Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and occasional sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.9.16
Abraham Lincoln tried — and failed — to abolish lobbyists.
“Lobbyists have more offices in Washington than the President,” Will Rogers famously observed. “You see, the President only tells Congress what they should do. Lobbyists tell ’em what they will do.”
Ayn Rand was somewhat more blunt: “Lobbying ... is the result and creation of a mixed economy: of government by pressure groups. Its methods range from mere social courtesies and cocktail party or luncheon “friendships,” to favors, threats, bribes, blackmail.”
One cringes at the thought of what lobbyists will be able to accomplish, dealing with a president who apparently stalled at fifth grade.
Director John Madden’s Miss Sloane would have been a provocatively charged political drama at any time; given the current circumstances, it’s also quite chilling. First-time writer Jonathan Perera’s electrifying script positively sizzles in the hands of star Jessica Chastain, who tears into the pungent dialogue with the ferocity of a starving lion. She doesn’t merely portray the title character; she charges into the role with messianic fervor.
Perera’s personal saga is just as compelling as his debut screenplay. He was 30 years old, working as an elementary school teacher in South Korea, when he began the project. Once finished, he solicited Hollywood industry reps via cold online queries; his script made the rounds, placing No. 5 on 2015’s celebrated “Black List” of most-liked but as-yet unproduced screenplays.
FilmNation Entertainment picked it up; Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) signed on to direct; Chastain agreed to star.
Perera’s dialog has the rat-a-tat intensity of Aaron Sorkin’s best work, with similar hot-button political relevance. It’s compelling, fascinating, suspenseful and crazy-making, lifting rocks and shining a light on slimy Capitol “business as usual” practices much the way The Big Short indicted behind-the-scenes banking shenanigans.
Perera retained sole scripting credit: almost unheard of, these days, for a newcomer. He’s guaranteed to garner an Academy Award nomination, as will Chastain.
Her title character, Elizabeth Sloane, is a high-powered lobbyist heading a team for a well-established “white shoe” firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). She’s brilliant, ruthless and utterly unscrupulous; she also has no life outside of her work. It’s telling that we never see her eating breakfast, changing clothes, watering plants or doing anything else that would suggest a home life.
One time only, she relaxes with a John Grisham novel. But the setting could be a hotel room, an office couch or somewhere else equally depersonalized. Every night she eats dinner at the same Asian restaurant; she quips that she can’t wait for “food pills” to be invented, in order to avoid wasting time with chewing and swallowing.
Chastain makes Sloane unforgettable from our first glimpse: impeccably tailored and coifed, with blazing eyes that miss nothing, and a voracious appetite for information that she always has at the tip of her tongue. She manages her Dupont team of younger acolytes like a drill sergeant; they endure it — even enjoy it — because they know that she works harder than they do.
Nor does Sloane care in the slightest that she’s unloved, disrespected and even feared by the outer world; indeed, she revels in this reputation. Her win-no-matter-what mantra likens her to a master chess player, forever anticipating her enemies’ strategies, and thinking four moves ahead of them.
And yet ... and yet ... we see signs of burnout. She doesn’t sleep much, relying on uppers to maintain the punishing, relentless regimen of phone calls, social glad-handing, planning sessions and clandestine meetings. Her smile falters when nobody else is present; she wilts like a fading flower; her expression takes on a shaky edge of panic.
But only briefly: Then she stands tall, dry-swallows another few pills, and charges back into the fray.
The core plot concerns the behind-the-scenes maneuvering resulting from the Capitol Hill introduction of the Heaton-Harris Bill, designed to enhance background checks on firearm sales, in order to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, stalkers and various other unstable individuals who clearly shouldn’t be allowed to possess weapons, let alone purchase them during 5-minute encounters at gun shows.
Sloane is drawn into the fray when a National Rifle Association lobbyist hires Dupont to “massage” the one huge American voting bloc — women — that thus far resists drinking the NRA Kool-Aid. The goal is to “sell” women on gun ownership, in order to make them persuade their representatives to defeat the Heaton-Harris Bill.
Sloane’s reaction is unexpected, almost alarming: She laughs in the NRA rep’s face, much to Dupont’s snarling displeasure. It turns out that the woman with no scruples has at least one; she despises guns. As a result, she unexpectedly jumps ship when offered a position with a boutique (read: tiny and under-financed) D.C. lobbying firm run by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), which is struggling to help pass Heaton-Harris.
In a “Who’s with me” moment worthy of Jerry Maguire, Sloane retains four key members of her Dupont team: Franklin (Noah Robbins), Lauren (Grace Lynn Jung), Alex (Douglas Smith) and Ross (Al Macadam). But she fails to persuade her favorite protégé, junior associate Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), who we’ve already seen has become unnerved by her mentor’s disregard for conventional ethical standards, and her callous abuse of associates.
Jane therefore remains with Dupont, much to the delight of upper-echelon colleagues Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) and R.M. Dutton (Raoul Bhaneja), now all tasked to Bring. Sloane. Down.
Once ensconced in Schmidt’s offices, Sloane zeroes in on the most qualified of his motley team of junior associates: Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a “conviction lobbyist” who has devoted years to making gun safety her own signature issue. Immediately recognizing the intelligent compassion and camera-friendly poise that could turn Esme into the campaign’s public face, Sloane sets about grooming this new protégé for that responsibility: a role that makes the younger woman quite uncomfortable.
Then it’s a race, both teams scrambling to acquire the magic number of “in play” senators needed to pass — or defeat — the bill. Dutton and the NRA need only seven, Sloane and her team ... far more.
This Machiavellian skirmish may drive the action, but the drama derives from Sloane. Perera’s script construction is ingenious, because Sloane is revealed not so much by her own behavior, but by the way she interacts with other people. At first blush, she seems almost maternal with Esme, as a teacher/guru who reveals tantalizing details over shared dinners. But we see the ruthless cast to Sloane’s gaze, when Esme isn’t looking, and we know: It’s all part of some master plan.
Even so, Esme buys into this scheme, Mbatha-Raw projecting almost painful gullibility. Her wide eyes and shy, trusting smile are heartbreaking.
Strong, an under-appreciated actor who excels at quietly understated sincerity, becomes our idealized “good guy” lobbyist: brilliant, highly principled and unwilling to cross legal or ethical lines. As time passes, we see the unease rising in Strong’s expression; Schmidt is both fascinated and repelled by Sloane.
Waterston is a hoot as the sort of cranky Guy In Charge given to explosive outbursts and scathing sarcasm. (Indeed, the script includes a droll running definition of cynicism.) He’s a fire-and-brimstone boss, right at home alongside Connors (the appropriately ferocious Stuhlbarg) and the bloodless Dutton (the quietly chilling Bhaneja).
Jake Lacey makes the most of his small role as Robert Forde, a male escort who serves as Sloane’s occasional “release.”
Madden and Perera structure the film around a Congressional hearing chaired by Ron M. Sperling (John Lithgow), a framing device that opens with Sloane in the hot seat. Sperling’s pointed questions serve as the entry to a series of flashbacks that reveal events of the past few months: delectable details and answers unveiled in tantalizing bursts. This eventually allows Sloane to work in a speech worthy of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: a cotton-candy outburst that might have sounded eye-rollingly corny in lesser hands, but which Chastain delivers with unswerving sincerity.
Madden and editor Alexander Bernet keep the pacing taut; their 132-minute film never flags. Matthew Davies’ production design looks and feels authentic; Max Richter’s score, employed sparingly, deftly complements the mood at key moments.
This will be a divisive film, particularly in our currently tempestuous political waters. Uncompromising Second Amendment extremists are bound to get their knickers in a twist over Perera’s skillfully sculpted dialogue; there’s no questioning where HE stands on this issue.
At the end of the day, though, Miss Sloane is chiefly a well-reasoned call for a return to civility and ethical behavior on Capitol Hill, wrapped in a superbly acted and cleverly constructed package. It’d be nice if that message got through.