Movie Review: Miss Sloane
Jessica Chastain is compelling to watch, but this story of a morally ambiguous lobbyist in Washington is both narratively preposterous and emotionally incoherent
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Directed by: John Madden
Running time: 132 minutes
By Jay Stone
“It’s about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you,” says Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), her lush, sculpted face filling the screen at the beginning of the Washington thriller called — with an almost perverse attempt to lower our expectations — Miss Sloane. The very fact that the film is not as bland as its title qualifies as just the kind of surprise she’s talking about.
Sloane, it turns out, is a Washington lobbyist who is preparing to attend a Senate hearing (run by John Lithgow, the new go-to icon of moral compromise) into her unethical actions. It has something to do with a trip to Indonesia by a senator investigating a proposed tax on palm oil, which is used — as our heroine reminds her co-workers — to make Nutella, which should engage the public’s interest.
It doesn’t do much for ours, but the hearings are just the framework for Miss Sloane, which turns out to be one of those backroom political dramas, like Michael Clayton or All The President’s Men (or West Wing, for that matter) that rely on sharp characters, smart talk, and a rich river of cynicism in which to float its dark vision of humanity. It’s not the movie’s fault that real-life events have overtaken this vision, but by the end it does seem guilty of several associated crimes, including being preposterous and emotionally incoherent.
It’s always watchable, however, thanks mostly to Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) whose sleek beauty, wrapped here in tight black sheathes and crimson lipstick, adds to a mysterious air of calculation and amorality that is unusual in a film heroine, even an anti-heroine. Elizabeth Sloane is presented as a lobbyist who will do anything to win, including selling out friends and betraying intimate secrets. What to make, then, of a scene at the beginning when she is approached by the pro-gun lobby (the words “National Rifle Association” are never used) to improve its image among women and she bursts out laughing? Is she ethical or not?
The movie, written by newcomer Jonathan Perera, can’t quite decide, or maybe it would ruin the surprise. In any event, her dismissal of the gun project results in her leaving the big-shot lobbying firm run by cold, unforgiving Sam Waterson and joining a boutique company headed by a more liberal-minded — although still calculating — man with the unlikely name of Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). His firm is working on the other side, in favour of a gun law that would restrict access to firearms to people who are both sane and not terrorists.
This purported assault on the Second Amendment forms the subtext of Miss Sloane, which includes a scene in which Sloane and rival lobbyist Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) have a TV debate on the subject. Perara’s screenplay is clearly on the side of the sensible, but it later throws in a deus ex machina street confrontation that helps bolster the side of those who would arm everyone.
The main action, however, pits Sloane against the lobbyists in her former company, including ex-acolyte Jane Malloy (Alison Pill), who have taken a personal interest in not only killing the gun bill but also in destroying Sloane’s career. The gun debate is mostly there to help us choose sides because morally, it’s all pretty murky. Sloane is fighting for the good guys, but she is a bleakly unlikeable character who takes advantage of vulnerable co-worker Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with a personal history of gun violence, and is also a conniving workaholic who dines on fast food, is addicted to uppers, and satisfies her other desires with a paid escort. It’s a collection of weaknesses disguised as a person.
It’s told with a lot of fast talk that isn’t quite as smart as it wants — or needs — to be. Director John Madden is more at home in the middlebrow precincts of Shakespeare in Love or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; here, he conveys the muck of the backrooms with a lot of cool, burnished scenes of Sloane at cocktail parties or harassing her staff with mile-a-minute orders. Her motivations remain clouded until the final twists, when they become positively enigmatic.
If you don’t think too much about it — a hell of a thing to have to do in a movie that is asking you to think about it — it’s an engaging story, even if you’re just watching how many different ways Chastain can take the Fifth Amendment (the cousin, we’re reminded, of the second) at the senate hearings. At times like that, Miss Sloane becomes smart entertainment. Otherwise, it’s a near-miss.