Dir: John Madden, 132 mins, starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
The title Miss Sloane might suggest a gentle biopic or Jane Austen-style comedy of manners, but John Madden’s new film boasts the most ferocious heroine imaginable. Elizabeth Sloane (a bravura performance from Jessica Chastain) is a Washington lobbyist. She is so devious, so driven and so addicted to winning that she makes Kevin Spacey’s machiavellian politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards look mild-mannered and lily-livered by comparison. It’s exhilarating to encounter a protagonist so completely untroubled by the tugging of her conscience or what anybody else thinks about her in the office. “Were you ever normal as a child?” she is asked. “I guess I am just a piece of work,” Sloane proudly proclaims.
In a more traditional movie, Sloane would learn the usual lessons about love, friendship and the importance of a world beyond work. The old hierarchies would reassert themselves. There would be husbands, fathers or patriarchal bosses to keep her in check. What’s refreshing here is Sloane has none of these. There is no attempt to root her behaviour in events in her childhood. She is far too busy working to have an inner life. If she feels tired after another 20 hour day, she will just pop another pill. If she has cravings for sex or companionship, she’ll pay for them – but she won’t waste time on small talk.
Jonathan Perera’s screenplay is both ingenious and extremely shallow. Sloane declares at the outset that “lobbying is about foresight… anticipating your opponent’s moves.” She is thinking not just one or two steps ahead of her adversaries but an entire movie ahead. In the very first scene, she already has an inkling of how she wants matters to end. Contradictions abound. We can never be sure when her behaviour is spontaneous and when she is simply putting on an act. At times, she seems furious. At times, she even seems crestfallen. This, though, may just be performance. In her private moments, alone in a restaurant or when she can’t sleep at night, she sometimes seems to be trying to trick herself to believe she doesn’t need sleep or food or rest in the same way she “plays” her clients or adversaries.
The case Sloane takes on has a very topical resonance. She pits herself against the gun lobby in Washington There is no sense that she is doing so because of her disgust at high school shootings or the escalating rate of homicide. For her, the challenge is that this is a battle no-one thinks she can win. Early in the movie, her firm is approached to represent the gun manufacturers as they try to snuff out a bill that would place some restrictions on gun ownership. They already have a strategy to “get women into guns” and to portray gun ownership as a tool of “female empowerment”. Sloane doesn’t want the job. It isn’t so much her aversion to guns or her disgust at the cynicism and sexism of the gun lobby that puts her off. The case just seems too easy.
Chastain relishes playing a character who always operates at maximum velocity and has no compunctions at all about trampling roughshod over the sensibilities of her closet colleagues. “I understand you have feelings and a life but I have no duty to them,” she tells one.
Miss Sloane works both as a character study and as a satirical thriller about Washington. As portrayed here, DC really does seem to be a swamp. The lobbyists are cut-throat. The politicians are all either on the take or prey to blackmail. The journalists are equally sleazy, writing hatchet-jobs of those they don’t like. It goes without saying that the most colourful characters here are the sleaziest. Michael Stuhlbarg brings an oleaginous creepiness to his role as Sloane’s former colleague turned arch-enemy. Sam Waterston is very unpleasant indeed as the former boss who wants to destroy Sloane’s reputation. John Lithgow is pompous and self-righteous as the venal, cowardly Senator who comes after Sloane. The dullest characters here are the ones who’ve got too many principles, for example Sloane’s new boss, the idealistic Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), who is fighting the gun lobby out of conviction, or the hard-working Esmé (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is keeping secret an extreme trauma in her past.
We are in an era in which high-end TV drama often eclipses feature films both in terms of budget and originality. At times, Miss Sloane seems like a pilot for a series. It’s a character-driven, ensemble piece whose main plot is a little creaky for a feature film. Everything boils down to a court case – or at least a congressional hearing. There are all the red herrings and last minute revelations that you’d expect in an episode of a box set series. The real pleasure of the film comes from Chastain’s wonderfully acerbic and uninhibited performance. Refreshingly, Sloane never apologises for her behaviour. The filmmakers tantalise us with the possibility that Sloane may be an idealist and that her cynicism itself could be part of the masquerade. If that is the case, it’s certainly not something she’ll ever admit to.
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