AFI Film Review: MISS SLOANE
Dramatic Hollywood takedowns of maligned professions—big bad lawyers, banks, politicians—tend to be overdone portrayals that are good for a thrill yet bad as a civics lesson. But in our truth-is-stranger-than-fiction world, one where reality TV and government have merged, all bets are off. In this new universe, the otherwise metastasized film Miss Sloane, focused on vilifying the profession of lobbying, is unavoidably relevant and eerily prescient.
The titular character, played powerfully by the talented Jessica Chastain, is a ruthless lobbyist hired to take on the grandest lobby of them all: the gun industry. Chastain’s Sloane is so manipulative, so conniving, and so bereft of all human morality, that she makes Gordon Gekko look like Mother Theresa.
At the outset, the ambitious Sloane condescendingly walks out of her position at a right-wing lobbyist firm after her equally merciless boss, the demonic Sam Waterson, orders her to find a way to turn women onto guns. She counters by joining the competition to do exactly the opposite, and then the fun, a sinister game of cat and mouse, begins. The devices she concocts rise into a crescendo of manipulation, leaving no one unscathed in her ruthless take no prisoners approach.
Seeking to pass gun regulations Sloane of course faces long odds. But as she lays waste to the souls of the people around her—from a puppy-eyed victim of gun violence played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to an ambitious but unseasoned former coworker turned rival (Alison Pill)—her chances become at least even. There is nothing Sloane will not do to win, including takedowns of her professional and political rivals, the huffing and puffing Michael Stuhlbarg and John Lithgow as the hapless Senator at the center of the ploys. She even manipulates and mercilessly dismissed her regular beau—a sexy escort (Jake Lacy) she pays for sex.
The film is steeped in tense arguments, a whirlwind of talk not unlike The Social Network or Steve Jobs. Some will find its twisted turns and explanations unappealing while others will find them stimulating. But the cynicism of the plot does become overblown, The Ides of March style, to the point where it spills out from the screen to poison the audience’s own relationship with the story. You become cynical of their cynicism, as it were. First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera created an interesting product, but his dialogue is not up to par with Aaron Sorkin’s bite. As the movie devolves into alternating scenes where Sloane heartlessly hatches ruin, and scenes where people lament and lecture how evil she is, you too become numbed.
And given that the film’s byline is “Make Sure You Surprise Them,” it won’t be news that the entire plot is buoyed and depends on twists to shock not just the unfortunate victims of Sloane’s callous machinations, but the stupefied audience. It mostly works and is mostly unpredictable, though the trick is completely bereft of any semblance of realism, no matter how satisfactory the reveal turns out to be.
Eventually, a witch hunt Senate Hearing develops to take down this overly ambitious woman. So enough with the inflated plot and the bombastic one-liners. The elephant in the Senate Hearing Room—the 2016 Presidential Election—cannot be ignored. Leave aside a witch hunt congressional committee. In one of Sloane’s many biting pronouncements, she decries politicians willing to do anything to ensure their own electoral survival rather than stand up for the principles of the Republic. The unintended resonance to some of the themes of the last year in American politics was so astounding as to elicit cheers and applause from the World Premiere audience at the AFI Film Festival, where I saw the film.
And when Sloane uses one simple lesson to connect the opening scene to the surprising climax, an admonition to her horrified pupils that they be careful to save their “trump card” until their rivals have used their own, you won’t be able to think of anything else but the real world.
It does not end there. How could it, when the central figure is a powerful and ambitious woman, one willing to take on anything and anyone to get what she wants? The film’s director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), confessed at the premiere that they did not foresee when they made the movie that women in politics would be such an incendiary issue. But incendiary it is and Miss Sloane, which would have no business being as interesting as it results, inexplicably finds itself as one of the timeliest films of the year.
There is no question that the primary reason to watch is Chastain’s brutal portrayal. Her steely gaze, her pale skin, her perfectly groomed features. They are icy and inviting, vicious and appealing and one cannot understate the depths of her inhumanity. This may be Chastain’s career role. But one can similarly not escape the comparisons and questions this woman-in-a-world of men character invites. There are plenty of scenes to pick from that will turn the audience against her. The question she begs is whether we’d feel the same if she weren’t wearing a skirt. Didn’t we secretly want Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort to triumph? Didn’t we look up to them as the archetypes of what we’d like to be?
Miss Sloane is not going to solve the protracted schism between left and right about sexism and politics. Nor is this review purporting to offer any insight into the issue. But it is nevertheless possible—if you are a glutton for punishment, I suppose—to continue the conversation started by 2016 through the lens of Miss Sloane’s bloated pronouncements. And, much like political talk , Miss Sloane is sure to piss of everyone and satisfy no one. It is the natural resting state of the movie-going audience—and the electorate.
Without the events of the last fifteen months, Miss Sloane would be an amusing if convoluted political drama buoyed by the strength of an infinitely talented superstar; a solid piece nevertheless sunk by its overconfident conviction about the putrefaction of the system. But, we did live through the last fifteen months of decay, and may look on Miss Sloane, years later even, as an accidental but relevant summation of everything horrific we have just witnessed.