“I never know where the line is”.
In a roller-coaster year for political intrigue on both sides of the Atlantic, and with all hell breaking loose again between Trump and ‘The Hill’, here comes “Miss Sloane”.
Jessica Chastain ( “The Martian“, “Interstellar“) plays the titular heroine (I use the term loosely): a pill-popping insomniac who is working herself into an early grave as a top-Washington lobbyist. The game of lobbying is, as she describes, staying one step of the competition and “playing your trump card just after your opponent has played theirs”. But all is not going well for Elizabeth Sloane. For the film opens with her being on trial for corruption in front of a congressional hearing, chaired by Senator Sperling (John Lithgow, “The Accountant“).
Through flashback we see how she got to that point, moving from one firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston, “The Killing Fields”) to another headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong, “Kick Ass”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service“) against the backdrop of the high-stakes lobbying around a new gun-control bill. Her fanatical drive to ‘win at all costs’, and the trail of destruction, through her cutthroat work ethic, that she leaves behind her, digs her an ever-deeper hole as the political and legal net closes in around her.
Jessica Chastain has played strong and decisive women before, most notably in “Zero Dark Thirty”, but probably never to this extreme degree. Here she is like Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada”, but not played for laughs. Miss Sloane is an emotionally and physically damaged woman, but a formidable one who takes charge both in the boardroom and in the bedroom, through the unashamed use of male escorts (in the well-muscled form of Jake Lacy, “Their Finest“). As such her character is not remotely likable, but one the I could certainly relate to from past business dealings I’ve had. (And no, I don’t mean as a male prostitute!)
I found Sloane to be one of the more fascinating characters in this year’s releases: I was never being sure whether her actions are being powered from a background of strong moral conviction (fuelled by a devastating childhood incident perhaps?) or through pure greed and lust for power. I thought Chastain excelled in the role, but for balance the illustrious Mrs Mann thought she rather overplayed her hand at times.
Outside of Chastain’s central performance though, this is a very strong ensemble cast. Mark Strong – not with an English accent for once and not playing a heavy – is great as the frustrated boss, as is the seldom-seen Sam Waterston (who, by the way, is the father of Katherine Waterston of current “Alien: Covenant” fame). Christine Baranski (so good in “The Good Wife” and now “The Good Fight”) pops up in a cameo as a flinty Senator. But the outstanding turn for me was Oxford-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”, “Beauty and the Beast” – and yes, I’m aware of the irony in this pairing!). Playing Sloane’s colleague Esme Manucharian – both a lady with a secret in her past as well as possessing a great name – Mbatha-Raw is just riveting and deserving of a Supporting Actress nomination in my book.
What binds the whole two hours together is an extraordinarily skillful script by debut writer Jonathan Perera, which has both a gripping and ever-twisting story as well as a host of quotable lines. Ladies and gentlemen, we may have a new Aaron Sorkin on the block! It’s a brave script, dealing as it does with 2nd amendment issues, since there seems to be nothing that stirs up American comment like gun-control. For those living in the UK (where gun deaths are over 50 times less per capita than in the US) the whole topic is both fascinating and perplexing and there were a lot of nodding heads during Sloane’s TV rant about it being an archaic ‘Wild West’ throwback that should no longer be set in stone. (But it’s not our country any more, so you Americans can do what you like!)
The marvelous Cinematography is by Sebastian Blenkov – the second time this gentleman has come to my attention within a month (the first time being “Their Finest“).
The director is Portsmouth-born Brit John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) and he does a great job in sustaining the tension and energy throughout the running time. This all makes it a great shame that the film has not done well at the US box office, perhaps because ( the film was released in December 2016) the public had more than their fill of politics after a bruising and divisive election. (I’m not sure the UK release date now – just before our own General Election – is wise either).
But for me, this was a memorable film, and come the end of the year it might well be up there in my top 10 for the year. I’m a sucker for a good political thriller with “All the President’s Men” and “Primary Colors” in my personal list as some of my favourite ever films. If you like those films, “House of Cards” or remember fondly TV series like “The West Wing” or (for those with even longer memories) “Washington Behind Closed Doors” then I would strongly recommend you get out and watch this.
Fad Rating: FFFFf.