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Film review: 'Miss Sloane' directed by John Madden

Miss Sloane

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

Miss Sloane is a tense political drama which offers insight into the baffling question of why gun control laws can’t seem to be passed in the US, despite majority support, and despite repeated and well-publicised tragedies involving easily obtained handguns. However, it is not American gun legislation which is the central focus of the film, but the lobbying process itself. Director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love, Mrs Brown) has explained that he received the well-researched script, by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, knowing nothing about what a lobbyist does, but he appreciated at once that the story’s use of power, influence, and intense competition would make for an engrossing, suspenseful film.

The film begins with the title character, Madeleine Sloane (Jessica Chastain), being coached by her lawyer in preparation for some kind of courtroom testimony. It is evidently a serious matter, as Sloane is warned that her opponents are determined to see her in prison, and she is strongly advised to “take the Fifth,” ie refuse to answer any questions. The main body of the movie is extended flashbacks to events beginning three months earlier, with occasional brief scenes of the mysterious courtroom appearance, to remind us of what is coming.

Sloane is a professional lobbyist, one of the best and most sought-after in Washington. As the main story begins, her agency is approached by representatives of a NRA-type pro-gun organisation, who are working to defeat yet another gun control bill. Sloane, who has never expressed interest in the question before, surprises her colleagues by abruptly leaving her firm and accepting a position with the smaller agency endorsing the bill. Several of her assistants decide to join her, in spite of the near-certainty of the bill being defeated by the much larger and wealthier pro-gun lobby.As Sloane goes to work, we are given a clearer idea of her personality. The demure and conventional title of Miss Sloane may be intended as irony: she is not remotely Miss-like, but is assertive, ruthless, cunning, and unemotional. It soon becomes clear why Sloane has succeeded in her line of work, as the world of political lobbying is also revealed as a Machiavellian and cut-throat business, one which is cautious of committing provable ethical violations, but indifferent to actual ethics, even among their own. Sloane stays ahead of the game by being able to predict duplicity and double-dealing almost before it happens – which it frequently does.

As the characters become more familiar, we are able to distinguish the lobbyists who work purely for money and power, from those who are dedicated to the cause of gun safety. Sloane herself claims to be dedicated to nothing but winning – a claim she proves by her callous use of colleagues in the advancement of her cause. She is effective at work partly because she has all but given up a private life: she eats merely for sustenance, at the same small diner every day. She has no romantic partners except professional escorts. She gets little sleep, and depends on medication to sustain her energy and drive. Still, her vigilance and strategic edge never seem to fail.

The story becomes that of an intense competition as the pro-gun side begins to not merely influence key politicians to vote in their favour, but to quietly bribe, threaten, and blackmail them. Spies and turncoats are identified and ejected. The corruption of the entire lobbying system is revealed in the process (a nice bit of irony provided in the fact that the only character who refuses to commit a betrayal is a professional prostitute.) Sloane and her opponents play a continuous game of cat and mouse, trying to head one another off. As Sloane’s tactics become increasingly unscrupulous, she horrifies even those working with her. Meanwhile, periodic glimpses of Sloane in a courtroom remind us of her coming downfall, and presumably that of her cause.

So far, the plot seems fairly typical of political thrillers, although the suspense, the many plot twists, and the character development are all above average. However, Miss Sloane increasingly diverges from the predictable as the story continues. Sloane’s ultimate decline and fall due to either physical or moral burnout, which would be unavoidable in most films, is neatly sidestepped here. Neither is Sloane’s being one of very few women in her field ever made significant: her being female is meaningful only when other characters erroneously make it so.Plot turns and twists continue, surprises are followed by more surprises, motives are shown to be different from what we had assumed, characters not what we had thought them to be. By the time we reach the long-expected courtroom scene, it is hard to know what to expect. Ultimately, all our preconceptions are scattered, and – without giving away the details – we realise we have been looking at things from the wrong angle all along. The extent of the corruption fed by the lobby industry is fully revealed. The film manages all this over the course of the tightly written script with a seamless clarity, no continuity problems or plot holes, and even consistent character traits – to the extent that is possible, given that almost everyone in the film is not always what he pretends to be.

Jessica Chastain’s performance is restrained but effective; she avoids turning Sloane into a cliché, a woman who tragically discards any kind of personal or emotional life in the pursuit of professional success. The script narrowly avoids making the character predictable, reinterpreting the classic hard-as-nails professional woman in interesting ways, while Chastain succeeds in walking a fine line that manages to avoid downplaying Sloane’s more extreme qualities, yet keep the character realistic.

If Miss Sloane has a flaw, it may be that a few of the characters are stereotypes rather than well rounded individuals. Even Sloane herself, with her infallible espionage skills, sometimes comes across as unlikely, a bit beyond what her selective focus and lack of distractions can account for. These are minor issues, however. With a brilliant ensemble cast, featuring solid performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mark Strong, a fast-paced but coherent structure, and direction that sustains interest from beginning to end, Miss Sloane is an unqualified success.

For further viewing…

Few movies have expressed the futility of fighting the American system better than Roman Polanski’s bleak 1974 drama, Chinatown.

Miss Sloane’s director John Madden did some of his best work with the 1997 historical drama, Mrs Brown, starring Dame Judi Dench.