AFI Film Review: ‘Miss Sloane’

Peter Debruge
Variety

Further evidence of the Aaron Sorkinization of American screenwriting, “Miss Sloane” is a talky, tense political thriller, full of verbal sparring and fiery monologues, undone by a really dumb ending. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t smart for most of its running time. Constructed like a magic act by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, with tricks up every sleeve that keep audiences guessing, this twisty peek inside the sausage factory of American politics features characters who talk faster than most people think. Plus, it’s engaging — make that downright electrifying — to watch a female star as strong as Jessica Chastain carry a film about a D.C. lobbyist who risks her reputation for a cause she believes in.

Directed by handsome drama maestro John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) and positioned as a cross between “Michael Clayton” and “All the President’s Men,” the movie features morally bankrupt D.C. power players and blackmail scenes set in shady parking garages, making inspired use of genre clichés even as it offers a relatively fresh look at one of the most manipulative forces on Capitol Hill today: the special-interest lobbyist. Considering Chastain’s ball-busting work here and Sandra Bullock’s turn as a ruthless political consultant in “Our Brand Is Crisis” last year, perhaps some glass ceilings have shattered during this election cycle after all.

Chastain plays Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, a copper-haired, iron-willed political strategist who’s always a step ahead of her competition. It’s about “playing your trump card right after they play theirs,” she says up front, tipping her hand a bit too much from the outset — though, like any good con-man caper, the movie still packs the capacity to blindside audiences. While there may be laws governing how lobbyists should operate, Sloane and her comrades at the Cole, Kravitz & Waterman consulting firm are experts at bending them. If swaying malleable congressmen were an Olympic sport, Sloane would be a “gold medalist in ethical limbo,” driven more by the competition than the causes themselves.

When we meet her, she’s spinning a tariff on the importation of palm oil from Indonesia as a “Nutella tax,” and arranging for a senator to take a cushy “research trip” to the remote island nation. It’s just these sorts of pay-for-play dealings, or the semblance thereof, that have inspired so much scandal around Hillary Clinton and other career politicians lately, and while it may be business as usual in Washington, the public has clearly had enough. Whether that translates into a desire by audiences to see one such wheeler-dealer take a well-calculated swan dive with her own career is another matter.

After successfully killing the Indonesian import-tax bill, Sloane makes a surprising about-face to her employers, rejecting a lucrative offer to represent the gun lobby. She resigns from the firm — leaving behind boss Sam Waterston and protégé Alison Pill, both poached directly from Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” — and takes an offer to work the other side of the fence on the gun issue with a firm headed by an old-fashioned idealist (Mark Strong).

Taking four of her sharpest colleagues with her, she swiftly makes the scrappy outfit battle-ready, navigating the tricky personalities — and personal agendas — of her new team members, most notably a mixed-race survivor of a high-profile school shooting (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the movie’s conscience), whose scruples nicely offset her new boss’s anything-goes attitude. The movie makes no issue of the group’s diversity, though it’s yet another bonus in a film with an agenda that has nothing to do with gun control but is more about not underestimating anyone, no matter their color or gender. Heck, even white guys get a chance to shine in unexpected ways here, as Forde (Jake Lacy), the Southern-drawling hustler Sloane sees when she needs a quick fix of intimacy-free sex, gets the chance to demonstrate himself as a man of principles (perhaps the only one in the whole film).

Screenwriter Perera landed a spot on last year’s Black List with the script, and though it crackles with confrontational exchanges and just enough in-the-trenches color to be convincing, it doesn’t yet feel like he’s found his own voice. Instead, he’s clearly channeling other writers’ sparring style (though not enough of Armando Iannucci’s wit or Paddy Chayefsky’s bite to deliver anywhere near their quotient of memorable zingers). And yet, as with J.C. Chandor’s 2011 “Margin Call,” one gets the sense that actors must not see this kind of material often enough, settling for ersatz Sorkin when it’s the best they can get.

For Chastain, who’s a decade younger than the writer originally imagined, Sloane is an extension of the gender-blind game-changers she has played in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian” — formidable professionals so capable and determined that their actions have world-changing consequences. Here, behind her dark, talon-like nails and impeccable smoky-eyes makeup, behind her character’s shoulders-back confidence and ultra-confident strut, the actress affords tiny glimpses of Sloane’s potential vulnerability, popping uppers like Tic Tacs or, in one rare instance, begging a colleague for forgiveness. Even so, the script enigmatically leaves “what makes her tick” an open question till the end.

While the ending seems antithetical to everything Chastain has shown us about the character, it makes her strong enough to stand up to the high-stakes Senate ethics hearing that’s interwoven throughout the film, with John Lithgow as a seemingly above-reproach legislator determined to cleanse the system of such parasites.

But while a few too many plot twists all but elbow the gun control vote out of the picture, including a ludicrously contrived scene in which someone pulls a weapon on one of the members of Sloane’s team, the inquest comes to assume far too central a role in the film’s outcome. Yes, no one is better positioned to destroy Sloane than her former colleagues, but surely they must realize that by going head-to-head, they risk bringing the whole system crashing down around them.

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