Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: "Miss Sloane"

Elizabeth Sloane is, by universal assent (including her own estimation), “a real piece of work.”

As played magnificently by Jessica Chastain, “Miss Sloane” is the ultimate Washington D.C. insider – a famed lobbyist who uses all the considerable skills at her disposal, along with a host of nefarious methods, to get what she wants for her clients. Bullying, (barely) legal bribery, non-profit fronts, toadying, outright espionage, bald-faced lying – Sloane sees these things as merely tools in her dark arsenal.

Sloane labels herself a “conviction lobbyist,” meaning she’ll only advocate on behalf of groups or causes she personally supports. But after years gleefully fighting in the trenches and corridors of power, all that really matters for her is getting the win.

At one point her boss, Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), just stands outside her office, stunned by Sloane’s latest act of brazen manipulation upon the body politic. I just want to know, he says, how somebody like you comes to be – how you grew up, what events shaped your personality, and so on. Because Sloane’s actions often seem to indicate the operation of a brilliant mind without even an ounce of conscience.

The story opens with a framing device of Sloane being grilled by a U.S. Senate committee chaired by a glowering politico (John Lithgow) demanding answers about her unseemly methods. So we assume her nefarious history has finally caught up with her.

But as the story goes deeper and we learn more about Sloane and her skillful machinations, we start to wonder whether she’s sitting in the hot seat by choice.

Sloane is the star player at the biggest lobbying firm in town, run by a patriarchal figure (Sam Waterson) who’s been dying to land the gun lobby as a client for years. A new bill is coming up for a vote that would require universal background checks, and they want Sloane to send it down in flames by appealing to women. Sloane literally laughs in their faces, and bolts to a much smaller company backing the measure.

About half her team defects with her, including protégé Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), who regards Sloane as both mentor and cautionary tale. Meanwhile, she’s facing off with her conniving old partner Pat Connors, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays key new ally Esme Manucharian, a passionate gun control advocate with a personal history.

It all plays out in the high-stakes world of the media, as various forces and circumstances align themselves to help or hurt the cause.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), working with rookie screenwriter Jonathan Perera, give us an intricately plotted political thriller, a drawn-out game of cat and mouse, with a character study in the middle.

Sloane is so busy training her high-powered vision upon her adversaries and allies, there’s not much time for self-exploration of the person behind the façade. She literally doesn’t sleep, subsisting on pills and food from the same Korean BBQ place every night. Sloane even arranges trysts with male escorts to satisfy her basic primal urges; when an urban cowboy type (Jake Lacy) shows up in place of her usual faux beau, it leaves her both miffed and intrigued.

The film touches on the current debate about gun rights vs. control, and there’s certainly a bit of Hollywood moralizing, but it isn’t really about that. It’s just the backdrop for a larger tale about the rot in our political system, and a portrait of one of its chief schemers.

Can one have a noble heart but wallow in corruption? Just how bad do the ends have to get before they cease justifying the means? “Miss Sloane” explores these questions in a slick but probing way.

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