Film Review: Miss Sloane

A fast-moving, fun movie exploring the nasty machinations of a female lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) who is at once intriguing and a trifle grating.
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Despite its preposterous twists and turns (especially at the end), John Madden’s Miss Sloane is a thoroughly entertaining film about slick Machiavellian lobbyists (not to mention their congressional partners and/or lackeys) who operate in a wholly amoral D.C. netherworld.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a high-powered, obsessively determined-to-win-at-all-costs careerist in designer clothes, stiletto heels and bright red lipstick (thickly applied to ample lips) that brings to mind blood. On the go nonstop, she pops pills to ward off the effects of long-term insomnia. With neither time nor interest in personal relationships, she still needs sex (lots of it) and employs Forde (Jake Lacey), a country-bumpkin stud, to service her with no strings attached.

The movie, written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, opens with members of a senatorial ethics committee grilling Sloane about her more questionable practices. From there, the film (a kind of Michael Clayton-Our Brand Is Crisis hybrid) flashes back to recount the events that brought Sloane to the grueling interrogation as she pleads the fifth in response to every query.

Employed by one of Washington’s top-drawer lobbying firms, Sloane has a reputation for cutting moral corners with no compunction. Jetting a senator to an exotic island nation for a vacation and dubbing it a “research trip” is S.O.P. Indeed, it’s business as usual for Sloane until a slimy NRA champion wants to hire her to persuade women that guns are a good thing. Sloane laughs crudely at the very notion of working for him, unexpectedly proclaiming that she too is in favor of gun control.

Refusing the assignment, she quits her job, landing a gig at a “boutique” firm (a euphemism for a failed operation run by “hippies in suits,” she has said earlier) that has its sights set on passing a law requiring tougher background checks for those who want to purchase weaponry. Sloane and her team have been brought onboard to help their ethically minded new boss (Mark Strong), who has neither the imagination nor manipulative skills to implement anything, let alone laws that restrict the use of guns.

To score that elusive legislative victory, Sloane collaborates with felons who meet with her in dark, desolate, out-of-the-way places. (Deep Throat for the 21st century). Together they install the most byzantine surveillance tools in the offices of her adversaries in order to anticipate their next moves and devise countermeasures to quash them. It’s the strategy of the successful lobbyist, Sloane explains.

Sloane is masterful at staging and packaging events for the media who unknowingly become her pawn. (In the real world, one particular scenario that she’s concocted would send her to a hospital for the criminally insane.) Her ex-boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston) realizes he has to destroy her to have any chance of winning for his Second Amendment-rights client. Thanks to Dupont’s under-the-radar nefarious deeds, Sloane is brought up on charges.

This is a plot-driven, fast-moving film, and how seriously one should take any of it is arguable. Some reviewers assert that the movie shows (admittedly in an enjoyable vein) the sausage-making of how laws get passed. This too is highly questionable.

Miss Sloane is a classic example of “on the one hand, but then again on the other.” Consider this. Its heroine is a savagely driven professional woman—not unlike Chastain’s turn in Zero Dark Thirty—mercifully devoid of any heart-tugging backstory that would account for her behavior. She is what she is and that’s refreshing. At the same time (and paradoxically), not knowing what makes her tick leaves a gap. Would that lack of personal biography be an issue if Elizabeth were a man? Maybe yes, more likely no. Perhaps, we’re not as evolved as we might like.

Here’s another caveat: Elizabeth is unremittingly abrasive (the title “Miss” Sloane underscores the irony) and when she demonstrates compassion, it feels tacked on. That’s the fault of the writer and director, not Chastain, who pulls off the conniving, morality-free lobbyist brilliantly. No one can dispute that she is fulfilling the demands of the character (minus her gentler moments). Still, after a point she becomes grating. Once again, the sticky question rears its ugly little head. Is she difficult to watch because she’s a strident woman? Not necessarily, but (gulp) it doesn’t help. Sorry.

Waterston as a high-IQ bastard is as always on point; same for John Lithgow tackling a blackmailed crooked senator who heads the ethics committee. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is fully credible as the film’s moral compass and haunted victim of gun violence. Playing Dupont’s associate, Michael Stuhlbarg is a mean-spirited sleaze if ever there was one. Strong’s idealist, however, falls short, as his character’s actions make no sense given his views, unless he is remarkably dim-witted and that has not been established.

Nonetheless, director Madden, with the help of cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov, creates an uncompromising time and place where one-upmanship even at great personal sacrifice is the only game in town.

More than a few critics see the movie’s potential as a TV series that clearly has elements of “House of Cards” or even “Scandal.” Sloane is a more hard-edged Olivia Pope. But changes would be called for. On the small screen, our heroine would need to be softened and/or explained in some way to become a welcome presence in America’s collective living room. That might be a virtue. Also a liability.

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