Orations Worth Ovations: A Fun House Look at Speechwriting with “Long Shot”
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
This weekend, I went to see Long Shot. Now, I’m a regular at the movie theater, but this isn’t a regular must-see flick for me. I gravitate more toward Midnight Express than Pineapple Express, Funny Girl than Funny People. Still, when I heard that Long Shot was about a speechwriter, I knew I had to see it.
I’m glad I did.
Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is a Secretary of State with White House ambitions and not much of a personal life. That is, until she runs into childhood friend and disgruntled journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). When a pollster tells Field she needs to be funnier, Field hires Flarsky to help punch up her speeches. She gets a lot more than that in the end.
Long Shot is a fun — and funny — house version of the American President. And I mean that in the best way. I laughed. I almost cried. It warmed my speechwriter’s heart. This movie gives audiences the best on-screen look at speechwriting since Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler had writers’ block on The West Wing.
Early on in Long Shot, as I mentioned, a pollster goes over Field’s numbers on attributes like charisma, elegance, and humor. When Field suggests that she wants to focus on policy, specifically environmental policy, she is waved off. By Lisa Kudrow, no less. (How would tree-hugging Phoebe Buffay feel about that?) Field is told, basically, that Americans only care about style, not substance.
The truth is, Americans care about both. So, when writing for leaders, whether they’re presidential candidates or Fortune 500 CEOs, speechwriters are constantly trying to appeal to both head and heart. The better the balance, the better the speech. If you want a good example of that, read Ann Richards’ 1988 address at the Democratic National Convention, in which she deftly deploys humor and withering criticism of the Reagan Administration.
Field takes the pollster’s advice and, against the advice of her staff, offers Flarsky a speechwriting position. Once on the job, Flarsky shows Field a few jokes he has been working on for an environmental speech in Stockholm. She reads them and notes that they’re maybe a little hostile (and, it turns out, pretty profane). Defeated, Flarsky looks up some information on speechwriting, which results in this exchange:
Flarsky: In order to write better for you, I should kind of get to know you better. If you have a minute?
Field: I actually have seven.
Flarsky: Seven minutes in heaven.
Oh, Flarsky. I’d say we’ve all been there. But I hope we’ve never been there.
Flarsky asks Field a series of questions over the next few days. Favorite children’s book? Velveteen Rabbit. Favorite song? “It Must Have Been Love.” Most embarrassing moment? “I don’t embarrass that easily.”
I’ve never gotten to ask these questions all at once, but still, I know that getting answers like these is important. While working with any leader, I build a mental (or virtual) storybank. Then, if a speech could use a personal anecdote about, say, the leader’s first job or college graduation, it’s right there at my fingertips. I’ve found that you can write a good speech without these details, but it’s only possible to write a great speech with them.
Once Flarsky and Field get into a rhythm, he starts writing the full Stockholm speech, which is a three-part commitment on the environment, covering “bees, seas, and trees.” She thinks it’s good. He thinks it’s good. But then, at the last minute, he is asked to cut the “seas” portion because India won’t sign on with it in.
Flarsky, a real Resister, is upset about the change. But Chief of Staff Maggie Millikin (June Diane Raphael) makes it clear that his job is to do what he’s told. She tells him that he’s fired and that she’ll make the change. He won’t have it. The two interrupt a dinner with heads of state, scrambling to get the laptop, which he then throws into the snow.
This is a question I get a lot — that is, have I ever been asked to write a speech I didn’t support? The answer is no. And also, it’s complicated. Honestly, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve experienced any moral conflict about a speech I’ve written. Even then, it hasn’t risen to a throw-my-computer-in-the-snow level of concern.
The more interesting part about this scene was whether Flarsky was right in wanting a say on policy, or Millikin was right in suggesting the writer had no say. I believe her words were, “Excuse me? You’re a speechwriter.” For me, the best speechwriting opportunities are those that sit at the intersection of policy, politics, and communications. So, I’ve got to side with Flarsky on this one. And so would, I’m sure, Ted Sorensen. And even Stephen Miller.
The best use of a speechwriter isn’t as a stenographer. It’s as a thought partner. Still, sometimes the leader calls the play and you’ve got to go with it. Thus, the “seas” were cut. Then, it looked like the “trees” would be cut, too (because of a political blackmail scheme that I won’t give away here).
In the final speech of the film, when Field is announcing her run for president, she talks about how this is something she’s wanted to do her whole life. Field invokes memories from her teenage years, something Flarsky, who knew her as a teenager, has inspired her to do.
I wish I had the exact quote from the speech. As I remember it, Field suggests that she’s wanted to be president her whole life. Maybe that doesn’t sound too strange. After all, presidential candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke recently stated, “I’m born to be in it.” And presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett once said of President Barack Obama, “He’s always wanted to be President.”
As a speechwriter, you have to consider how the words you write will be perceived coming out of the mouth of the leader for whom you’re writing them. I think that’s why we haven’t heard a lot of women sharing their childhood ambitions of wanting to grow up to be president. It’s common wisdom that women can only get that which they haven’t been gunning for. That’s just now starting to change, with leaders like Stacey Abrams being honest and open about what’s on their list for the future.
If I share any more, I’ll be at risk of including spoilers. But if you’re asking yourself, “Wasn’t Long Shot a romantic comedy?,” the answer is, yes. It was. Field and Flarsky fall in love. It’s adorable. And alarming. Go see it for yourself.
But know this: becoming a speechwriter may not improve your dating life.