A film that examines the human spirit and acts as a cautionary tale about identity and riding the line of the law, Molly’s Game (2017) written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (based on the best-seller by Bloom, Molly's Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World ), follows the true story of Molly Bloom, a 26-year-old skier who had her eyes set on the Olympics, but after a tragic freak injury on the slopes, those dreams vanished, along with her sense of self. After what she trained for all her life became impossible, she was determined to be successful in another way. Running high stakes poker games with some of the wealthiest and most famous actors, politicians, athletes, and Wall Street businessmen in the world was not exactly what Bloom had imagined. Before long, she was hosting the most exclusive and prestigious weekly poker game, where uber-wealthy individuals were losing or winning millions of dollars over the course of one hand. Just as her skiing career, this, too, would abruptly end.
Aaron Sorkin’s strategic filmmaking is at play at the very start of the film. We are introduced to Bloom via narration before she appears onscreen. This film deals with introspection and self-realizations, so employing this technique at the very beginning and throughout the rest of the film enables the audience to feel very close to Bloom. The audience feels as though Bloom is talking only to them as she reveals her innermost thoughts and struggles. As a result, Sorkin gets the audience to root for Bloom and understand her, rather than simply see her as a misguided and greedy twenty-something. Given Bloom’s outlandish and specific circumstances, it is up to the filmmaker to make this story as accessible to the audience as possible.
The opening scene has Bloom at the top of a slope as she prepares to place in the Olympics as a skier. Sorkin starting the film at the top of a literal slope is also a metaphor for her life. Before her fall on the slopes, Bloom had her entire life planned. She tells the audience matter-of-factly that she’s “spent sixteen years chasing winter and being coached by the best in the world” and made the US ski team by age twenty. After the Olympics, she knew what she would do for the rest of her life. In voice over, she explains that she would go to law school and then create a startup for young entrepreneurial women. In under four minutes, Sorkin has efficiently and effectively brought the audience up to speed with the main character’s life.
Additionally, the brutally cold and competitive atmosphere surrounding the slopes foreshadowed what was to come for Bloom in the similarly competitive and brutal world of poker. Bloom’s freak accident ruined her chance at the Olympics and showed what happens when a person tries to plan their life. Life is filled with unexpected circumstances, and Bloom’s journey from the top to the bottom of the slope in a matter of seconds mirrors how her life would unfold next. She quickly ascends to the top of the food chain, running the most competitive ring of poker games in the world. Just as she trips on the slopes, she trips in the world of poker, accidentally letting in members of the Russian mafia to her games. As a result, the control she had over her financially lucrative poker games slipped away from her and she became the center of an illegal gambling scandal.
Sliding down the slope
Aaron Sorkin's artistic team uses a myriad of filmmaking techniques to convey the parabolic cautionary tale to the audience. Through a series of montages and voice over, we see Bloom struggle to find a purpose in life. We know she is incredibly driven, smart, and motivated, but she still seems lost. In sharp and concise dialogue, Bloom narrates, “I already had a career and retired from it. I wanted to be young for a while in warm weather. I think that’s what I wanted at first. It’s hard to remember.” To make ends meet, Bloom gets a job at a high-profile club in Los Angeles as a cocktail waitress. She is not proud of having to take this job, considering all she has accomplished in her life, and does not tell her parents about it back home. It is at this job where she meets Dean, an unsuccessful businessman that frequents the bar where Bloom works. He sees potential in her and hires her to be his assistant. The character of Dean parallels that of Bloom’s father, as both saw amazing potential in her but were incredibly tough on her. In both relationships, she was told she was destined for greatness, but the way her father and Dean communicated that to her resulted in her growing resentful toward them both.
As previously mentioned, narration is a perfect filmmaking device that enables the audience to consistently follow the main character’s stream of consciousness throughout the film. What Molly portrays to those around her is contradictory to the way she feels inside. On the outside, she is a pretty-face, collecting people’s drinks, welcoming them in at the door, and making appropriate playlists for the atmosphere. On the inside, however, Molly is constantly thinking of ways to improve the game, raise stakes, make more money, and improve the players’ performances. After a one on one with her boss Dean, who tells her he will be lowering her pay, she decides to create her own exclusive poker game, and essentially steals his fellow players from him. As Molly now holds all the cards (metaphorically and literally) she hires waitresses, raises buy-in prices for the games, and moves the location of the games to a lavish hotel room where only the wealthiest of the wealthy can be found. As with most of Sorkin’s films, the protagonist finds themselves in over their head, trying to navigate the rough waters they made their way into.
Lighting is a very powerful tool in filmmaking which Sorkin uses expertly to convey the film’s complex tone. Low-key lighting is crucial in creating the correct atmosphere during the poker games. Though the games (at first) are completely legal, they represent the dark underbelly of greed that is found in people from all walks of life. The famous players involved in these secret games become increasingly corrupt and the stakes are continually raised. There was an ever-present need to conceal the secrecy involved in these high-risk high-reward matches. The low-key lighting not only conveyed the literal darkness of the underground club, but also showed how it was exclusive and secret.
On the contrast, her scenes in her lawyer’s office are noticeably brighter, potentially symbolizing how she was able to come out of the darkness and piece together a somewhat normal future. Sorkin uses a lot of natural light in the film as well. In these scenes, Molly looks out of place and lost. She has been consumed by a superficial lifestyle, so any instance of her in normal life appears jarring to both Molly and the viewer.
Editing plays a very important role in this film. On a basic level, editing the poker games down to quick clips is essential because in real-time, poker games can be very long. Editing techniques such as eye-line matching during the poker games help the audience to follow each hand and to see which player is up against which. In the beginning of the film, when Molly is learning about the level of serious competition she has been thrown into, there is a series of shots editing together to convey how quickly the game can change. The camera cuts to Molly pouring drinks, to someone dealing cards, to someone observing their hand and pushing all of their chips into the center of the table, confidently saying, “all in”. In a matter of seconds, the audience is thrust into the fast-paced atmosphere just like Molly. She’s overwhelmed by this underground poker ring, and Sorkin’s quick cuts help the audience feel the same way. Additionally, quick close-ups of Molly’s face and her computer screen as she searches the meaning behind poker terminology creates a visceral tension for the audience. Just as Molly is keeping up with the nature of the games, the audience is unpacking the fast plot.
Sorkin tells the story from distinct time periods in Molly’s life. For the majority of the film, he juxtaposes scenes from her in the beginning, learning the ropes of the business, to her meeting with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) in the present-day, explaining all she went through up to that point. Telling a narrative out of order is a tool that filmmakers use to show how different a character is at different points of the story. For example, after several scenes of her in the dimly-lit basement of the club, befriending the players and being in control of the game, Sorkin cuts to a close up of her at her lawyer’s office, wearing more professional clothes and looking lost. This editing technique effectively pairs the harsh reality she found herself in with how quickly something can disappear from your control.
As emphasized in Sikov, camera angles help the filmmaker tell their specific story. Molly's Game is Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, so there isn't any visual patterns to look for in this film. One observation is that he positions the camera at a mid-level angle facing the characters' profile. This compliments the dialogue very well. It enables the audience to follow the emotion of both actors in the scene while avoiding too many abrupt cuts back and forth between the characters. Furthermore, we are able to see the rest of the surroundings that contribute to the scene's tone. Below are some examples.
Writer and director Aaron Sorkin is known for intricate dialogue, masterful observations, and a complex parabolic style of storytelling fitting for this cautionary tale. As we see, close analysis of film techniques marshalled in the story further accentuate the kind of message Sorkin’s screenplay is meant to convey. There are several techniques and characteristics he employs in most of his work. His screenplays frequently re-imagine iconic moments in American culture, exemplified in The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and Moneyball. Furthermore, Sorkin’s works are known for including “walk and talks”, named for the way his strong characters are usually walking and talking to each other with sharp, fast-paced dialogue in one long tracking shot with no edits. These single-take scenes are notoriously hard to shoot, as multiple actors are entering and exiting the shot throughout the scene. Sorkin wants the audience to feel like they are following the characters and are immersed in their situations. This is executed by having the camera pan with the characters as they walk. To Sorkin, dialogue between characters sitting side by side or standing is boring and unrealistic to the fast-paced life that people live. These walk-and-talks keep the audience engaged and heighten the already-dramatic moments in the film. His style is so iconic, it has been the inspiration of several parodies.
By examining camera movements, narration, lighting, actors’ performances, as well as focusing on small creative decisions, the audience is able to appreciate Sorkin’s style. His precision and dedication to the craft helps the audience to quickly identify with and feel for protagonist Molly Bloom. Despite her circumstances being extraordinarily unconventional, the film seamlessly navigates through the events that brought her into this underground world. While we most likely cannot relate to her exact experiences, we are able to find similarities in our own lives: incredible loss, desire for success, finding a steady income, and complicated family relationships.
Aaron Sorkin is a critically acclaimed writer for theatre, film, and television. His long-running series The West Wing won multiple Emmys and is his most famous work and he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the Social Network.
Film vs. Reality
Though the story of Molly Bloom sometimes seems too bizarre to be true, the film is based on a true story. Bloom, as addressed in the film, does not reveal the names of the real-life people the poker players in the film were based on in her best-seller. Even though she was offered a significantly larger some of money on her book deal if she revealed the A-list names, she refused. In the film, Molly explains to her lawyer why she made that bold choice. "You’ve seen what’s on those hard drives. Families, lives, careers will be ruined."