Dark look at American politics also a top notch thriller
When a line is repeated more than once in a film – especially in a film that is a high stakes political thriller – you know the screenwriter is giving you a clue to the film’s secrets. So when ruthless political lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (a fierce Jessica Chastain) tells us that “lobbying is about foresight, about anticipating your opponent’s moves, and devising counter measures…. It’s about making sure you surprise them, and they don’t surprise you,” take it to heart as you study the machinations of the dueling lobbyists in Miss Sloane, director John Madden’s smart, absorbing new drama.
Madden, who was nominated for an Oscar for directing Shakespeare in Love, and who also directed the heartwarming Marigold Hotel movies, goes in another direction here, offering us a sharp and all too prescient look at Washington power brokers. Imagine if Angelina Jolie’s Salt character replaced Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the feel of Madden’s picture. Written by first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane is an unflinching look at the utter mercilessness of political lobbyists.
As the picture begins, Elizabeth’s lobbying firm is asked to take on a new client – the gun lobby, which wants help defeating the so-called Heaton-Harris bill, pending legislation that will expand background checks on gun buyers. While Elizabeth’s bosses (Michael Stuhlbarg and Sam Waterston) are fine with the work, Elizabeth draws the line, and in an overt (and overtly referenced) Jerry Maguire moment, she takes a few young staffers with her to work for the opposition at a firm headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong, excellent). What follows is a relentless battle of wills between the players, in which the only thing that matters is obtaining the necessary congressional votes at any cost for the sake of the cause. As an inside look at the inner workings of Washington, then, Madden’s film succeeds exponentially. Viewers will be shaking their heads in awe and disbelief at the tactics used by both sides; NSA-style surveillance, manipulated loyalties, double crosses, blackmail, bribery, ethically questionable favors and flat out lying are all on the table, and all employed liberally. Far from being a dry look at the American political system, Madden’s film is a twisty, cloak and dagger thrill ride, more on par with Jason Bourne movies than with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
And Elizabeth Sloane is a wholly unique character; as written by Perera and played by Chastain, Elizabeth at first comes across as harsh and unlikable, with no discernible personal life (except for the occasional stress-relieving romp with Jake Lacy’s charming hired escort Forde) and a mild speed addiction to fuel her incessant drive to win. As the movie begins, we are neither quite sure what to make of her, nor quite sure if she’s the hero or the villain. It’s to Perera and Madden’s credit that Elizabeth’s true character and motivations remain complicated and impermeable throughout, leaving us guessing and anxious to see her next move.
Perera’s frenetic, clearly Aaron Sorkin inspired script takes some getting used to; at first Elizabeth, with her rapid fire delivery and smartest-one-in-the-room superiority, comes across as affected and arrogant, but as the screenplay develops her character more, we come to see that she’s both a brilliant tactician and more emotionally complex than she lets on, and that Perera has written a strong, multi-faceted lead character, who is vividly brought to life in Chastain’s expert hands.
Indeed, Perera’s trenchant, juicy script is filled with plenty of red herrings and enough twists and turns to keep viewers marveling at his ingenuity while simultaneously being appalled at the unsparing behind-the-scenes look at American politics. This film definitely has a point of view, and, whether it’s accurate or not, it certainly will make you think twice about the way our entire political system works.
Featuring terrific supporting work from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Alison Pill as Elizabeth’s young colleagues and John Lithgow as a slippery congressman, Miss Sloane gives all its key players provocative set pieces worth watching. A televised debate on the gun issue between Elizabeth and her former colleague Pat (Stuhlbarg) is a particular stand-out, as both actors volley with such passion and ferocity that the tension is beyond palpable.
Thus Madden and Perera have delivered an action movie with an exceedingly high IQ, and watching it unfold is as fascinating as it is dismaying. As an examination of what the film calls “the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing,” Miss Sloane never fails to fully engage the viewer, even as its portrayal of corruption and greed paints a damning picture of the legislative body at work. Just how much of the story is truth, however, and how much is fiction will ultimately be left to the viewer to decide.
Miss Sloane opens today at Bay Area theaters.