Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alisson Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Christine Baranski
US theatrical: 25 Nov 2016 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: (General release)
“It was OK for me to not be likable or easy to understand. It was important to me that she be ambitious, ruthless, a loner and perfectionist who has flaws and is also noble and self-sacrificing at the end.”
“Know your subject, people.” Chastising her team of young and eager lobbyists, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) emphasizes the need always to be steps ahead of opponents. Lobbyists, she insists, can only win or lose, no in-betweens, no moral victories.
As Miss Sloane opens, Elizabeth stands in an upscale boardroom where her team is sitting. Alone in her frames, apart from her listeners, she’s visibly restless even as she’s still, impatient with slow responses and missed beats. In a heartbeat, she’s summoned to another room, glass walls all around, to meet with her current employer, George (Sam Waterston) and a potential client, Elizabeth offers another sort of instruction. Again, she’s alone in her shots, the men seated opposite her. When she learns that the men want her to head up a campaign, “Mothers for a Safer America,” pitching guns to women as “tools of female empowerment”, Elizabeth laughs out loud, rejecting their premise outright: “It could only have originated in a room full of old men.”
At this moment, George is horrified and you’re intrigued. Elizabeth, with her perfect her pants suit and posture, appears sharp, principled, and accomplished, a welcome if regular hero in an overwhelmingly corrupt universe. “I work on behalf of causes I believe in,” she says, “That’s how I sleep at night.”
Except… Elizabeth doesn’t sleep at night. It’s not long before you learn that she puts on a bit of a show. To manage her impossible schedule and long hours, she’s popping pills, she’s forgoing personal relationships, she’s focusing entirely on her job, which is to say, outsmarting her adversaries on the jobs at hand and on knowing her subjects. In another movie, all this might make Elizabeth that much more admirable, but in Miss Sloane, it makes her difficult, hard to like, complex. Even as she asserts, “There can only be one winner”, you get the feeling that even she might know that winning in this arena is not only tough, but also costly and destructive. It may be too that her math is wrong.
In this moment, Miss Sloane appears to be wrestling with complexity, making Elizabeth, as Chastain suggests, ambitious and ruthless (at least until she’s not). In so doing, the film offers a bit of a challenge to heroic story conventions, raising moral questions not easily answered and pushing viewers to examine their assumptions about how identify with characters.
To be sure, much of Miss Sloane poses that challenge in familiar ways. Soon after the blow-up with George, Elizabeth agrees to work with Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), head of a much smaller lobbying firm working on behalf of a bill featuring regulatory checks on the purchase of firearms. The storyline is on the wonky side: will they wage an effective PR operation? will they get the Senate votes they need? The film does well to structure a series of personal stakes and clever camera choices, as locations vary, scenes move quickly, and people argue pointedly, Aaron-Sorkin-style.
At the same time, the depths of Elizabeth’s own troubles emerge, as you see her dearth of trusted friends, her employment of a prostitute named Forde (Jake Lacey), and her addiction, rendered most vividly in images of Elizabeth in public bathroom stalls, swallowing pills, waiting a beat, then flushing the toilet before she exits: the confinement metaphor could not be plainer.
The tug at Elizabeth’s less harsh side is embodied by someone she hires to work on the campaign, Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Passionate about the cause, Esme is apparently a natural, convincing as a spokesperson, good at anticipating next moves. She’s also engaging as a conversation and debate partner, as Elizabeth comes to see when they meet for meals at a Korean takeout place. Here, they’re like girlfriends, sharing experiences and ideas, even though Elizabeth tends to turn back to her hard and focused self rather abruptly.
But even as you find yourself hoping this complicated relationship teases out more complications in both Elizabeth and Esme, you come to realize that, no, it’s actually another plot device. Worse, it’s a plot device that leads to another, stretched-thin plot device involving a gun death. Now you’re asked to forget all that stuff that made Elizabeth unpleasant and unusual, her bravado and abrasive behavior, her bad choices, and her genius for being as corrupt as the “old men” she rebukes. The awkward action injection veers the movie off its character study and examination of DC corruption, so that it falls splat into a predictable courtroom showdown, dressed up as Congressional testimony.
By now the film has also lost all focus on the gun bill. That’s too bad, because the moral tensions between the gun regulations bill and Elizabeth’s cynical brilliance complicate every angle of the game-playing in DC, and make resolutions hard. As Elizabeth appears not to anticipate moves by some witnesses, you might wonder about all her previous cunning and brutality, her superb reading of other people. Which moment is the lie? Does it matter? You might have prepared for a gaudy twist of a finalé, but no, the finalé you get is the one you might have expected from another movie, a movie that doesn’t begin with the promise of something different.