Sometimes, it takes a nasty woman to get things done in D.C. politics
We have to admit it: Aaron Sorkin spoiled us. So did David E. Kelley. They turned the idea of smart, fast-talking powerbrokers (in TV shows like Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, The West Wing and The Newsroom) into something sexy and entertaining. They weren’t soapy melodramas about pretty people in high-rise cathedrals; they were classy comedy-dramas about schlubby-but- adorable people in high-rise cathedrals, conversing wisely about Big Issues. Each writer developed a style, a pace — something that you could groove on. There was a musicality to the work.
Those rhythms are what seem to be lacking in Miss Sloane, a pretty-good-but-shy-of-great potboiler set in the cutthroat world of D.C. lobbyists. Jessica Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, a “nasty woman” who has built a reputation as a barracuda of influence peddling at the upper echelons of hardball politics. (Think Olivia Pope without the daddy issues.) The old white men at her firm (Sam Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg) don’t like her style, but they look away as long as it brings in business — they are more driven by dollars than doctrine; Elizabeth is actually motivated by convictions and passions. So when The Gun Lobby seeks her services in defeating a toothless background-check bill, she poaches most of her team and jumps ship, moving to a boutique lobbying shop trying to get the bill passed.
If Miss Sloane sounds like a Brockovichian crusader, well, it’s not quite as simple as that. She’s devious to the brink of criminality, selfish and self-destructive (she has a standing sex date with a hot male escort), and tramples over her colleagues’ personal lives. In the real world, she’d be the boss from hell — Miranda Priestly would report her to HR for abuse. But in Movieland, she’s a complex but flawed heroine.
Only I never bought it. Chastain, a wonderful actress usually, is all stentorian pronouncements and icy smirks. It’s not that she’s a get-things-done mover and shaker, it’s that she’s secretive, mean, fickle. There’s very little softness — very little humanity — hinted at behind her façade; we can admire her or we can like her, but doing both is hard.
Director John Madden muddies things up while simultaneously simplifying them. He adds pulsing music underneath some of the walk-and-talk scenes, obscuring what should be key exposition. At the same time, the discussion of “how a bill becomes a law” (you’d think there was only one chamber of Congress, the Senate) is less sophisticated than Schoolhouse Rock. (The bill is practically a MacGuffin anyway, and the twists are also obvious a mile away.)
For all of its “woulda-coulda-shoulda” potential, though, Miss Sloane moves along briskly, and the climax is emotionally satisfying if lazy and predictable. The message of the film ends up being, “our political system is fucked up, and no one really wants to fix it.” After this election season, that resonates almost too much.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 09, 2016.