Movies about politics are either fantasies or nightmares. On one hand, you have Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Dave, yarns about good-hearted men who – through sheer likability and folksy wisdom – change the country for the better. Then you have The Manchurian Candidate or Dr. Strangelove, which see politics and fundamentally irreparable and the source of our inevitable doom. Miss Sloane, the new political thriller from John Madden, is a fantasy masquerading as a nightmare. It aspires to be ruthless, yet devolves to tidy resolutions that betray any sense of realism. After this year’s ugly presidential election, I can’t imagine folks being more cynical about how “this town” operates. By suggesting that strategy and maneuvering can save us, Miss Sloane is worse than unrealistic. It’s naïve.
The script by Jonathan Perera pays little interest in Presidents or policy. It is primarily about the clash between Congress and the lobbyists who influence it. Jessica Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, a powerful lobbyist whose cutthroat tactics are effective and controversial. Her clients and shady deals bore her, so she jumps at a challenge from Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the owner of a rival left-leaning lobbying group: he wants her to push through legislation that ensures background checks for all gun purchases. Sloane keeps her personal beliefs to herself, and agrees only because the bill is political poison. She recruits some operatives from her own staff, and gets to work, while her former boss (Michael Stuhlbarg) lobbies on behalf of the gun lobby. We know from a flash-forward that Sloane faces an invasive congressional hearing, so her efforts are not exactly successful.
Miss Sloane works best as a character study. Her daily life is unpleasant, as she has no personal relationships and her only vice is a male prostitute (Jake Lacy). Chastain ably shows the cracks between her put together, chiseled façade. There is no sense she is happy, and her professional joy is borne out of the failure of others. It is an unapologetic performance, and some scenes feature her being a touch too brusque. The film falters as a political procedural, unfortunately, in part because the script does not trust its audience. There are constant exposition dumps (e.g. how lobbyists whip Senate votes), as if anyone who would watch such a film does not know about the concept of a supermajority. Lobbyists and politicians would realistically speak in shorthand, and avoid the easy platitudes that make up the film’s frequent gun control arguments. There are scenes where Sloane’s colleagues balk at her methods, either because they’re too cruel or unscrupulous, followed by another scene where she is proven correct. Rinse, repeat. At least Madden gets the feel of the film right: DC is not the most glamorous place, but it aspires to be, and the sterile interiors define the city better than the pageantry of our neo-classical architecture.
Part of the underlying message of Miss Sloane – and it is a “message movie” – is that Washington is corrupt to the bone. Madden and Perera showcase in the scenes away from Sloane, where we see the slop that greases the wheels of our system. To the film’s credit, it mostly sees Sloane as more of an anti-hero: she is cavalier with people and facts, and knows she’s an effective cog in a broken machine. In its climax, however, all that character development and well-earned cynicism goes out the window. Miss Sloane ends with a twist that would embarrass Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the hit show Scandal. At least that show knows its place, letting the absurd plot twists push the story beyond the plausible and into camp territory. In its attempt to preserve a sense of good taste, Madden inadvertently makes the trashy plot mechanics all the more pungent.