This time he got it right. Though it was written and produced in the weeks following 9/11 and though it tried to adequately address an impossible moment, the WEST WING episode “Isaac and Ishmael” stands out as a misfire on Aaron Sorkin’s resume. Last night’s episode of THE NEWSROOM, “5/1″ is the opposite of that because the reality of the moment is allowed to wash over Sorkin’s fictional universe — something he wouldn’t and really couldn’t do back in 2001.
I’m going to spare you a blow by blow recap and cut to three key moments within the episode that signify the very best parts of “5/1″ — which is, in my mind, the finest episode of THE NEWSROOM to this point.
In the conference room
They have confirmation from one source and a respected journalist at the New York Times has two others. Mackenzie is lobbying Charlie hard to let her run the news that the United States has killed Osama Bin Laden, but Charlie sits still. That isn’t enough to run the story. Ratings points are in jeopardy, the competition is getting it wrong, and the title is in front of them — “the first network to break the second biggest story of this millennium”, but that isn’t enough to run the story.
Charlie (played by Sam Waterston) seemed like a bombast and a loon at the start of this series, but as the show has gotten better he has gotten better at occupying the “wise old Lion” role that Sorkin likes to write. And so as he sits there telling his team about his past sins, about the cost of jumping the gun in the midst of a moment when they don’t have the full picture in front of him — we are stirred. “We’re going to get this right and if we’re two minutes late, let that be the small penance for all the ones we got wrong” says the old newsman, reminding us that journalism isn’t a sport and it isn’t a race — it is the act of informing people.
The rush to get the truth out is thrilling, any writer or reporter, no matter the size of their audience, can tell you that and on that night it was like no other. I wrote about politics then, not entertainment and I was glued to my TV like everyone else and nearly spraining fingers on my keyboard as the information got out to us. In the early hours, around 4AM on the east coast after we knew that Bin Laden had fallen and after the celebrations had spilled out onto the streets, new questions arose. People were unbelievably wondering about proof and there were many who desperately wanted to see a picture of Bin Laden’s body for a wide range of reasons. I remember half formed information littering the field, as it always does in moments like that — we would release the picture, we wouldn’t, his body would be buried in an undisclosed location, it would be buried at sea — on and on it went all night following the news and that moment of relief that I think we all felt. Relief that we had gotten him and relief that the news coming out of the White House wasn’t something closer to the news that came out at the hands of Bin Laden nearly 10 years prior.
At 4AM I saw a friend run a story with “the picture”, that now infamously fake picture of Bin Laden’s body. I shook my head and said aloud, in a voice slightly slowed my exhaustion, “Shoulda waited”. Not long after, that picture was shown to be fake. Why am I telling you this? Because those reporters who got things wrong, the ones who couldn’t wait to know for sure likely walked away from that moment without comment, apology, or adjustment. Things were moving fast and the rush to get the story out, to beat the other guy was too strong. In reality though, the whole of journalism suffers when getting it “first” outweighs getting it “right”. As I said before, journalism is the act of informing people, and when you give them the wrong information you lose credibility, we all lose credibility, and then eventually all you become, all we become, is sound without purpose and that’s what Charlie is conveying and what this show is conveying when they constantly and justly lash out at those who ignore that truth.
On the plane
Don is in manic freak out mode, a journalist held away from his audience and a massive story. Soon, the internet explodes and people become frightened by the mis-information that has begun to populate the silence. As they ask questions, Don stands and begins to deliver the news to a plane full of people — it is all he can do with his skills, the knowledge that he has, and his present situation. Suddenly a flight attendant gets in his face and tells him that “You do not take control of the cabin!” Now to many this would seem ludicrous, Don (Thomas Sadoski) is just trying to calm people’s fears, and you can tell he thinks it’s ridiculous too, and he begins to loudly ask “How paranoid do you have to be?” before being confronted by the Pilot. Don is slowed and stammers as he looks at the Pilot’s uniform and remembers why they were “paranoid” and why this moment matters. Suddenly his voice lowers and he identifies himself and tells the crew that the US Armed Forces killed Osama Bin Laden — “We reported the news” he says to Elliot in a hushed tone a moment later.
5/1 and 5/2 cannot be discussed without remembering 9/11 and this moment puts that in perspective. This was many things but it was primarily a measure of justice for the dead and a small piece of freedom from worry for the living and for some that worry has been more substantial. Don realized that when he “delivered the news” in the most pure sense of the term to a flight crew that had no doubt been on guard every moment of their working life since 9/11. Later in the episode we see this again when Will tells his security guard Lonny, a former MP and he then tells two New York cops.
On the terrace
Speaking of those affected, Natalie Morales has had a small role on THE NEWSROOM as Neal’s girlfriend Kaylee, but for one moment she steals the show while standing out on the terrace away from the buzz of information and growing excitement. When Neal (Dev Patel) comes out to tell her that we got Bin Laden, she is plaintive. “I thought it would make me feel better when it happened, like an on/off switch.” she says as Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) takes a split second to realize that she knew someone in one of the towers — “Her father was a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald” Neal says.
From delivering the news to those who were affected by 9/11 to seeing how it affected them, Sorkin eases up off the clutch and resists the urge to milk this moment. Sure, the episode is heavy handed in a minor way, but it feels authentic and Kaylee’s reaction is the soft tie that holds the entire thing together. We are still mourning those who were lost and while that night last May erased an evil from the world it did nothing to erase the evil that he left on this world. The good guys won when Bin Laden died and there was cause for relief but also delicacy and remembrance. Last night’s NEWSROOM rose up to that challenge and you really can’t ask for anything more when a work of fiction is confronted by one of those impossible moments of loss, tragedy, or victory.