Watching a movie about any kind of gambling and risk-taking, and you will see that some of the world’s best films do their best to portray gambling in a positive, even heroic light. In a way, that is the role of the film – it is to romanticise a story and make it interesting to watch. If you want to evoke an emotion, you have to make a connection, and making a connection is impossible if you do not skew the views of the audience towards being more positive towards your main character. Since the main character is usually the gambler in the situation, it means that the audience needs to be positively predisposed towards him/her. Even if the qualities are not necessarily positive. It doesn’t matter to the viewer, then, whether the main character is a murderer or if they are the luckiest Australian real money slots player, as long as they have a compelling and positive story to tell. As a result, today we get a number of films that have managed to glamourise the act of gambling, even if it is self-destructive. Let’s take a look at some of the films that do so.
This film, at the time of release, became extremely popular among those who loved a story with a good heist, or even a story of someone outsmarting everyone else. 21 follows the story of a student (Jim Sturgess) at MIT, who joins a club in his university. The club is led by a professor (Kevin Spacey) who teaches the students how to use gaming theory and card counting in order to game the system and win loads of money at blackjack. The movie follows the misadventures of the main character and his hero’s journey takes him all the way from nothing to riches, to nothing again.
In the film, acts of gambling are impressive. The tables that the main character sits at are always high stakes, and winnings, even if calculated, are always beautiful. The life of the player is extremely enjoyable, spending every weekend somewhere in Vegas while enjoying parties and getting a girlfriend that is out of his league. But the story goes on to show how destructive the gambling is to him, taking it to a physical level. While the film tries to show how bad it is, it forgets to stop glamourising, showing that the player that goes back to gambling despite the fact that he should quit, is heroic, rather than unwise. The entertainment is there, but the final moral of the story is that you should only quit gambling if you are banned from every casino in Vegas, and to put it bluntly, that is not necessarily the best moral for a story.
If you haven’t seen Ocean’s Eleven, then you might have been missing out on film culture over the past few years. The film is one of the many beautiful pieces of cinema that came out of the 2000s, and it features a star cast with a fun story. The narrative is that the main characters try to rob a casino, and they take a huge gamble in doing so. Some of the main characters are gamblers themselves, while the rest are simply risk takers and robbers. So, there is not direct idolisation of the act of gambling by the main characters, but there is something that is just as interesting to explore. The film dedicated a lot of time to build up the environment of the casino. The people in the casino are always shown to be having fun. There are always many people, the shots are always fashionable, full of light, entertainment and most importantly, anyone who is playing and winning is shown to be extremely beloved by the people around them. So indirectly, the film professes its love of gambling.
James Bond: Casino Royale
One of the many films that dedicates a lot of time to gambling and a lot of time to making gambling seem like an act that is much more serious and classy than it actually is in most cases. It is true that Casino Royale is based on a book, but the film takes liberty in developing the premise into what we get to see on the screen. The scenes where the players are enjoying poker are the calmest and, quite often, some of the highest stakes. All players are stylish, serious and the kind of players that certain people would aspire to be. One of the most important moments in the film is the instance when James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes all-in against the main villain (Mads Mikkelsen) of the film and loses, making the game look like it’s much more exciting and a positive experience than poker actually is.
So why does the film industry do so? It is hard to know, but it might be nothing but a byproduct of the way film is made. The film is about mystery and it is about romanticising the concepts that are displayed in it. As a result, the films that are about a certain subject will inadvertently end up picturing it romantically. But maybe it is something we should consider closer and change how we try to display these things to those who are watching.