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.
So says a fan-made poster in one of the archival shots from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. It’s a yellow poster with green marker-drawn capital letters on it, held overhead by an unseen Oakland A’s fan. Though the film seamlessly incorporates newly-shot game footage into the ancient history of 2002, the majority of the footage in this particular montage is real. Fans hold posters, they exchange high-fives; players whack homers, they round bases, they exchange high-fives. The A’s were on an unprecedented winning streak, crushing every team they met and hurtling towards an unheard-of twenty wins in a row. The sequence in Moneyball is dubbed simply “The Streak”:
Part of me viewed Black Mass as a critic. I took into consideration the actors, the script, the staging, pacing, etc. What about character arcs? What about historical accuracy? You know: the usual. I considered some of the things that usually pop up on the imaginary checklist (like how many trailer-worthy zingers will we endure?) and a few that were more specific to this film (like will Johnny Depp’s makeup look as bad as it did in the set photos?); I considered that I’d have to play the game where you try to compress and bury all of those checklistable points so that you can actually watch the movie. I considered Out of the Furnace, the last film by Black Mass director Scott Cooper, and the frustrating way in which that film tried and nearly succeeded in being an epic like The Deer Hunter. Somehow, one of Furnace‘s major flaws seemed to be that it was only almost that kind of movie, something that attempted an ambitious feat but failed to stick the landing.
But despite a sneaking suspicion regarding that last point Black Mass is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than Out of the Furnace or even Crazy Heart, Cooper’s first two films which both touted incredible performances but misplaced directorial style, and that’s probably because the other part of me viewed it as a Bostonian. The Globe‘s Ty Burr says it best in his review: “For worse and for worser, James “Whitey” Bulger is a son of Boston, and moviegoers here will react differently to Scott Cooper’s film than they will in Seattle, Dallas, or Dubuque.” That was inescapably true for last night’s Boston Common screening, wherein the feeling was that everyone in the theater was already familiar with what was unfolding up on the screen.
Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.
But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.
The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.