Directed by John Madden
Written by Jonathan Perera
Every few years, it seems as though a decent political drama comes out on the Hollywood scene. In recent years, however, it seems there hasn’t been that film, perhaps as a result of the success of David Fincher’s House of Cards being so successful in the television format on Netflix. There are some great political dramas out there, like All the President’s Men, The Manchurian Candidate, JFK, etc., but it does feel like it has been some time since one has truly made an impact. Instead we have been relegated to lackluster or merely mildly entertaining fare. With Miss Sloane, director John Madden continues that trend, with one great exception: his star, Jessica Chastain, brings the goods.
Chastain plays Washington, D.C. lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane. Known for her cutthroat tactics, and for always being one step ahead of the opposition, Miss Sloane rebukes her lobbying firm (Sam Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg), who has just been tasked with helping defeat possible gun legislation, to take on the other side of the gun bill at a smaller, boutique firm lead by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). With resources tight and the battle nearly impossible to win, Sloane pulls out all the stops in order to win this unwinnable battle against guns. When it seems as though the firm, with the help of fellow lobbyist Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who has a personal past with gun control, is close to changing the tides, Sloane is pegged for a congressional hearing on wrong doing by a savvy senator (John Lithgow) that may undo all of her hard work.
My immediate reaction to Miss Sloane was that this is a complex story. Maybe too complex for its own good. The film opens with Chastain declaring that in order to win, you must always be one step ahead of the opposition, know their every move. With this mission statement, it is pretty clear that, as the viewer, we are going to be tested. With every twist and turn, with every jump back and forth on the timeline, new information is revealed, more moments are spent with Miss Sloane in our film-long quest to find out what she is up to, how she did it, and what her true motivation for making the potentially career ending decision to change firms and go against the gun lobby is. Jessica Chastain fuels all of this with a powerhouse performance in the lead role. Her fire and passion is on full display here, but the more personal, intimate moments are just as revealing as the big scenes.
Unfortunately, Chastain’s performance is the best part of the film. For everything Miss Sloane has going for it, it seems as though the screenplay is a little too smart for its own good, traveling down rabbit holes and a little too perfectly planned tangents and traps. It’s complex for complexity’s sake, and fails to ever truly establish these characters as players with true motivations, especially past Sloane herself. The cast is very good all around, not just Chastain. Mark Strong in particular feels fully invested in his performance, as his character also feels invested. But despite Mbatha-Raw’s emotional turn, her character disappears for stretches of time, popping up only when it suits the film and Sloane’s agenda. By design no doubt, this element only intensifies Sloane’s unlikability, which ultimately makes the end game less impactful.
Miss Sloane has plenty of potential, but it fails to balance the disdain and ruthlessness of its lead character with her more human and empathetic traits. Her best moments, and likewise Chastain’s best moments are when we see her by herself, or outside the realm of her work, like the intimate hotel scenes with Jake Lacy (who also delivers a subtle performance in a bit part). These are the moments that make her human, when we get a glimpse into what makes her heart beat and mind tick. The frenetic plotting of her never ending game to win the unwinnable becomes boring, trite, and uninteresting in comparison. Director John Madden’s inability to strike this balance strips the film of its potential to be something great, instead landing it firmly in that well trodden “decent” political drama territory that Hollywood has known for many years now.