Director: John Madden
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow
MPAA Rating: (for language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 2:12
Release Date: 11/25/16 (limited); 12/9/16 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 8, 2016
Miss Sloane is trapped somewhere between the earnestness of its political convictions and the cynicism of its central character. The movie ultimately merges them in a way that makes sense, combining sincerity and pessimism into a sort of sacrificial pragmatism. It makes logical and even thematic sense, because, in the end, the bad guys remain the bad guys, the good guys stay pure, and the system ends up eating itself, even though it already seemed to have gorged itself on power and money.
The subject of the movie is lobbying in Washington, D.C. It's specifically about the political battle between those who believe that there is room within the Constitution to enact regulations on the ownership of firearms and those who take the final four words of the Second Amendment—"shall not be infringed"—as the only language in it that really matters.
The screenplay by Jonathan Perera has its political debates on the subject. At least it contains what passes for debate in our modern era of talking points and sound bites. The characters are aware of the way the news media and political ads nab a single sentence or two from a public appearance, so their language, crafted within the cubicles and board room of their D.C. office, is succinct and pointed. They predict what their opponents will say, and they probe for and pick at any logical fallacies that might exist within those talking points.
These are the movie's most fascinating and effective scenes, because they feel authentic and partly on account of the fact that they're separated from the specific issue at hand. These scenes are about the process of lobbying and campaigning. They could be about any contentious political issue, really, but they just happen to be about gun legislation.
In a way, that might be the movie's most cynical observation, as accidental as it might be. The issue doesn't matter as much as the procedure of lobbying for or against it. A skilled lobbyist can plug any political issue into the formula of a campaign. The campaign's success has little to do with the importance of the issue or the merits of the arguments. Instead, it has everything to do with the determination of the players, money, and how well one can cover his or her posterior when crossing an ethical line.
Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is an expert in her industry. She possesses no ethical scruples, no obvious political alliances, and no life outside of her job. At the start of the story, she is arranging a trip for a sitting Congressman to a foreign country, which would be illegal if not for the fact that the money is being funneled through a charity. She's working on pushing through or killing some piece of tax legislation (It's never fully clear, and it doesn't matter).
Her home life amounts to returning to her condo and, perhaps, finding a male escort waiting for her. She eventually says that the escort is a way for her to get a taste of the life she didn't choose. That's about all we know of Sloane, who has a reputation in town as being completely committed and worthy of fear.
Her boss (Sam Waterston) has landed a meeting with the head of a lucrative lobbying organization for the firearm industry, who wants to stop legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases. The first hint that there might be something more to Sloane is when she laughs in the man's face after he makes his pitch. Is it a laugh at the specific pitch or at the general idea that she would take such a job?
She ends up on the other side, working for Rodolfo Schmidt's (Mark Strong) lobbying firm in favor of the legislation. Their team is small and inexperienced compared to her former one, and they're going to be outspent by the opponents. A key to Sloane's strategy might be Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), another campaign employee who has seen what irresponsible firearm possession can do.
The impression we get is that this is a cutthroat business, no matter which side of an issue one is on. There are personal and professional betrayals against opponent and ally alike, and that doesn't even get into the betrayal of the public trust when the head of a Congressional committee (played by John Lithgow) comes into play—because of what amounts to extortion.
Perera's screenplay is set up as something of a mystery, as it opens with Sloane testifying in front of a Senate committee for what she has done in her career. The questions are why she's there, how someone who is so careful in at least maintaining a cover of proper conduct might have messed up, and whether or not this hearing fits into some bigger scheme on her or someone else's part.
The performances, in general, are strong, with Chastain just about—but not quite—going over-the-top and Mbatha-Raw as the only character who seems like a person, not a statement (ironic, since her character eventually becomes an effective mouthpiece). The screenplay eventually shifts from its procedural intrigue to a series of twists, flourishes of political theater, and a Big Speech. Miss Sloane works when it dissects the gamesmanship of this world, but it falters when it tries to play its own games.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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