Molly’s Game – Aaron Sorkin *****
Aaron Sorkin doesn’t so much write dialogue, as compose it. He hears music in the rhythms and patterns of our speech and with it fashions scenes, dialogue and the occasional ‘solo’ monologue with all the care of a composer with a clear sense of not just narrative intent but truthful emotional expression. He is the ultimate actor’s writer, for while the words of his screenplay are the ‘notes’, he leaves aesthetic space for the art and skill of the actor to interpret and add nuance and tone to the plain words on the page. Taken together this explains why his work plays in every sense of the word. Every scene has a unity of rhythm, pace and tone that serves its dramatic purpose in the overall narrative. While some brief interchanges echo the spontaneity of a jazz riff on an underlying theme, others quietly ebb and flow to build towards the dramatic denouement in the final movement, last Act of the narrative. Many, especially Hollywood films start fast and loud and just get faster and louder: often favouring sheer pace at the expense of a more satisfying sense of cadence. As with a powerful concerto or symphony, Sorkin introduces his players, lays out his themes, and then harmonises them gradually building up to the crescendo of the final dramatic outcome. This creative process is meticulous and cumulative; but pays off handsomely as the depth of our emotional engagement at the end has been assiduously built up through character, dialogue and circumstance.
More than any other writer I know of today, especially in movies, Sorkin creates rounded characters we believe in even when they make difficult moral judgements our often cynical culture chooses to doubt. When I heard the story of Molly’s Game I was puzzled at what the serious- minded Sorkin might find interesting in the story of an Olympic skier running exclusive, barely legal poker games for invited celebrities from movies, sport, business and latterly organised crime. His film builds satisfyingly to a critical dramatic moment which dispelled these doubts. Molly is in, but not of, the dubious culture she works within. Drawn reluctantly into illegality and then invited to sacrifice others to save herself; despite the disreputable context and immoral characters that inhabit it; her dilemma echoes a famous similarly stark individual moral choice in one of the great Plays of last century written by one of its greatest playwrights – Arthur Miller. Sorkin cleverly embeds this reference in his narrative and enhances its impact with a twist of ironic humour. This reference highlights the parallels between Miller and Sorkin: both concerned with how hard it is in the chance contingencies of life and relationships, to be true to one’s self and to the moral values upon which such a sense of honour and self-respect is based. In one of the best scenes in Molly’s Game, beautifully played by Chastain and Elba, the moral epicentre of Molly and therefore the film emerges. Her stance both exasperates and impresses her reluctant Lawyer Charlie Jaffrey.
Molly’s Game is so satisfying because for the first time, as Director, Sorkin was able to contribute directly to the performances; the ‘playing’, of his work. Despite the palpable individual talent of his leads in Molly’s Game; one feels that the superb performances of Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, and indeed the frequently maligned and often under-estimated Kevin Costner, have benefitted greatly by having the direct influence of the composer as conductor. His sure hand here as first time Director reflects his extensive experience of the film-making process garnered from years of contributing to the presentation of his prodigious output as a writer from The West Wing to The Newsroom; A Few Good Men to Social Network. All setting standards of excellence for others to attempt to emulate.
Sorkin is an artistic paradox: having a deep instinctive feeling for music but a love of and deep affinity for words, especially in spoken dialogue. As I have said the almost unique power of his writing is to integrate these seamlessly and with great style and panache. His aesthetic distinctiveness doesn’t stop there, as his confident Direction here shows with excellent use, as we saw in The Social Network, of flashback and time-fractured narrative, he has a great feel for creating characters and telling their story through film. However, unlike many directors especially those with a purist’s obsession with image, Sorkin never allows anything to detract from his absolute priorities: character, action and story. It is for this absolutely valid artistic reason and not arbitrary flashiness, that he superbly utilises one of the most neglected technical devices of 20th Century Cinema – the subjective narrator. One great advantage of the novel as a medium over film, is that the novel form gives us constant and comprehensive insights into the ‘inner’ life, thoughts and emotions of a character. Here the interaction between Molly as unseen narrator and Molly as character on screen is superbly handled so that each enhances the other.
To build characters we can recognize and understand, believe in, is the great challenge of the standard 2-3 hour one-off movie. This is probably one of the key reasons why many A-list Directors and actors are migrating in part at least to Television where the time and space to develop plot and character can stretch to anything from 6-24 hours playing time. Intricate, complex plots like say Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which made a great 6 hour television series but a flimsy, merely atmospheric 2 hour film – perfectly illustrate this problem. It is probably the reason for the oft-repeated truism that short stories make far more impressive films than long, complex novels.
Here, Sorkin realises that to engage with Molly; understand her; accept her failures but in the end believe in her choices; we have to know her; and the insights her first person narrative provides are effective in impact and economical in time. Of course this effectiveness depends upon the quality of the writing for the narrator being as good as the main visual playing of the film and crucially be fully integrated with it and not an unconvincing parallel strand in the movie. When done well the narrator technique is superbly effective and satisfying as great films like Citizen Kane, The Third Man and a whole genre of 40s B-movie films noir have demonstrated.
Molly’s Game is based on the real Molly Bloom’s book of the same name. There appears to be general agreement that her book pretty accurately reported the events of her life as described and that Sorkin’s film is truthful to the book.
In a brief Prologue we are introduced to Molly: feisty, intelligent and fiercely independent she is outshone in a high-achievement family by her two brothers. Driven by her Psychology Professor father/coach (Costner) her adolescent Mogul skiing achievements are halted by a genetic spinal anomaly. After major surgery, against all expectation and advice, she recovers and a few years later is on the verge of qualifying for the US Olympic team. A freak accident on her final run causes a devastating accident that finally ends her skiing aspirations.
An abrasive relationship with her father is worsened when she decides to put off Law School and embark on a voyage of self-discovery that finds her in LA, forced for financial reasons to help run a series of high stakes exclusive Poker games for wealthy celebrities from Hollywood, business, sport and the city run by boss-from-hell Dean (Jeremy Strong). Initially ignorant of the subtleties of poker she educates herself in its language and fascination to the gambling mentality. Innate intelligence, confident determination and natural organisational ability leads to her running every aspect of the games and becoming known and respected by the high-rolling clients. Thus when Dean, threatened by her competence, fires her, she simply steals the games from him offering better services and facilities than he had ever provided: especially privacy, confidentiality and absolute discretion. She provides a completely straight game with no dubious or criminal ‘services’ on the side. Her income is strictly confined to a fee for participation in the game, rigorously excluding any share or rake-off from the stakes within the game. Observance of this critical financial principle keeps her role just on the on the right side of the law.
As the personal and financial interactions between the various players become entangled and predictably their addiction to gambling produces unsustainable losses and vain double-or-quits bets to recover them, Molly’s efforts to keep the game straight and clean comes under increasing threat. With wealthy Russian players from the criminal underworld attracted to the games, Molly’s role in them comes to the attention of the FBI. Now herself addicted to drugs and alcohol to keep up the pace and handle the stress, Molly is eventually forced into taking a share of the playing stakes in order to cover her exposure as essentially the ‘Bank’ to games with single ‘pots’ in seven figures. Her role now technically illegal, when she further discovers that a key player, Player X (Michael Cera), has been secretly funding another player in the game, she demands this highly dubious practice, hopelessly exposed to the charge or even practice of cheating, be stopped. In response X steals the game from her in much the same way as she did from Dean.
Recruiting her own players Molly builds her own highly successful games. When the Italian Mafia offer ‘protection’ for a cut, Molly says no and is then severely beaten for her pains.
For her, the ‘Game’ is now literally up. Molly quits, puts herself into re-hab and for over two years has been ‘clean’ and run no further games by the time the film opens. The flash-back narrative structure establishes this context through the early scenes of the film where the FBI raids her apartment and begins proceedings against her, based upon activities over 2 years old. To defend herself she engages Lawyer Charlie Jaffrey (Elba) who after initial doubts, decides to take her case, when he becomes convinced of her honesty and is impressed by her determination to protect the privacy of her former clients and prevent their exploitation by the media which would do serious damage to their lives, families etc.
Jaffrey is gradually impressed by her determination to maintain personal control of the methods she will permit him to use in defending her by adamantly refusing to protect herself at the expense of others. The usual blithe acceptance of the plea-bargain deal endemic to the US legal system is here subjected to moral appraisal and challenge. Again Sorkin offers no neat, moral or cynically pragmatic resolution of these issues. We accept the authenticity of Molly’s principles because of the insights the film has given us of the values she embraces and adheres to. These lie at the heart of her own conception of herself, who she is and is determined not to lose sight of. The dilemmas and difficulties of choice threading their way through the narrative, are always credible, if at times surprising. Molly’s ‘journey’ is absorbing, engaging and at times satisfyingly tense with a genuinely unexpected late-on surprise.
There is nothing grand or grandiose in the moral dilemmas examined in Molly’s Game: but they are convincingly real and faced by a remarkable young woman who is in, but not of, a world of greed and selfish egotism dominated by men: a woman for whom her name and integrity are non-negotiable; and with courage decisively rejects the oldest corrupting temptation of them all: to allow ends to justify means. Through her, Sorkin makes us believe in the possibility of integrity and moral behaviour not by appeal to arguments or principles but by showing us a credible character simply doing the ‘right thing’ despite all the usual blandishments and incentives to persuade her that she has no choice but to reduce everything to self-interest and act accordingly.
As portrayed with apparent historic accuracy; Molly Bloom struggles to know what to do with her life; but has no doubts about who she is and will never betray: and she admits unqualified responsibility for both. She accepts that she always has a choice - makes it and stands by it, whatever the cost.
I expect Sorkin is a good bet for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar her already won for Social Network. But this subtly conceived, superbly structured and brilliantly written and played film displays a multi-layered richness of aesthetic achievement that, properly understood and recognized, would favour it against many of the more obvious, flashy, films this year in both Direction and performance. It is one of the best films of the year.