Miss Slaone opens with its title character, a high-powered Washington lobbyist, speaking directly to the camera, delivering a crisp, precisely worded monologue laying out how to beat one’s opponent through wit and misdirection. It’s the most blatant example of the film of talking at its audience, but far from last. For over two wearying, overwritten hours, the film follows Sloane (Jessica Chastain) as she schemes, puts opponents in their place, and delivers devastating bon mots as others look on with surprise, admiration, or disdain, depending on the situation and which side of the film’s central issue their characters fall. Miss Sloane’s heroine is driven by her craftiness, but the film has all the subtlety of a hammer repeatedly hitting an anvil.
That’s a shame for a number of reasons, a great cast among them. Since she came to wide attention in 2011 — the year she became inescapable thanks to films like Tree of Life and Take Shelter — Chastain has established herself as an actress of tremendous nuance, a gift she can’t put to much use in a big, showy role that finds her struggling the find the humanity of a character that’s mostly an assemblage writerly contrivances. She’s a hard-driven, pill-popping, hyper-verbose career woman who dines every night at the same noodle shop, ignores her doctor’s orders to get some sleep, and compartmentalizes any need for intimacy into regular visits to a kindhearted, hardbodied escort (Jake Lacy). One more quirk — maybe a passion for football or opera? — and she could be the protagonist of an ABC series.
As the film opens, she’s leading a team of young turks at a lobbying firm overseen by George Dupont (Sam Waterston), a DC lifer eager to land the business of “the gun lobby,” the fig leaf term the film uses to avoid mentioning the NRA. And though the film immediately establishes Sloane as ethically flexible, she laughs in the face of a gun client pitching a plan to promote gun rights as a woman’s issue. This gets the attention of Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the head of a boutique lobbying firm dedicated to passing gun legislation, currently a bipartisan-friendly bill promoting background checks. Leaving Dupont behind, Sloane and the members of her team who follow her— who are joined by Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) an anti-gun lobbyist with a personal connection to the issue — decide to take on the biggest challenge of their career.
Working from a self-consciously clever, Aaron Sorkin-inspired script from first-timer Jonathan Perera, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) awkwardly attempts to juggle elements of an issues movie, a political thriller, and a legal drama — thanks to a framing device that finds Sloane called up in front of Congress on corruption allegations. Perera writes the sort of dialogue that requires supposedly smart people to explain to other people what they should already know, the twists range from the clever to the goofy — cybernetic cockroaches with spy equipment make an appearance — and the issue of gun control never gets a proper airing. Miss Sloane has, for obvious reasons, not been marketed as a pro-gun control movie. But though the issue is at the heart of the film, it’s timid in making a strong case for gun legislation, assuming that most in the audience will nod and agree at the need for background checks and and Sloane’s one-liners supporting it. Maybe, but if there’s no effort to persuade those who aren’t already on board with sensible gun laws couldn’t the film be about virtually any issue? Why construct a Trojan horse with nothing inside?
There’s another problem with Miss Sloane, too, one that’s not the movie’s fault: It already seems like it belongs to another time. A year, even a month ago, it would have looked like a broad, familiar depiction of how Washington works. Insiders work back channels, arrange for favors, and exert their influence in a system that’s become so tangled that it seems impossible for any meaningful work to get done. But with hard work and determination, maybe it’s possible to beat the crooked system at its own game and make our government work again. And maybe that’s true.
But at this moment, all the old verities about the democratic process prevailing and our shared beliefs holding the corrupt accountable for their misdeeds once they’ve been exposed seem, to put it as optimistically as possible, a little challenged. The D.C. of Miss Sloane is ugly, sure, but reality has quickly made it look quaint.
Miss Sloan is in limited release now and in wide release on December 9th.