The historical context in which we see a movie shouldn't matter, yet it does. Early press and PR for Miss Sloane touted it as a film about politics so cold and cynical it would shock us all. Maybe what happened on November 9 raised our shock threshold, or maybe the hype was never justified. Either way, this D.C. insider drama from director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) comes off more as a talky stage contraption than a chillingly plausible scenario.
That said, Miss Sloane does have plot twists aplenty, and one big novelty: Its amoral protagonist is female. Played by Jessica Chastain with a shiny curtain of hair and a baleful, icy gaze, Elizabeth Sloane works for a D.C. lobbying firm, where she routinely bribes congressmen with lush perks to ensure they serve the interests of her big-business clients.
When a spokesman for the gun lobby tries to enlist her Machiavellian aid, however, Miss Sloane balks, proclaiming that his cause goes against her principles. Soon she has decamped to a smaller, poorer firm that's pushing a bill to tighten firearm background checks, taking most of her young protégés with her.
Has the lobbyist grown a conscience? If so, it doesn't stop her from deploying underhanded tactics that shock her new boss (Mark Strong) and wreak emotional havoc in the life of a more earnest colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The film cuts repeatedly to scenes set in the near future, when Sloane will be called to task for her misdeeds before a congressional committee.
As a film about political machinations, Miss Sloane is fast-paced, busy and potentially entertaining, depending on your level of tolerance for Aaron Sorkin-style hyperarticulate dialogue and smarty-pants one-upmanship. Screenwriter Jonathan Perera spends so much time building up Sloane as the biggest smarty-pants, however, that the supporting characters suffer, lacking much depth or development.
Basically, the film stands or falls on our interest in its protagonist. And we don't see much of Sloane beyond her impeccable surface. We know that her every action is driven by the need to win, that her home life consists of popping pills and patronizing male prostitutes, and that she realizes others view her as a bit of a sociopath. But we don't learn how she got this way, or whether she has regrets, because the film is too busy using her as a vehicle for its talking points.
Like Dr. House or a slew of similar "antisocial genius" characters, she's a consummate professional who's there to make other professionals look stupid. But when she snarls at a climactic moment, "The system is rotten," the dramatic revelation doesn't resonate. One feels inclined to say, "Duh."
More than a searing political drama, Miss Sloane feels like the pilot for one of those procedural series that pivot around a troubled antihero. Thirteen episodes would offer ample time to unfold the central mystery of why Sloane decides to champion the seemingly doomed bill — is she taking a principled stand for gun control, as she claims? Or does she just love a challenge? As it is, we never find out. The film sets her up as a slimy creature of inside-the-Beltway culture, then comes dangerously close to encouraging us to cheer for her as an exemplar of political acumen.
Perhaps, had a certain other candidate won the White House, Chastain's portrayal of an iron lady would have seemed more relevant and even revelatory. It's hard to say now. The fact is, even when Sloane snipes at idealists for "the naïveté that they so keenly exhibit," it's the film that feels a little naïve.