David G. Hughes on John Madden’s ‘Miss Sloane’ (2016)
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) was about lobbying for votes to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. It was a slow-burner in which every frame was composed in a painterly fashion, the titular father figure and national hero regarded with great repose by way of some hagiographic cinematography. Spielberg constantly reminds you that history is in the making—you are seeing venerated history, so show some respect. Miss Sloane is about lobbying votes to pass legislation too, but Washington has changed a lot since then; this is cinematic politics in a post-House of Cards, post-Sorkin, post-Trump world. Democracy is tainted, characters are competitive and barely ideological, and people talk fast, fuelled by the acrimony of the morning papers and the caffeine of the coffee shop.
Whereas Abe’s legacy is a case of working the system to deliver righteous justice, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), the powerful Washington lobbyist, is a parasite on democracy, a corporate interest on the heels of elected officials. She’s a ferocious workaholic who knows the job inside out and chastises anyone who doesn’t know it as well as her (which is everyone) – a “personification of an ice-cube,” as one character accurately refers to her. She joins the anti-gun lobby to past gun legislation, and were unsure whether she cares for the cause or seeks the thrill of the challenge.
Chastain is out-there fantastic as Sloane. Following her Oscar-worthy turn in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), this is an actress almost single-handedly putting women at the centre of political thrillers, showing that women characters can be just as complex and interesting as men. Portraying women isn’t necessarily about portraying them positively (that would make it Saintly adoration antithetical to the feminist purpose), but showcasing them as complex, driven, capable and, yes, flawed. Sloane is a frequently detestable figure, and certainly a cold one; sex is a corporate transaction, an inconvenient human impulse she quenches in order to focus better on work. At one point, confronted by a respected feminist, she is told, “the only thing you’re missing is a dick.”
While the character is far from a feminist, the film is feminist inasmuch as gender is no longer an issue; parity exists and this equality is apparent in the political and personal drama of the film. Director John Madden is somewhat apolitical in examining gun politics, but there is something affirmative to be said that the film passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours and subverts gender stereotype at every corner — when Mark Strong is made to look like Mark Weak in the face of Chastain’s ferocity, you know that this is not your typical female Hollywood lead. The heart of the film is, in fact, the tumultuous relationship between Sloane and her female protégé, Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the one person who may be able to thaw the Ice Queen’s heart. This is a story about women whilst never actually being about women.
Political thriller checklists are both endearingly and frustratingly present: obligatory underground car park scenes, an exchange of sensitive files, paranoia, bad weather when things get dramatic, and there’s also plenty of shouting. Therein, Miss Sloane is teetering between ultra-serious political examination and cartoonish melodrama, unfortunately slipping into the latter come the last third, when a ridiculous twist undermines all the character development and intrigue for the sake of a mediocre revelation. Unfortunately, when real-world politics is as dramatic and absurd as any screenwriter can imagine, there’s something a bit superfluous and uneventful and anti-climatic to this post-mortem examination of a post-democratic world.