Directed by John Madden | Written by Jonathan Perera | 132 min
Of all the alchemy Hollywood spins, a satisfying thriller feels to me like the most impressive, given all the elements that need to work for success. It especially needs to manage, sustain, and build suspense over its running time. Miss Sloane delivers—and not because it hits all its marks, but because it has the courage of its convictions that minimizes its missteps, and it does so with a leading lady who’s the best in the business.
Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, exuding corporate power in black dresses and blood-red lips) is a Washington DC lobbyist we meet prepping for a Senate hearing where she’s the prime witness. She’s going to be grilled by John Lithgow’s senator about questionable, perhaps criminal behaviour relating to work influencing power brokers. Her rep precedes her, and her old white-guy handlers—played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Sam Waterston—know it. A gun lobby bigwig (basically the NRA) approaches her company looking to hire her and her take-no-prisoners attitude. She takes an unexpected ethical stand and decamps—with her entire team of assistants but Alison Pill’s put-upon right-hand woman—to Mark Strong’s underdog group taking a more liberal stand, advocating restrictions on firearm access.
All the while we get to know the eponymous Miss Sloane—the title is derogatory vs Ms Sloane, according to Chastain’s opening day tweet—who sometimes just barely manifests as a human being you and I would know. She’s the Terminator. She works non-stop, bullying her colleagues with her razor wit and terrifying intelligence, holding sleep and any feelings of messy empathy at bay with an addictive lifestyle. She eats at the same 24-hour restaurant every day because it’s always open, and she satisfies other needs with Jake Lacy’s escort. Among the new group of hirelings is a survivor of a mass shooting (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who’s just another pawn for her to manipulate in order to achieve her ends.
The script bristles with Sorkin-ese speed and dynamics. If the setting didn’t evoke The West Wing, the way characters speak certainly does. That’s both good and bad. Sorkin’s show was full of optimism about the system, its people, and its moving parts, while Madden and Perera set their drama in the most venal, cynical version of what we think of as the US government, which makes it a challenge to invest, to find someone worth cheering for. But the tension still sings.
In some ways, Sloane is a noir anti-hero. Her true motivations, a balance between ethical, vengeful, and opaque to the last, could easily leave you feeling you emotionally insulated, along with a slightly too convenient plot twist in the second act involving a “good samaritan” with a gun, and some pushing of the limits of plausibility regarding what lobbyists do with their days, let alone insect-borne surveillance equipment.
But I don’t think any of that matters, especially in this current, perverse political reality. The darkest imaginings of the behaviour of those working in halls of power right now feels possible, if not likely. With this political drama we’re not quite in the upper echelons of, say, Michael Clayton here, but we’re in the ballpark. Miss Sloane‘s thriller pacing and operatic tenor hits like a bag of nails.
As does Chastain. She gives a fireball of a performance, almost bigger than the movie. She dares us to hate her, and by turns denies any easy answers for why she does what she does beyond sheer ambition. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve seen all year.