Miss Sloane (2016) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 132 min.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, John Lithgow, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy
Small role: Christine Baranski, Dylan Baker
Director: John Madden
Screenplay: Jonathan Perera
Review published December 16, 2016
Jessica Chastain (The Huntsman, Crimson Peak) stars as the Machiavellian strategist Elizabeth Sloane, a shrewd and brilliantly effective lobbyist in Washington DC, whose main goal in any situation is to win at any cost, even if she has to steamroll over people, even innocent ones, who get in the way of her success.
The movie bounces back and forth between events occurring at a U.S. Senate committee hearing spearheaded by U.S. Senator Ronald Sperling (Lithgow, The Accountant), who are looking into the legalities of Miss Sloane's business dealings. Under the advice of her counsel, she pleads the Fifth to every question Sperling throws at her, for fear that just one foot in the door to further explanations that will blow the case wide open for complete interrogation. We then circle back to the beginnings of the current situation, where we find Sloane working for a major lobbying firm, dealing with a new case for advocates for the gun lobby who are trying to find a way to persuade more women to their cause against a new gun-control bill that would put restrictions of gun sales. As much of a player as she is, Sloane decides that this is not a cause she wants to see win, instead choosing to bolt the firm to work for a mode idealistic, less savvy organization trying to lobby congress the other direction. The question is, will her emotional and intellectual interest in a cause she believes in compromise her ability to win the case by any means necessary, and possibly result in jail time for past transgressions.
Scripted by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, British writer who has spent his adult life in Asia (far removed from Washington DC), seems to be basing his film not so much on reality but more on entertainment based on reality, going for an obvious Aaron Sorkin vibe, only not remotely close to giving the kind of juicy dialogue we might expect from the comparison to that esteemed veteran's output. It does have a competent director at the helm in John Madden (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who worked previously with Chastain in The Debt, and while he does just enough to make the film fluid and watchable, the momentum never quite generates to the kind of intensity one might be hoping for based on the powerhouse nature of the main conflict that is set up. The length of the film is also an issue, at two hours and twelve minutes, with entire scenes and characters easily worthy of being put on the proverbial cutting-room floor, especially involving Miss Sloane's interactions with a male escort.
Elizabeth Sloane, as a Gordon Gecko-like character, comes across as unscrupulous, perhaps sociopathic, to the point of being detestable, perhaps due to the lack of background information given to her character that would dictate why she has become the shark-like political player navigating the treacherous waters of Washington. Although the main subject is in regard to the battle over gun control vs. Second Amendment rights, the screenplay doesn't seem to have an axe to grind either way, so the subject matter is fairly close to irrelevant in terms of watching the debate, though it does somewhat factor in during a scene in which a couple of guns are used, resulting in fanning the flames of the media over the event.
The key to liking Miss Sloane, as a film, may ultimately come down to how much you enjoy Jessica Chastain's commanding central performance. I struggled with it throughout, enjoying the refreshing way that Chastain proceeds forward as a "Mad Men"-esque counter-programmer, but I never bought Sloane as a realized characterization, which always seems to ride the hard-talking, loose-moraled person whose singular focus is to prevail on top. In other words, there is too much caricature involved and not enough character to latch onto in the way Sloane is portrayed. Chastain herself is engaging, but limited to a very narrow range for her character that doesn't allow her to break out to her potential. I much prefer her riffing on Lady Macbeth in A Most Violent Year, which feels much more fleshed out than what we get here.
There's a fine ensemble of supporting actors throughout Miss Sloane to add a bit more weight to the film, but they too are just a limited to only one or two traits to define their own characters, making this a potential actors' showcase that lacks the kind of meaty roles that could really drive the film above its inherent contrivances. While they lend the film flavor, especially Mark Strong (The Brothers Grimsby) in another assured characterization, one can't help but feel like there's a lot of waste of talent involved in this project that feels like several episodes of a television drama rolled into a feature-length film.
One (hopefully non-spoiler) nitpick from me, as someone who works in IT as my "real job": There is a scene in which an IP address is called out as a URL, and at least one of the decimal numbers is higher than 255. Not only this, but everyone who hears this number immediately knows this to be an address in which they need to type in the address bar of their mobile devices, and all of a fairly sizable crowd immediately reach this address at the same time, with full streaming HD video no less, without any form of lag. And they immediately can see and understand what they are watching. While a casual viewer may accept this as something that might presumably happen, my eyes were rolling so much in my skull I feared they'd pop out. Alas, this moment comes at a critical moment in the film, so it really is a make-or-break thing, and it broke the film in a way I don't feel I can fully overlook without setting up the movie as more tongue-in-cheek in tone and less riding on ersatz real-world relevancy.
It's uneven, but not unenjoyable, at least until it gets to a completely contrived climax and overblown finale that just can't pass the snicker test in the ludicrous way it plays out, rendering a production that already feels like a TV show (strains of "The West Wing", "Scandal", and "House of Cards" may please those into small-screen viewing) into something not worth the two hours already spent trying to maintain interest in. A film that grapples with real issues that seeks more to entertain through surface pleasures more than to change minds makes it feel like a bait-and-switch gimmick to feel weighty when it is vacuous underneath. It's built on rails to be a nifty thriller, with a topical issue shoehorned in to make it feel relevant in a way that it plays dispassionate toward. And you know what happens after putting weight on a house of cards; Miss Sloane goes into full collapse by trying to have it both ways.
©2016 Vince Leo