Jessica Chastian plays a conniving Washington DC lobbyist in John Madden's political drama Miss Sloane
It wouldn't hurt to bone up on Washington DC lobby laws and practices before taking in Miss Sloane, the latest from one-time prestige director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). But if doing so falls between the cracks, don't let that stop you. Rather, let the fact that it's merely good and not great be the thing that might stop you.
Miss Sloane is a generally admirable film with enough solid scenes to clear Howard Hawks’ old adage that a decent movie should have at least three good scenes. But does it complete the requirement by having no bad ones?
Set in the duplicitously toxic bubble world of the United States capitol, Miss Sloane hops from one sterile boardroom, office, television studio, and yes, lobby, to the next. Most of them unintentionally run together and prove discernible only by who's in them.
Who’s in them? A bunch of sharks in suits, that's who. Among them are Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, and Alison Pill. The main difference between these perpetual go-getters and actual sharks is that actual sharks come up for air more often.
The queen of the sharks is one Elizabeth Sloane, a pill-popping man-whoring ('"male escorts") lobbyist on wheels. Her porcelain skin and icy eyes have run effectively frigid before the movie ever started. It's Jessica Chastain, carrying the movie in the title role as a woman obsessed with her own career, and by extension, herself.
In the opening moments, Sloane sits in constraining close-up facing the camera while spouting her perpetual strategy of holding her trump card until just after her opponent's revealed theirs. Her pantsuit looks like a million bucks and her hair looks like a thousand. Her every move is calculated, her every strike self-beneficial, humorless and intimidating. The character is very good at her deplorable job, and Chastain is very good at playing her that way. She’s always one hairpin away from a cutting speech, a room-stopping analogy, or simply a scriptwriterly burn.
Where Miss Sloane, and Chastain, go momentarily astray is when they reach for levity. Wallowing in the darkness of politics, backstabbing and corruption, this is simply not a movie that wants to be funny. Yet, every now and then, we have a roomful of snarky college interns verbally sparring like Gilmore Girls. I suppose they’re here to remind us that DC’s cesspool begins with the energetic idealism of youth. The sheer artifice of their banter vaguely evokes Sloane’s own diatribes, but comedy relief this is not.
The movie exists to remind us, in this altogether twisted election year, that altruistic servitude leadership is an antiquated fossil of a notion. Making the right enemies and then meticulously plotting their downfall is where it’s at. Miss Sloane does so by picking up the ever-polarizing U.S. gun control debate.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (2013’s Belle) is terrific as one of Sloane’s well-meaning coworkers; the rare individual with a conscious, and a secret. Of the several twists in the film, the one most centric to both the gun issue and Mbatha-Raw’s character, is the most effective. Just when it seems the film has chosen a side, it seems to aim elsewhere. It was past the two-thirds point in the running time when I sat up and said, “Now this is getting interesting!” But all too soon, it’s back to business as usual on Capitol Hill.
Miss Sloane is sleekly designed and moodily shot. The cast is a great one, and Madden can chalk this up to one of his better movies since his Miramax glory days. But it’s also not as fresh nor as clever as it thinks it is. The I-talk/you-talk tenor of the banter is soaked through with faux Sorkin-ism, and Sloane’s own revealed private character flaws aren’t enough to win us over to what should be glimpsed as her “human side”. And since when does a replay montage of the all of one supporting character’s key moments throughout the film effectively decontextualize what we were supposed to have known of that character?? It doesn’t.
But like the lobbyists, politicians, and other sharks in suits depicted, Miss Sloane isn’t above a little fast talking in the interest of its own “greater good”. Not quite a morality tale, not quite a good old cynical wallow, Miss Sloane basks in the corruption of awards baiting (why now, Transfilm, Archery Pictures, Canal+, Cine+, FilmNation, and France 2 Cinema?) and pious speech stumping. In those moments, the appeal of the film is amiss, Sloane.