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Review: Miss Sloane (2016)

Miss Sloane (2016)

Directed by: John Madden

Premise: An unscrupulous D.C. lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) goes to work for a small gun control organization in an attempt to pass a background check bill. She brings her win-at-all-costs attitude to the team and goes to war with her old firm.

What Works: Miss Sloane is ostensibly about gun control but the picture is really about lobbying and the way special interest groups sway legislative outcomes. In this respect, the movie mostly works and it is refreshing insofar as the film is earnestly cynical. Miss Sloane isn’t deluded by pie in the sky idealism or the sentimentality that characterizes the worst of Aaron Sorkin. Miss Sloane is the anti-West Wing. Where Sorkin’s political drama was about intelligent people acting out of competence and good intentions, Miss Sloane depicts politics and power as a cut throat chess game in which the most ruthless party wins.  In Miss Sloane, politicians are only beholden to whatever will keep them in power and that usually means appeasing the special interest groups that fund their campaigns. As such, the way to influence politicians and achieve the desired legislative outcome is not to make a compelling logical or moral argument but to incentivize policy makers to act in their own self-interest by leaning on the people and organizations who fund their campaigns. This is, in short, a market-based approach to politics, which befits Miss Sloane’s title character who is presented as a free-market libertarian type who also happens to believe in background checks for gun sales. When her unscrupulous methods offend the delicate liberal sensibilities of her colleagues at the gun control lobby, Sloane scoffs at their idealism. The movie’s edge makes it amusing and even darkly funny and the picture is, at least in part, an indictment of liberal political activism that is all heart and no brains. In this respect, Miss Sloane is more honest about the way in which power is wielded than the average political drama even if some of the scenarios of the film strain its credibility. Miss Sloane is led by Jessica Chastain, who gives a tremendous performance in the title role. Chastain has a steely resolve reminiscent of Faye Dunaway in Network and she is of uncertain moral character. Chastain and the movie are at their best when they play to this ambiguity. Miss Sloane also includes a notable supporting performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a promising member of the team who becomes the public face of the gun control campaign.

What Doesn’t: Miss Sloane has a lot in it that is good but the movie suffers from some fundamental flaws that become more problematic as the film proceeds. For one thing, Miss Sloane has a number of plot twists that go from implausible to silly. Sloane is a tactician but her ability to anticipate her opponent’s moves becomes absurd. The film concludes on a final twist that is supposed to explain all of this—and it does—but the big reveal also retroactively creates a lot of other logical problems for the story. The ending is also a problem in another way. To this point, Miss Sloane has been about the fight over a gun control bill but the climax shifts the focus. Sloane testifies before the Senate ethics committee who intend to humiliate her. This showdown redirects the point of the movie. It’s now all about her instead of about the issue. And as a result, the character’s master plan undermines her agenda. The ending is also a problem because it does not have the courage of its cynicism. What distinguishes Miss Sloane is its unsentimental understanding of politics and power. Sloane treats people like pawns on a chess board and that’s why she wins. The film forces her into a late conversion toward softness and compassion that is out of character and inconsistent with the rest of the movie.

Bottom Line: When it works, which it does for most of its running time, Miss Sloane is an edgy look at power and Jessica Chastain gives a great performance in the title role. But the filmmakers are too clever for their own good. Their attempt to outsmart the audience leads the filmmakers to make some stupid storytelling decisions.

Episode: #626 (December 18, 2016)