged after he co-sponsored a bill with a Democrat, to backers touting the "grass roots movement."
This is where Will gets into particular trouble with the Lansings. He points out on air that the dollar-here-dollar-there mythos surrounding the Tea Party is actually funded by titan Koch Industries to the tune of $40 million. Reese barks at Charlie, "Don't come down on the Kochs."
Leona threatens to fire Will if "News Night" doesn't turn the ship around. She also reveals that Will agreed to a non-compete clause in his contract -- if she were to fire him, he wouldn't be available to other networks for three years.
Run silent, run deep:
There were several admirable structural aspects to this episode -- the flashbacks, the reveal of the meeting's date -- but the most impressive is Leona Lansing's 50 minutes of silence, which creates tension for two reasons. First, Fonda is a legendary star. By the dictates of traditional Hollywood hierarchy, we expect to hear her when she's on screen. Second, Leona is the queen bee of ACN, and seems to be positioned to deliver Charlie's wrist-slapping. Instead, she watches and waits.
When she does speak, she delivers a monologue about Moses and Jesus playing golf -- which I could take or leave. But what comes next is more interesting. Leona states twice that she has "business in front of this congress," and that "News Night" can't clash with the Tea Party players. Charlie stresses the urgency of criticizing the congressmen, and makes a comparison between senator Joseph McCarthy and house representative Michelle Bachmann. Leona tosses this off as specious: Blacklist mongerer McCarthy was "obviously bad" whereas Tea Party supporter Bachmann isn't anyone to worry about.
Whether one agrees with Charlie's (Sorkin's) comparison, the issue of past apparent evil versus present nebulous malignancy is interesting, and a major theme of "The Newsroom." Sorkin is taking events from America's recent past and painting them in an intensely critical light. We should take these issues seriously, he's saying, we should treat this as a matter of life and death. It's too easy to form indifference to current or recent events, perhaps as a coping mechanism, or perhaps as a symptom of self-absorption.
Similarly, it's too easy to see the "obviously bad" events of the distant past as isolated and unrepeatable. Sorkin seems to be arguing that in fact the past and present are interrelated, and point to one another. The high ceilings and outsized media of the Lansings' meeting room reminded me of the brainwashing chamber in John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate," a film with a thinly veiled Joseph McCarthy figure. So in this episode's set design with see recognizable hints of the past intruding into the present.
Bits and pieces:
- Will brings a number of hot dates to the newsroom, which prompts more of Mackenzie's mania from last week's episode. Meanwhile, Maggie suffers from a panic attack, and Jim, who is swiftly becoming the show's most annoying character, must save the day and calm her down. (His brilliant advice: "Always keep a Xanax in your purse or pocket.")
- Maggie and Don are in constant breaking-up-and-getting-back-together mode.
- The "News Night" makeover is making Don's 10pm human interest news show look increasingly wan.
- Sloan is my favorite female character thus far. Her debt ceiling suggestion is spot-on, and I love her wincing smile in the final scene when Will is waxing poetic bullshit about going out for a drink with "just the guys." Will McAvoy, savior of cable news though he might be, isn't immune to the news anchor boys' club.
Other interpretations or ideas? Thoughts about the episode?