What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.
The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.
And Sorkin and star Jessica Chastain don’t disappoint. While it lacks the transcendence of The Social Network or the instantly-iconic moments of A Few Good Men, Game is an entertaining ride with high stakes (pun!) and a powerhouse of a protagonist. While Moneyball might be the first thing that leaps to mind, it’s surprising that the film to which Game is most indebted might actually be Goodfellas. The classic mafia flick was explicitly designed by Martin Scorsese “to begin like a gunshot…and get faster from there.” Game begins with that aforementioned question — what’s the worst thing that could happen in sports? — and zips through a number of possibilities before diving headfirst into Molly’s story. It’s a vibrant opening, and even if Molly weren’t introduced yet we’d fully expect her version of the worst thing to top anything we’ve just seen.
Molly is introduced, of course, through a voiceover recounting her stint as an Olympic-hopeful skier. Sorkin and Chastain actually acknowledged Goodfellas as a reference point as far as the voiceover goes (in this interview with Vulture), and the narration is indeed vital to both films. Molly runs through the details of her skiing accident in the same way that Henry Hill runs through the details of the Lufthansa heist, or the way Karen Hill runs through the who’s-who at the wedding. We’re seeing and hearing about the same events, but our attention is drawn to the particulars, to the minutiae, by the voiceover. The opening monologue perfectly prefaces Molly’s Texas Hold ‘Em narration, which succinctly dispatches endless permutations of potentially-victorious card combinations before the winning hand finally takes the pot.
Eventually, though — and to use the inevitable poker analogy that must persist through any conversation even remotely related to poker — Molly’s Game reveals that the details of the story are only a bluff. Nothing Molly relates in voiceover is ever quite as telling as the way it’s related. “There’s some that’s expository,” Sorkin notes in that Vulture interview, “but a lot of her character and personality is in that voiceover. We’re seeing another Molly in those moments, a Molly who knows how this story ends.” Sorkin’s writing slices with lethal rapidity, as it always does, but he’s sharpened both sides of the sword this time. Without the narration, Molly’s skiing accident might have just been that: accidental. But you can hear the scorned derision in Molly’s voice, the conviction that the world has given her a short shrift on purpose.
Sorkin’s dialogue is some of the best he’s ever written in this regard, and Chastain absolutely nails the role of Molly Bloom. Anyone holding up Captain Marvel as the best example of a strong protagonist who also happens to be a female clearly hasn’t met Molly. This is a character who can be compassionate in one moment and utterly vicious in the next, seemingly compliant and then suddenly domineering, quiet and reflective in the moments before she strikes. Sorkin and Chastain are a pitch-perfect pairing, but one imagines the real Molly Bloom provides the third structural support for this cinematic version of herself. I’d venture that Sorkin’s depiction of Molly is closer to the actual person than Sorkin’s depictions of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom received highly entertaining but less-than-realistic portrayals in their respective biopics.
Molly’s Game isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than most Hollywood true stories these days. Perhaps that’s an indication of growth in Sorkin’s craft, or a side effect of taking dual directing/writing duties for the first time. The device most people associate with Sorkin, the “walk-and-talk” made famous on The West Wing, only occurs in one fleeting moment in Molly’s Game. He’s expanded and exaggerated pieces of Molly’s story, particularly with regards to Idris Elba’s character, but that’s inevitable. A tale never loses in the telling. But the telling is damn entertaining in this case, and I hope Sorkin continues to direct his own scripts in the future.