BARTLET: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an “abomination!”
JACOBS: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
BARTLET: Yes it does. Leviticus!
BARTLET: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I wanted to sell my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown Sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff, Leo McGary, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself? Or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important, because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building when the president stands, nobody sits.
That little exchange, between the President of the United States and an opinionated Radio personality, comes from episode three, season two of The West Wing and nicely demonstrates the style of writing Aaron Sorkin has become known for. Across that show, A Few Good Men, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs Sorkin has continuously given us the same mix of character, wit, dramatic flair, educated put downs and rallying against social injustice. His admirers, of which I am definitely one, have been lapping it up for years. We know no one speaks like that in real life but we don’t care because with Sorkin, and nowhere is this more true than with President Bartlet, we get a view of how we’d like things to be and it offers escapism as much as any adventure movie.
His latest film as writer and his first as director, Molly’s Game, features the same brilliant dialogue but also gives us something a little different. First off, while he’s given us great female characters before, he’s never previously had a female protagonist. Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom is a strong character with plenty of the Ripley Factor. She succeeds in a male dominated world, she stands up to patriarchal bullying and she absolutely maintains control of her own destiny even when people and circumstances conspire to wrestle that away from her. She is also realistically flawed and not idealised. Even with all of this though this is demonstrably a male writing for a female and if she had been penned by a woman then I think we’d have seen subtle differences in the way her strength manifests itself. She wouldn’t have needed a male to ultimately save her, she certainly wouldn’t have had the same Daddy issues and she probably wouldn’t have been defined quite as much by her perfect hair and secretary glasses. (If you want to see a perfect example of how women and men write female characters differently watch Wonder Woman and then watch Justice League.) I don’t think that Sorkin is quite as much of a feminist as he or I would like him to be because as much as he stands for equality I don’t think he fully appreciates the woman’s voice and I’m not sure he is trying to. Speaking at a BFI Q&A this week Sorkin said that he has tried writing with authenticity for people different to him but this is not where his strengths lie which kind of confirms this. (To be fair, I’m probably not as much as a feminist as I would like to be either but I’m fighting the conditioning.)
The other thing that is unusual for Sorkin here is that his hero is not really a hero, certainly not in the same way as Tom Cruise’s idealistic lawyer from A Few Good Men, Martin Sheen’s Bartlet or Jeff Daniel’s crusading journalist from The Newsroom. He has given us flawed protagonists before with Charlie Wilson and Steve Jobs but I don’t think he has expected us to root for them in the way he wants us to get behind Molly. Molly’s Game is based on a true story (which is why I’m going to forgive the revealing dresses) about a woman who ran lucrative underground poker games in LA and New York with very wealthy and influential men being dealt in. These allegedly included Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maquire (probably the guy represented here by Michael Cera’s Player X) although the film doesn’t tell you this, alongside Russian mobsters, although the film tells you Bloom didn’t know this.
Molly Bloom wrote a book about this and was later arrested by the FBI and charged with colluding with the mafia. Essentially Molly’s cause is to save herself and she isn’t as easy to get behind. You do sympathise with her though because of her integrity. Sorkin is obviously inspired by the real Molly Bloom and he manages to bring his audience on board with the cinematic one.
The typically brilliant dialogue and characterisation ensure that Molly’s Game is totally captivating from its start to its finish a hundred and forty minutes later. As a writer Sorkin has lost none of his skill and his fans will find this a joy. As far the directing is concerned I’m not sure that the pictures have ever not been eclipsed by the words if Sorkin has written the script, even with people like David Fincher and Danny Boyle behind the lens. The film is shot well enough and I think Sorkin’s only misstep here is a cliched scene at the end in which Bloom’s father conveniently reappears and starts mansplaining everything, making this story of a formidable woman all about him. Obviously Sorkin penned this but I think a more experienced director would have known to play it differently.
I don’t know how Molly’s Game would be received by someone who hasn’t already fallen for Sorkin’s style. It is full of great performances from Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner and is clever in how it weaves the book it is partly based on into the plot. In fact the film even makes itself part of the story which brings it home and involves the audience in a meta-realistic way most movies cannot. If you know Aaron Sorkin you’ll be familiar with the rules of Molly’s Game but even if not there is lots here to bring you to the table.