Sunday, December 11, 2016

Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane would like you to know that lobbying is a blood sport, a winner-take-all affair in which tactics trump ideas and those who make a difference are the ones most skilled at outflanking their opponents. We learn all this in almost so many words from Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a high-end Washington lobbyist who in the opening scenes is being advised to plead the Fifth before Congress by her lawyer. Sloane has run afoul of a Senate committee chaired by Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) for her actions while lobbying on behalf of the government of Indonesia. Are we really about to watch a political drama in which characters fight over palm oil?

Thankfully the answer is no. The hearing which bookends the movie is a function of Sloane's actions working in favor of a gun control bill. Sloane is first approached to work for the gun industry, but to the surprise of her boss (Sam Waterston) she leaves her job and takes her team to a smaller firm run by the idealistic Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Schmidt's firm is working against great odds to pass the bill and for a time it looks as though Sloane's aggressive tactics might secure the 60 votes required to beat a filibuster in the Senate. The battle to get those votes is the bulk of Miss Sloane, but if you're hoping that battle involves a large tote board with names of Senators and people erasing numbers then you won't be disappointed.

It is always a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain act, and as Elizabeth Sloane she is by turns indomitable and vulnerable in a way that's never less than arresting. It's a good thing that director John Madden was able to cast an actor as Elizabeth whose personality is so forceful, because the script by Jonathan Perera doesn't give much Chastain much of a character. Elizabeth is Type A and never seems to sleep - the movie gives her an addiction to amphetamines and then forgets about it - and her only personal interactions are regular appointments with an escort (Jake Lacy) who's a little too interested in learning about her career. We never know how Elizabeth got to this point in her life or career or what motivates her to do things like have a Senator followed by a parade float sized rat or out her colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on television as a survivor of gun violence. Miss Sloane contains a number of scenes in which someone asks Elizabeth "Why are you like this?", but we never really know.

One shouldn't go into Miss Sloane expecting a Sorkinesque political romp. Elizabeth shares a walk-and-talk with her assistant (Alison Pill) and some zippy byplay with a peer (Michael Stuhlbarg) when we first meet her, but Perera's script isn't taking place in a world where everyone operates with good intentions. The film is weirdly concerned with the place where ideals and tactics meet, and it seems to argue that Sloane's methods are justified by the fact that she believes in her cause. This belief makes her a "conviction lobbyist" in the film's parlance, while Waterston and Stuhlbarg's characters are merely paid flacks. The script is on the nose on this point, and Sloane's team repeatedly tells their new co-workers that sometimes it's necessary to get dirty to do some good. It all leads to a hearing room scene that's a tumble of revelations and witnesses, and we learn just why Sloane is so good at anticipating every variable. It all means much less than it might have. Jessica Chastain almost saves Miss Sloane from collapsing on itself, but this house of cards wasn't built to last.

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