Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stone Cold "Miss Sloane"

It's guilty pleasure time! I was expecting very little from "Miss Sloane," which was pushed as a potential awards contender back in December with Jessica Chastain in the leading role. I heard it described as a film about the gun control fight, which is very misleading. While a legislative battle over universal background checks is central to the story, the movie is really a profile of Elizabeth Sloane, the lobbyist who leads the pro-gun control side. She is a driven, amoral, Machiavellian monster, who is probably only in the fight because it presents a challenge. And it is so much fun to watch her twist and manipulate everyone around her in order to secure a victory.

Like Frank Underwood, Miss Sloane is not a real person (or based on one), but is the kind of figure that we'd like to imagine exists in Washington D.C. A perfect icy bitch exterior hides a pharmaceutical addiction, insomnia, a non-existent private life, and an all-consuming desire to win. Her only vice seems to be secret trysts with a male prostitute, Ford (Jake Lacy). She expertly navigates a Washington shark tank full of power players, mostly men, and can be as destructive to her allies as she is to her enemies in her efforts to stay one step ahead. Jessica Chastain does a fantastic job of giving her all the calculating intelligence and biting wit neccessary to keep her firmly at the center of attention at all times.

We first meet Elizabeth Sloane working for George Dupont (Sam Waterston) at a major lobbying firm, but when he tries to bring her on a campaign to kill a new gun control bill a the behest of a gun industry bigwig, Bob Sanders (Chuck Shamata), Sloane ends up defecting to the opposition. She joins a smaller firm lead by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), leaving behind a pair of resentful colleages, Pat (Michale Stuhlbarg) and Jane (Alison Pill), who are very familiar with how she operates, and work to derail her. However, Sloane also finds a new ally in lobbyist Esme (Gugu Mbath-Raw), and recruits several former underlings to join her new campaign. Both sides are ruthless, and Sloane is targeted personally, eventually being charged for ethics violations in a Congressional hearing lead by Senator Ron Sperling (John Lithgow).

Directed by the dependable John Madden, and scripted by newcomer Jonathan Perera, "Miss Sloane" is too long, too in love with its lead character, and depicts several wild twists that are clearly ludicrous. However, as a lover of twisty political movies, I had so much fun. I didn't care that the characters were paper thin and the mechanics of the plotting were too convenient. I didn't care that the male prostitute subplot doesn't make any sense and goes nowhere. I'm sure anyone familiar with how real lobbyists oeprate would laugh themsleves silly. But smart people outsmarting other smart people will never cease to entertain me, and Jessica Chastain is good enough here that I could overlook all the nagging inconsistencies about her character and just enjoy the ride.

The supporting cast is also great. I want to give special kudos to Michale Stuhbarg as Sloane's main rival, who gets some of the best laugh lines in the movie. And then there's Gugu Mbath-Raw, who adds another strong performance to the string of good outings she's had over the past few years. In a different kind of film, she would have been the protagonist to Sloan's devil figure antagonist. The production is familiar, but it makes Washington look suitably chilly and clandestine, run by people in dark suits. It was also nice to see some emphasis on the cultural differences between the two lobbying firms - the smaller, scrappier pro-gun firm operates like a tech start-up.

Ultimately, the movie reminded me of one of those old John Grisham legal potboilers that could be elevated by a good cast and some fun writing. It's a shame that "Miss Sloane" is being sold as a typical fight-for-the-cause picture, when it's really more of a traditional thriller. And I really appreciate having a character like Elizabeth Sloane in the media lanscape, a ruthless woman who enjoys being so good at what she does. There are plenty of male versions of Miss Sloane, but still sadly too few female sharks in the tank.


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