Last week I attended the New York City premiere of Molly’s Game. I’m not one to frequent star-studded Hollywood film-premieres.
But, considering this film represented the newest script from legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and his directorial debut, I figured what the heck. As the master wordsmith behind the The West Wing and The Social Network, Sorkin has, like Ben Hecht before him, become arguably the greatest Hollywood screenwriter of his generation.
For me, then, this premiere represented not only a cinematic showcase but a literary one as well.
Sorkin has an interesting relationship with Judaism. In 2012 he told NPR that he wanted a bar mitzva, but his parents had not arranged for him to be tutored. So he picked up a phone book, found the name of a rabbi, called him and asked him to teach him the Torah in six weeks.
The rabbi demurred, saying there wasn’t enough time. So Sorkin eventually had a party where he said the “Hamotzi” blessing, although, he added, he had not said it since his 13th birthday and didn’t know what it meant.
Yet, when he saw me and my son as the premiere, he made a beeline for us and wished us a very happy Hanukka. I, in turn, invited him to our annual gala on March 8 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, which this year will celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday, as a guest of honor.
In the meantime, I saw his new film, Molly’s Game. And it had a Jewish values message.
Molly’s Game triumphs on all ends of the reviewer’s scoreboard. The story is fascinating and appealing, with its twists and turns arranged in quick, riveting succession. Sorkin covers a lot of ground in the film (which could have been a mini-series), giving the story that non-stop, rapid-fire feel. Still, the film remains steadily focused on its core themes.
As is the case in many of Sorkin’s prior works, though the plot delves often into unfamiliar complexities – such as the myriad rules of the legal system and poker – the viewers can confidently follow the deeper and simpler plot that Sorkin hardwired into his script.
The characters, too, felt authentic and compelling; their often long, uninterrupted dialogues flawless.
The acting, led by Golden Globe winners Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, was compelling and heartfelt.
As I said, this film scores high.
However, being a rabbi and not a professional film reviewer, none of that is what truly caught me.
What I found striking rather was the important message that lay behind the film.
Molly’s Game follows the true story of a young woman named, you guessed it, Molly, who by way of her outsized wits and ambition lands herself a self-employed gig running the highest-level poker game in North America.
Though most of the story takes place in the New York and Los Angeles, it begins amid the Rocky Mountains, where Molly spent her formative years. Molly was a near-perfect student and athlete, on her way to both Harvard Law School and the American Olympic ski team. In an instant, though, her dreams are derailed. She is in the final Olympic qualifiers, halfway down the track, in a prefect performance, when her ski hits the frozen twig of a pine tree.
Her bindings are undone, her foot is released, and she careens off a jump and into a devastating injury. From there, the story unfolds.
With her Olympic hopes dashed, she opted for a gap year to unwind before beginning law school. Her elemental need to prove herself, however, declines to take a break. A hard worker with an eye for opportunity, she soon finds herself running poker games with $50,000 buy-ins.
Like the players she herds in and out of the games, she decides repeatedly to raise the stakes – bringing her millions of dollars, encounters with the Russian mob and eventually toward the brink of personal and professional ruin.
By the end of the film, the onetime “Princess of Poker” has become mentally, legally and financially embattled. Her father, played by Kevin Costner and whom she hasn’t seen in years, appears suddenly in New York. A renowned psychologist, he offers to provide years of therapy in just a few minutes. Following some light-hearted rumination, he gets to the point. He asks his daughter how she, the brilliant and promising over-achiever, had been brought to such desolation.
His answer, in my opinion, is the moment for which this film will be forever remembered.
“Because,” he says, “you hit a twig.”
That was it. The single, tragic circumstance that had killed her life-defining dream.
I realized then that this was not the story of a dream realized, but of a dream deferred.
As put best by Langston Hughes in his poetic masterpiece “Harlem,” many things can happen to the “dream deferred.” He famously offers a few possibilities in question form, for example, whether such dreams “dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” (In a well-played move by Sorkin, who is known for his literary Easter eggs, Hughes’ poem is actually referenced briefly in the film by a drunk card player who, in an attempt to flirt with Molly, delivers an incoherent mashup of poetry – his final line being the apogee of “A Dream Deferred.”) Then, Hughes ends with the unforgettable question: “Or do they explode?” Molly’s Game, it seems, is the story of the explosion of the American Dream.
Here you had a girl with the grandest dreams. She gave these dreams everything she had, training and studying for hours on end. And then, in a singular moment, she’s jilted.
For the modern American, this story is all too familiar. America is the fabled “land of opportunity,” the ultimate meritocracy. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. But for many, it offers the conditions for a personal crisis. We all grow up with dreams of wealth, power and renown – even the presidency itself.
Eventually, though, the day arrives when we realize we either haven’t achieved what we set out for or, if we did, that it is strikingly underwhelming.
This deflation of national expectations is amplified by the fact that, more often than not, we define ourselves by our dreams. Thus, if we don’t achieve the success we’d apportioned our ideal selves, we become lost and hollowed at our core.
For years, I’ve argued that our self-esteem should be based more upon the virtues of our character than the richness of our coffers. This film, however, offered an important reason why. Because character, unlike the prospects for our success, is actually under our control. We can be the masters of our destiny so long as we know that destiny is defined more by heart than the hedge fund, more by conviction than currency, more by contributing to our communities than winning a gold medal. And Molly’s gaming presents the finest way to tell it. Virtue, unlike gambling, does not play to chance.
It is rooted, rather, in the solid earth of our beliefs – and those, unlike the stakes in a game of poker, can be made constant and unchanging.
That is, one might say, the message that is given to every bar mitzva boy.
That with all the professional aspirations accompanying budding adulthood, contributing to one’s people, studying the Torah and living a life of righteousness and values is where the action’s really at.
So while Sorkin may never have had a bar mitzva, in Molly’s Game he offers a pretty convincing, albeit somewhat delayed, bar mitzva speech. And in a world obsessed with money and power as never before, it’s a message even more timely now than when Sorkin turned 13.
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