MISS SLOANE Review
Director: John Madden
I need to say a few things right off the bat. I love THE INSIDER. I really appreciate the dry journalistic qualities of SPOTLIGHT despite all of its dramatic setbacks. I cherish the cynicism of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. I’m riveted by the thrill-ride that is MICHAEL CLAYTON. I hate the fact-bending in Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I can’t deny having fun while it lasted. But what irritates me most are all of these film’s cheap, lazy, formally tepid copycats. 2016’s MISS SLOANE is that kind of film. Not one without its merits, but one that falls into the trap of being exactly the dreadfully dreamy piece of liberal wish fulfillment that renders political commentary invaluable.
It’s frustrating, because MISS SLOANE is a badass, feminist power trip through-and-through, one that is almost entirely carried by Chastain’s powerhouse performance. On paper, this is the film that needed to exist in the wake of a Hillary Clinton presidency (and was certainly written with that in mind): a proud showcase of what women can do. But in the wake of president-elect Trump, MISS SLOANE reads like the a devastatingly disappointing investment. If anything, it’s a sobering reminder of how hopeful we once were. What once was an empowering tale of a woman’s capacity to bring the Capitol to its knees through the power of foresight and the — even more valuable — tool of female voters, now reads like fantasy. Everything is carved out with the intention of being as liberating as possible. This is the portrait of a woman who doesn’t need family, doesn’t long for maternity, and gladly engages with male escorts for stress-relief. In that capacity, MISS SLOANE is a great feminist character piece. But as a work of education, or one of political commentary, it veers off course.
Get it, she’s driving AWAY from the Capitol? Get it!?
Following Jessica Chastain, playing a tough-as-nails, all-business Washington, D.C lobbyist as she rallies the troops in support of a gun control bill, MISS SLOANE is exactly the film that panders to the lowest common denominator on the liberal agenda. While this isn’t an outright offense, it feels like a missed opportunity to unfurl a more complex, less hotly debated issue. In short, what is MISS SLOANE trying to say? Well, it’s a discussion of our broken government. A portrayal of all the nooks and crannies that allow lobbyists to sway the outcome of a bill. It showcases the dangers of big money, notably that of the NRA, and reveals that no politician is safe from blackmail, because everyone, regardless how hard they try to hide it, has a vice.
The final takeaway that director John Madden wants to leave us with is that this corrupt government will never be toppled unless we have an absolute savant lobbying against her own personal interests and fighting for the will of the people. In short, MISS SLOANE is the projection of an impossibility in order to prove a point. Frankly, this side of it is quite intelligent. But unfortunately, it’s far too safe to be considered well-written, far too fast-paced for the layman in the crowd, and boasts a pompous self-righteousness that stinks of hopeful, liberal cinema. What I’m getting at is that MISS SLOANE’s target audience is inconveniently niche. It caters to educated liberals who not only understand the process of lobbying, but can keep up with razor-sharp writing, fast-paced editing, and dense, telephoto photography. MISS SLOANE doesn’t really do itself any favors, and as such, it alienates viewers on the right with its one-sided political agenda, and loses viewers on the left for its dump-truck coverage.
Chastain will soon be cast to play Hailee Steinfeld in the Paramore biopic
Madden finds himself in somewhat of a bind here. In many ways, MISS SLOANE is two things at once. On one hand it is championing a defeat of the elite, proudly, but naively, pumping its fist like a late-October Bernie supporter. On the other, it’s a rather intelligent display of just how much would need to be done in order to defeat the gun lobby. The odd thing is that I frankly don’t appreciate MISS SLOANE’s political stance here. It paints Jessica Chastain as a martyr. Someone who has sacrificed a normal, happy life for the greater good. While Madden does care to direct us to some clever nuances (Chastain lobbied for Indonesian palm oil use, so clearly she’s not a saint) and does spend a lot of his running time chastising the vile powerplay conducted by the NRA, he concludes his narrative in such a way that the average viewer might actually sympathize with a great majority of lobbyists: that is borderline criminal.
This controversial argument comes to a boiling point during the film’s final courtroom sequence. This beat, with all its cathartic power, reminded me of all the best and worst qualities that I recall from my viewing of JFK. In a stick-it-to-the-man monologue, Chastain mentions that she has been dubbed the “parasite of politics,” but refutes this claim by stating that the true parasites are the politicians that let themselves be swayed with money and blackmail. While this isn’t untrue, it feels like a logical fallacy and an insult to my own intelligence. Just because somebody is more guilty of moral incompetence doesn’t make lobbyists the white knight of American politics. And while Madden clearly doesn’t mean to assert this (after all, Michael Stuhlbarg, an NRA lobbyist, plays Chastain’s antagonist), MISS SLOANE is walking on thin ice due to its execution.
The face of watching an inexperienced tightrope walk
At its core, MISS SLOANE is somewhat of a pipe dream. The type of film Hollywood makes in which we all get to imagine how cool politics would be if it would actually work the way Californian liberals wish it did. As such, it lacks any real complexity. MISS SLOANE’s most intelligent chapter occurs when an anti-gun lobbyist is attacked on the street, only to be saved by a “good guy with a gun.” This segment introduces a clever moral dilemna that elegantly escalates the film’s stakes. But these instances are far and few between. MISS SLOANE propels itself with the dialogue of a Sorkin script and the camerawork of a Greengrass film, effectively dooming the audience that is new to the concept of lobbying. As such, Madden has produced a film that isn’t really for anybody. It’s too fast on its feet for newcomers, and blatantly one-sided for the educated.
Chastain manages to ground much of this film with a deeply layered performance. Delivering one of her most difficult characters since ZERO DARK THIRTY, Chastain is a helpful exposition avalanche as well as a deeply tragic anti-hero. She’s ruthless, strategic, biting, charming, but always calculated. Her sympathetic traits clash wonderfully with her antagonistic ones. This performance is also the film’s saving grace. In the same way that Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial war film started a heated debate about interrogation techniques in the War on Terror, MISS SLOANE has the potential to spark quite the dialogue in regards to lobbyists in D.C. I respect Chastain’s ability to breathe so much life into individuals that most viewers immediately stigmatize as vile, ethically bankrupt profiteers, but Madden lacks the formal ingenuity, both in his camerawork and his script, to tell a story that embraces these complex shades of grey (hell, even its poster renders Washington into a board of black and white).
I Scream, Yas Kween, We All Scream, For Ice Queen
If you remember watching STATE OF PLAY, THE FIFTH ESTATE, select episodes from HOUSE OF CARDS, or any other pseudo-political chess game, then you’ve certainly seen MISS SLOANE. It’s a film hampered by a third-act twist that will certainly stretch your suspension of disbelief, but if you’re willing to play ball, it’ll at least reward you with base-level entertainment. What’s always exciting is Jessica Chastain delivering one of the best performances of the year. The problem is that despite all its attempts to form a compelling character portrait, MISS SLOANE lacks the educational craftsmanship of its peers: THE BIG SHORT, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, or even ZERO DARK THIRTY. It’s a formally safe film that never challenges anyone but Miss Chastain herself. For that reason alone, I’d suggest fans of performance pieces go give MISS SLOANE a chance. But otherwise, I’d urge you to stay at home and put on your copies of THE INSIDER, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, MICHAEL CLAYTON, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, or any other superior work of political, journalistic, bureaucratic hodge-podge.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend