A Fight on the Hill
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is, unmistakably, the text of the Second Amendment and the exact words that Miss Sloane goes to war against on Capitol Hill. Jessica Chastain plays Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, a ruthless and manipulative lobbyist whose only concern is winning at whatever cost. Having lurked in the shadows for years as one of D.C.’s most powerful political players, Sloane takes up the challenge of her career by fighting the NRA head on – a powerful (and rich) lobbying group opposing a new comprehensive gun-control bill set for a vote in Congress. Her task is simple: gather the necessary votes in the Senate to ensure the bill’s safe passage. Securing those votes however, proves more complicated. As controversial as its subject material sounds, Miss Sloane is not so much a political story as it is a story about politics. Political ideology, emotional speeches, and impassioned sentiment cede ground to shrewd tactics and calculated callousness. The people who are shown in this world operating behind the scenes of our elected officials have more in common with sharks than they do their fellow man. In all honesty I was not expecting Miss Sloane to be as incisive and hard-hitting as it was, and I was pleasantly surprised that a so-called “issue” movie did not keep the gloves on.
The film’s greatest strengths can be summed up in two words: “star” and “script.” First the star. Chastain is one of the most exciting actors working today and she rises to the occasion here with her most compelling on-screen character since Zero Dark Thirty. Elizabeth Sloane is an amalgamation of Louis Bloom’s ambition and Daniel Plainview’s misanthropy. She plays the eponymous character of Miss Sloane with such intensity and iciness that you can practically feel the room getting colder as she manipulates those around her and demands absolute control of her environment. Tensions rise as her professional priorities do not align with her colleagues’ social standards. Trivial things such as decorum, manners, and respect are tossed aside in favor of results. Sloane’s obligations, she makes clear early on, are to her clients’ desire for victory on a given issue and nothing else. Whoever she has to step on in the process of procuring said victory (even on her own team) is just collateral damage and in terms of causalities, she has many. She’s not afraid to bend the rules of bureaucracy to achieve her goals and she is able to maneuver around the (il)legality of her actions with sly efficiency. In fact she relishes it. So when the opportunity arises to defect from her prestigious lobbying firm and join a non-profit on the seemingly weaker side of the gun debate, she doesn’t hesitate to captain the underdog ship and launch her offensive salvos. The character of Elizabeth Sloane could have easily been turned into a two dimensional cliche in the hands of a less capable actor but Chastain elevates the persona, and thus the material, to greater heights. Sloane is confident but flawed. Apathetic yet self-aware. Chastain plays her with enough forcefulness to demonstrate her power yet shows just enough vulnerability to hint at a glimmer of consciousness underneath the slick black outfits and sharp red lipstick.
Next, the script. Writer and newcomer Jonathan Perera has penned a thrilling and engrossing tale of corruption atop Capitol Hill that shows complete mastery of how to keep a story moving forward. The pace and energy in the script is fantastic and plot points flow from scene to scene without feeling like obvious setups. The dialogue is intelligent and engaging to the point of becoming linguistic tennis. Conversations have the feel and weight of an action sequence and it’s refreshing to watch such an exercise of language. Screenwriters would do well to study this formula and trust audiences more to understand motivation and subtext without being spoon fed character emotions. Even the minor characters shine with great quips and actions that lend veracity to the world of lobbying that is not frequently depicted on the big screen. Adding to the argument of fully rounded characters is the fact that this movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. And not just once or twice as most candidates who are considered “passing” do. The women are given substantive roles to play and often take control of scenes where the men become subservient to their commands. They have crucial conversations with each other regarding the plot and even the one potential romantic target in the movie is treated as an afterthought in Elizabeth’s private life. Plain and simple the script is filled with satisfying and realistic portrayals of Washington-governmental types, men and women alike.
Director John Madden has taken a step forward as a director with Miss Sloane. Coming off the success of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, Madden has solidified himself as a diverse talent. So captivated I was watching this story unfold, my eyes were affixed to the screen to the point where I forgot I was watching a movie, and that’s always a good thing. Watching Sloane navigate the murky waters of Washington D.C. with the hunger of a predator shark is devilishly fun. If I had one gripe it would revolve around the ending, which I think wraps up the story a little too neatly for my liking. Aside from the explosive finale however, everything that came before it is tonally spectacular and near-perfect. Miss Sloane is one of the best surprises of the year for me and I geniuely believe Jessica Chastain is Oscar-worthy in this role. If you’re looking for a sharp, scathing look at insider politics that isn’t named House of Cards, you won’t do much better at theaters this year than Miss Sloane.