‘Newsroom’: Aaron Sorkin Says ‘America Isn’t the Greatest Country’ Speech Is Not a Political Statement

Aaron Sorkin’s writing has often sat at the intersections of actual current events and a hypothetical world where things could have gone differently. This particular combination of real-life events with alternative paths has left his work open to grand political interpretation.

One could certainly forgive fans for reading intense political statements into Sorkin’s work. After all, his writing credits are solidly in the political territory and have been for decades with both The West Wing and The Newsroom standing out as shining examples. 

Aaron Sorkin arrives at the screening of Universal Pictures' "Steve Jobs" on October 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Aaron Sorkin | Amanda Edwards/WireImage

One of the most famous examples of Sorkin’s biting political writing is the speech that actor Jeff Daniels gives during his performance as Will McAvoy on the acclaimed tv show The Newsroom. This speech — which has become known as the “America isn’t the greatest country” speech — has often been held up as an example of bitter and powerful political truth, but Sorkin says that wasn’t his intention at all. 

Aaron Sorkin has a history of writing politically-charged scripts

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Sorkin is known for his writing across the entertainment world, and he’s one of the big hitters when it comes to delivering a dramatic project that’s sure to wow viewers.

His earliest credited screenplay is A Few Good Men, the 1992 film that ended up being a star-studded critical success filled with the likes of Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon. That film, which definitely explores the moral gray areas of politically-charged questions of patriotism and obedience, would serve as a solid glance at Sorkin’s future work over the years. 

In 1995, The American President once again served up political drama to thrilled audiences, and Sorkin was ready to tackle a larger, more ambitious project that would span 155 episodes. 

The West Wing was a political drama that went down in history for its realism and grit. Sorkin was notoriously strict about actors sticking to the script, a sign that he put very careful attention to detail in getting the dialogue just right. 

The series wrapped up in 2006, and in 2012, fans were excited to see Sorkin once again at the helm for The Newsroom, a political drama that centered around media and how journalistic narratives shape the way people view current events. 

‘The Newsroom’ tackled recent events with a critical lens

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Sorkin had high hopes for The Newsroom, and he wanted it to serve an important role in bringing a critical lens on the media’s place in reporting current events. The show premiered to a lot of fanfare. Sorkin’s name alone generated plenty of buzz, and he was definitely still riding high from The West Wing‘s general success. 

The plot of the show was an ambitious one. The series took a fictional newsroom — headed up by Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy — that had recently undergone a change in staff and management. This new team was dedicated to reporting the news fairly and with journalistic integrity, and the series used real-life events from the recent past as its topics.

Ultimately, the very things that made the show so noteworthy also made it difficult to handle well. The series did not pan out as expected, and it was cut short after an abbreviated third season. In the aftermath, Sorkin suggested he might be done with television series entirely — and so far he’s made good on that promise. 

Standing as a representation of what went wrong with The Newsroom is the speech Daniels gives that has been widely shared as the “America is not the greatest country” speech. In the premiere episode, Daniels’ character Will McAvoy is asked what makes America “the greatest country in the world.”

McAvoy sits on a panel where the other participants give predictable answers from different viewpoints across the political spectrum — “diversity and opportunity” and “freedom and freedom, so let’s keep it that way.” 

McAvoy instead stuns the room with a biting critique of America exceptionalism. He then turns to each of his opponents and attacks them both in a profanity-laden speech that questions both liberals’ ability to win elections and America’s quality in everything from literacy, infant mortality, and labor force. 

While many have held this speech up as an example of powerful political truth-telling, Sorkin revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that the widespread interpretation of the speech was part of what went wrong with the series as a whole. “What I was writing was a scene about a guy having a nervous breakdown,” Sorkin explained. “I wasn’t lecturing America on what was wrong with it.”