Aaron Sorkin is a man who needs no introduction to film and television enthusiasts, having worked on some of the most popular films and television series of the past 30 years. Balancing time as a screenwriter and showrunner for much of the 21st century, Sorkin has found great inspiration in the stories of real people. Through the first half of his career to date, his scripts and stories often resembled reality but were fictional in narrative. Since Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007, however, Sorkin’s film work has been entirely fact-based with Sorkin bending reality into a Sorkinian depiction of the world, heavy on dense dialogue that somehow never feels dense, forced, or inauthentic in spite of its verbose nature. Slick and easy digestible, Sorkin’s films are almost as defined by the man who wrote the script as they are by whomever is tasked with directing the film, a rare feat for a writer. However, Sorkin has nonetheless opted to try his hand at directing with Molly’s Game. Based on a true story as with much of his recent output, the film tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). Dividing its attention between the poker games she ran in Los Angeles and New York, depictions of her youth with father Larry (Kevin Costner), and the present in which she is arrested by federal agents for her ties to the Russian Mafia with lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) defending her, Molly’s Game is unmistakable as a directorial debut – even for someone with Sorkin’s knowledge of the creative side of film – but its terrific script, great acting, and compelling themes allow it overcome any structural issues that arise from the heavy reliance on voiceover and the balancing of three time periods.
Though his first time writing about a female protagonist, Sorkin finds himself right at home with the whip smart, occasionally witty, and determined Molly Bloom who, as with many Sorkin protagonists, is not afraid to burn a few bridges to get where she wants in life. However, as opposed to a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs, Molly Bloom remains a protagonist that audiences cheer for and root for throughout. Not only does he humanize her and show her to be a good person – such as refusing to consolidate what past patrons of her games owe her due to the fear of how that money will be collected – but Sorkin works within an area he is incredibly familiar with: masculinity. This may seem odd given that the film’s protagonist is a woman, but Molly is a subject who lends herself to being positioned as a woman fighting for every inch she receives in a man’s world. Dressing in revealing dresses on a nightly basis, hiring Playboy Playmates to work at her games, and yet refusing to sleep with any of the poker players in order to keep a professional relationship between them, Molly is a woman greatly influenced by her negative relationship with her father, her father’s knowledge of psychology, and her own knowledge of psychology. This is a woman who, at a young age, knew of her father’s infidelity. She felt his cold shoulder as he outwardly cared more for her brothers and felt his push to make her a better skier even when it put her health at risk. By the time he pushed her to become a lawyer, Molly opting to become an assistant to real estate agent Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), running Dean’s poker games, and later running her own games is not a mere act of rebellion. It is the embodiment of the world she was raised in, one she wishes to rectify, and one woman’s fight against the patriarchal society around her.
As her father taught her that men are not to be trusted, are more likely to cheat than not, and are often degenerates who see women as mere pieces of meat, Molly plays into this angle with her poker games. In a revealing conversation with drunk gambler Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd) after he admits he loves her, Molly rather upfrontly explains the ruse behind her game. The men who play at her table are egotistical and narcissistic. They do not wish to play poker, but rather gamble big and win big. The Playmates flirting with them are there to stroke their egos and, as Molly puts it, “convince them they can pick up dime pieces”. In each player, she sees her father: a man consumed with himself who believes that women should be tripping over themselves to be with him. Thus, she plays into this to convince them to spend more, continue to come to her games, and believe they are in control. The men who play at the games all wind up falling in love with her at one point or another, believing her to be the perfect woman, but even Molly sees this as being due to her role as an “anti-wife”. She is there to be looked at, to convince them to gamble, and funnel drinks to them all night, all while they blow millions and ignore their wives in favor of sending her sexually suggestive messages. Channeling a fight young Molly had with her father in which she claimed that Freud was a misogynist – as are most men in her mind – due to his belief that women are only useful to men in terms of their ability to give birth, Sorkin actively plays into what film theorist Laura Mulvey once described as one of the main roles for a woman in a film: child-rearer. Molly plays up her sexuality, the camera objectifies her, and the audience cannot help but see her cleavage at times. To anyone casually watching the film, it is hard to imagine how this woman could be confused with a strong woman who is fighting the patriarchy. However, this is where Molly’s Game really excels.
Portraying these gamblers as men who are greedy and degenerate gamblers – or, in the case of Player X (Michael Cera), men who derive pleasure from watching others suffer – Molly is surrounded by some of the worst men throughout much of her adult life. Not only did her father deliver a poor example for her in his relationship with her mother, but he also controlled her every move until the end of her career in skiing. Thus, by surrounding herself with men who resemble her father’s selfishness and ego, Bloom comes to represent the second role for a woman in a film as defined by Mulvey: castrator. Lulling the men and many viewers into thinking she is just a woman who uses her sexuality to bring in customers, Sorkin turns around and writes Molly as a woman who used her sexuality to control the men in the room. Never sleeping with them, learning their secrets, keeping them at a distance, and always trying to out-smart, out-think, and out-plan them at every turn, Molly is a woman who seeks to take control of the men she encounters. For her, this is an act of rectifying the lack of control she experienced in her youth at the hands of a man, but also as a means of rising into a world dominated by men.
To become their equal, however, she must control them as they seek to do the same to her. Thus, she does not do it to blackmail them – especially considering she refuses to ever name any of the players, even to the feds – but rather to get ahead on her own merits. As men such as her father control her life, employers such as Dean refuse to pay her and blame her for their own shortcomings, men such as Player X stab her in the back for not flirting with him like he thought she did with the other players, and as magazines want her to pose nude, this control and power is her form of rebellion. Having their ear, gaining the contacts, and earning influence in the cities she inhabits, Molly is a woman who spreads this control to other women – especially ones who lost control at the hands of men, such as Playboy Playmates or cocktail waitresses – and allows them and herself to own their sexuality, gain influence, and be on an even playing field with men for once in their lives. No longer working at the behest of men who want nothing but their bodies, but now being in full authority of who they are, how they dress, and what they do, Molly’s Game becomes a story of a woman who uses her looks, smarts, and education as a way to break into a world dominated by men, slowly increasing her power and status in the process.
However, Sorkin shows this “castrator” role and her desire for control over men to not be due to her being a “man hater”, but rather as a direct by-product of the examples of men she sees in her life. At every turn, men have let her down in life. Either players turn on her or her own driver/bodyguard winds up giving her address to the Russian mafia when they want to scare her into hiring them, while her father clearly led her astray in his dealings with her mother. This is a woman who has been continuously hurt and let down by the men in her life, leaving her entirely unwilling to continue to put herself in such a position. This fear of being hurt starts off as a defensive strategy – something her father had urged her to avoid in skiing – only for her to later turn it into an offensive one as she gains influence and power through the poker game. For a woman who has seen nothing but negative representations of the male sex – in terms of their objectifying of women or just general greed and callousness – it is not hard to imagine Molly becoming a woman who seeks to eliminate the influence of men in her life.
The sole example of a good man that she encounters in her time in poker is a player named Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp). Taking up a considerable portion of her the film’s flashback section and later being referenced towards the end of the film, Harlan is a poker player – as opposed to the other regulars at the game who, as Molly states, are just gamblers – and, as such, does considerably well each week. However, after being bluffed out of thousands of dollars by the worst player in the game, Harlan spirals and goes “full tilt” as he desperately tries to scrape back to even. Losing millions over the course of a few days, missing his wife’s birthday, and falling apart before becoming a shell of himself as a result, Harlan is a cautionary tale of the life of an addicted poker player. However, it was not always like this for him. In the midst of speaking about the games, Molly’s narration stops to note how the night in which Harlan fell apart started sweetly. Obsessively speaking about the birthday plans he has for his wife the next day, how surprised she will be, and every detail he set up for her without her knowledge, the camera focuses in on Harlan’s smiling face and even Molly loses a fight against a smile. It is a sweet, tender display of something the other men lack: a heart. As they seek to sleep with every woman they encounter and rack up their wealth, the other men lack a heart and soul. However, for Harlan, his wife is his life and, for a brief moment, Molly allows herself to believe that there are good men in this world. Yet, as he begins to spiral out of control and fall apart, this belief shatters once more.