Miss Sloane stars Jessica Chastain as an ambitious and amoral power broker in Washington. If that alone isn’t enough to sell your ticket, you may want to adjust your standards. Yet while this is very clearly the Oscar vehicle Chastain so richly deserves, she’s surrounded by a cast of such heavy-hitters as Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Allison Pill, John Lithgow, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Waterston, and others.
Behind the scenes, however, things get a little murky. The screenplay was written by Jonathan Perera, whose IMDB page is otherwise perfectly blank. The director is John Madden, better known for lighter fare such as Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. His last attempt at any kind of heavy drama was The Debt in 2010, a film in which Chastain hunted Nazis while playing a young Helen Mirren, and yet the film turned out to be barely anything more than a footnote.
So how did Miss Sloane turn out? Well, it’s a lot more interesting and memorable than The Debt, I can tell you that. Of course, it’s hard to tell how well the film will age when it got such a limited release so close to the upcoming Star Wars tsunami, and the movie was so clearly a product of its time, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The titular Miss Sloane is already one of the most notorious lobbyists on the Hill by the time we meet her as she works at a prestigious firm. But what sets Sloane apart from her colleagues is that she only fights for causes that she genuinely believes in. Which is to say, she has a deeply personal investment in getting elected officials to back her agenda.
So it is that the gun lobbyists come to Sloane’s firm asking her to work her magic to shoot down a law mandating universal background checks on anyone purchasing any firearm. She was specially selected to shore up support among female voters, you see. Sloane’s boss (played by Sam Waterston) naturally wants to be in business with one of the most powerful lobbies in government, though Sloane herself is adamantly in favor of gun control and of course she resents being trotted out as the token female.
So Sloane gets scooped up by an opposing lobby (headed by Mark Strong in the role of Rodolfo Schmidt), that operates on a fraction of the budget, supplied by non-profit donations. Thus we get our underdog story, in which good-hearted activists are fighting against the evil big-money corporations and their crooked allies in elected office. But what makes this interesting is that it’s Sloane versus her former company, each of whom have intimate knowledge of the other.
And that’s not even getting started on Sloane herself.
It would be a understatement to say that Sloane is an workaholic. She takes off-prescription stimulants in place of sleep, and she hires male prostitutes in place of anything resembling a love life (we’ll get back to that). But more than that, she’s a manipulative bitch. She’s dedicated her entire being to the art of strategy, secretive to the point where she barely communicates with her own teammates, treating friend and foe alike as equally disposable for the greater good. But remember, it’s only because she’s fighting for a cause that everyone on her side is already pledged themselves to, and something she has legitimate reasons to feel strongly about.
It’s especially ironic, given this particular cause: Sloane is fighting to save lives by way of greater gun control, even as she chews up and spits out everyone around her. And precisely because she and her allies are going up against the firearms industry and so many fanatical gun owners, she is quite literally putting herself and her teammates in the crosshairs with every stunt she pulls. And it’s anyone’s guess as to whether she’s too proud to see that, or if she’s counting on it as part of another plan. Plus, even if she succeeds and any would-be crazed gunmen have to go through the inconvenience of buying their guns on the black market, is that really worth all this work and sacrifice from her and everyone she works with?
Sloane is a character with conviction, but without ethics. She’s trying to keep hold of her soul while mastering a town and a business in which only the soulless can apparently survive. She freely sacrifices and/or slaughters anyone she has to, if it means making sure some bill gets passed that will save more lives in the long run. And it’s not that she doesn’t care about those closest to her — it’s that she has to force herself not to care, in order to do her job. And she’s gotten alarmingly good at it. In fact, there’s the distinct possibility that Sloane is only keeping everyone else in the dark to give them plausible deniability, so that she and only she goes down if caught doing anything illegal.
This raises a lot of questions. Does Sloane lie and cheat to advance the cause, or is she just a sociopath who can’t live any other way? When something — ANYTHING — happens, we always have to wonder if it was somehow orchestrated by Sloane as one of her plans within plans, and we can’t even trust her word one way or another. And then there’s what could be the most crucial question of all: If Sloane is so willing to offer up everyone else as a sacrifice to the greater cause, does that extend to herself as well? Would she martyr herself to get a bill passed, and what would that look like? Further, if given the choice between career suicide or suicide by career, which would she choose?
Naturally, there is a lot here to unpack in terms of theme. The issue of gun control naturally comes up, but it’s just more of the same talking points we’ve heard in the news ad infinitum, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. In fact — short of deciding whether or not we go to war (see: In the Loop) — the issue of gun control is perhaps the most explicit possible illustration of how every single decision made by our elected representatives is life or death for somebody else. Whether it’s somebody who’ll go bankrupt if a new tax law passes or somebody who could lose their medical care over an abortion bill, or all the needs that could be met and the bills that could be passed in all the time that politicians spend dithering, there is never ever a time when lives are not at stake.
Of course there’s also a great deal of talk about how politicians are only interested in the sake of their own careers with little if any regard to their conscience. It’s a tired subject and common knowledge. Yet when it’s portrayed by way of politicians caught between two opposing lobbying groups — both diabolically clever, equally ruthless, and determined to get their way at any cost — the subject suddenly becomes a lot more compelling.
The media comes up quite a few times, specifically with regard to how easily distracted and ephemeral the news culture is. Of course, the flip side to that is that anyone at any time could potentially get their fifteen minutes of fame and their chance to control the popular consciousness for good or ill. Then there’s the flip-flip side, in that anyone who gets to be a figurehead could be the first one to be targeted by the opposition.
There’s the power of money in politics, there’s an examination of grassroots activism, there’s talk about feminism and respect between people, and I haven’t even gotten started on the stuff about electronic surveillance. The list goes on and on.
Practically all of this rests on the shoulders of Jessica Chastain, and she handles it like the Best Actress contender that she is. Kudos are also due to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who finally — FINALLY! — gets a role and a movie worthy of her talent and her screen presence. Then of course there’s John Lithgow in the role of an especially prominent senator, and of course he’s always a treat to watch.
Then we have actors like Allison Pill as the bright young intern, Mark Strong as the charismatic and strong-willed leader of the operation, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the slimy yet intelligent right-hand man to our antagonist. Oh, and Dylan Baker briefly appears as a sort of cable news pundit, and . All of these actors are playing roles firmly in their established wheelhouses, which means that they’re reliably solid if nothing else.
Alas, Sam Waterston and Chuck Shamata (as the client to Waterston’s character) both seem to be in a different movie entirely. The rest of the movie is filled with so many fascinating moral ambiguities and conundrums that it only draws so much more attention to how arch-evil the pro-firearms side is. The characters are written and developed in such broad strokes that it’s borderline impossible to take them seriously. They may not take up enough screen time to really sink the movie, but it’s enough to do some damage. And while the actors try gamely to salvage what they’re given, there’s only so much they could’ve done.
But the booby prize of the cast goes to Jake Lacy in the role of “Forde”. He’s the male escort who comes to service Sloane after her previous regular skipped town. Leaving aside that Lacy doesn’t have the charisma or the screen presence to leave any kind of an impression, there’s the sad and simple fact that Forde is entirely useless. The film was perfectly within its right to comment on the use of escorts within Washington, and it makes all kinds of sense that Sloane would avail herself of such a service.
But the real problem here is that Forde tries to set himself up as a love interest for Sloane. It’s awkward, it’s cliched, it’s stereotypical, it’s clearly and blatantly unprofessional for a sex worker, and it tells us virtually nothing about Sloane that we don’t already know. In fact, if Sloane and and her regular escort were able to simply talk to each other as one professional to another, with the clear and implicit understanding that what they have is fake and nothing they say or do leaves the room, finding sympathy in the knowledge that they both lie to others for a living, that might have been far more interesting and illuminating.
Then we have some problems with the ending. I think I can say without spoiling anything that of course Sloane’s old company is able to dig up some dirt on her and make it public. And never once does anyone ever mention that this is a two-edged sword, as any illegal activity that Sloane did might just as easily implicate the company that she used to work for at the time. Additionally, so much of the ending depends on a huge climactic twist, but the payoff doesn’t land as it should because the setups weren’t quite strong enough. Especially since a crucial plot point depends on a certain sci-fi gizmo so utterly ludicrous that there’s no way it could possibly be real. Except that (SPOILER ALERT) it somehow is real.
All things considered, I had a great time with Miss Sloane. I had been waiting for Jessica Chastain’s big starring Oscar vehicle, and she did not disappoint by any stretch. The rest of the cast is outstanding (with a couple of minor weak links), and the plot was great fun to watch (aside from a relatively weak ending). The script is beautifully written, with marvelous dialogue, a well-paced plot, and multiple layers of compelling themes to dig through.
It’s a wonderfully intelligent political thriller, well worth checking out. Strongly recommended.