Sunday, December 11, 2016

Film Review: Miss Sloane

"Miss Sloane"
**** (out ****)

It is small detail that may not catch anyone's attention in the opening moments of "Miss Sloane" (2016). In the right hand corner of the screen a date appears, April 18, but no year is given. We can assume this story takes place now or last year or even 5, 10 years ago. In the end, it does matter. "Miss Sloane" is a "timeless" movie.

The film is about the influence of the gun lobby, the issue of gun control, the role of lobbyist in our political system and their control over the politicians. As such it doesn't matter what year this story takes place. The issue of gun violence has dominated our media coverage for years due to mass public shootings and the asinine public dialogue we have over gun rights and the concept of universal background checks.

Because of the controversial nature of gun control the movie has also been subjected to mixed reviews, seemingly dividing audiences along political lines. For the movie's critics, it is one more example of Hollywood showing its left-leaning tendencies. On the other hand the film comes out a good time, politically speaking. In a year where there was a nasty, bitter presidential election in an environment where voters are in an anti-establishment mood, "Miss Sloane" shows us the system in place and why voters are in a populist mood.

Watching the first hour, hour and 15 minutes, I found myself thoroughly engaged in "Miss Sloane". I entertained the idea of calling the movie "the best film of the year". It was a rabble-rouser for me, much in the same way last year's "The Big Short" (2015) was, which I called the best film of last year. I enjoyed how "Miss Sloane" presented Washington, D.C., how it exposed the influence of lobbyist and comments on what motivates our politicians and how they make their decisions. THIS is what makes "Miss Sloane" worth watching for me. THIS is what is the most interesting aspect of the film. The fact that is it about gun control doesn't matter much to me. The movie could have focused on the tobacco lobby or abortion. The "issue" at play is merely a spring board to show us the larger context of how the national debate is controlled and dominated by lobbyist and big money in politics.

But then "Miss Sloane" slowly turns into something else and veers slightly off course becoming, in ways, what its detractors accuse it of, going off on a Liberal crusade and unfortunately tries to give audiences a psychological understanding of our lead, title character, explaining who she is and why this particular issue is important to her. These scenes are the most forced in the movie and the ones I responded least to. By the end of the movie, its strong anti-Washington sentiment slightly shifts, placing blame solely at the politicians and not so much at the feet of the lobbyist, after we have just watched a two-hour movie showing us how they control the issue. It settles on being a movie about a single individual taking on (or down) a system.

Miss Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a career driven, focused lobbyist, determine to win at all cost and has a reputation to prove it. When the head of an NRA-ish organization, Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) approaches Sloane, he wants her to help his organization appeal to female voters. Women don't like guns he says. In order to stop a Brady bill, calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases, this demographic will be needed to prevent its passage. Sloane declines. Her boss (Sam Waterston) is furious. This will cost his firm a lot of money. Sloane however is taking a principle stance. She believes in universal background checks. She will not compromise herself and advocate for this issue to please her employer. So, she jumps ship and works for the opposition, headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Their objective is to switch a handful of senators to vote in favor of the Brady bill.

Ms. Chastain dominates the movie with an icy exterior. For some it may be too icy, which is unfortunately why the movie attempts to humanize her character, trying to set-up why her character chooses to fight for this issue. Why now in her career does she take a stand? Ms. Chastain makes the character work when not giving us the inside dish on the character. Her demeanor and speech tells us what we need to know. We know people like this. People that love a challenge. People that are all business and lack social skills. People that put their career first above the personal life. They choose career over starting a family. Luckily the movie avoids gender cliches, presenting Sloane as a cut-throat and a word that rhymes with witch. Sloane may be those things, but, she is respected for it. It is not held against her.

The movie was directed by John Madden, best known for directing the Academy Award winner, "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) for which Mr. Madden was nominated for his directing. He was also the man behind "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2011) and its sequel. One of my favorites of his movies was a lesser known drama, "Proof" (2005) with Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow. "Sloane" may be the most issue orientated movie Mr. Madden has directed. It would be nice if Mr. Madden picked up a second nomination for his directing. Mr. Madden gets the most out of Ms. Chastain, who is also due an Oscar nomination.

It is too bad the screenplay by Jonathan Perera isn't a bit more cynical. A bit more threatening. By the end of the picture it is the story of one person fighting against the corrupt system. Kind of like Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939). Not much has changed since that time. It actually reminds me of a forgotten Kevin Spacey vehicle, "The Life of David Gale" (2003) - revolving around highly moral characters taking a stand in the most drastic ways possible. And it all gets resolved in one of those standard Washington Senate hearings sequences with the big speech given by the character exposing the charade of the system.

Still, despite these flaws there is no denying the craft that went into making this movie. The acting is stellar, with Ms. Chastain giving one of her best performances since landing in the spotlight. The round of supporting players are all very good including Mr. Waterston, Mr. Strong and John Lithgow as a U.S. Senator. The screenplay makes some strong points and mostly stays on message. I may no longer feel this is the best movie of the year, it is certainly among the top ten.