Like its central character, Miss Sloane is an interesting beast.
The movie’s central conflict is not the clash of egos between the rival lobbyists played by Jessica Chastain and Michael Stuhlbarg. Nor is it the philosophical conflict over gun control that drives so much of the plot. It is not even the conflict of interest that bookends the movie, the clash between the democratic ideal and the pragmatic reality of contemporary politics, although that perhaps comes closest to expressing the battle raging at the heart of the film.
The crisis that plays out across Miss Sloane is the gap between the perceived gap between personal and the political. For most of the film’s runtime, the eponymous character’s motivations remain engagingly opaque. Why has the cold and rational Elizabeth Sloane taken up a cause as ill-fated as tighter gun control regulations? The characters in the movie pick at the idea. Several wonder if she knew somebody involved in some traumatic incident of gun violence. It seems impossible to reconcile the calculated decisions of this political operator with a sense of moral righteousness.
Miss Sloane cleverly plays with this idea, teasing and goading the audience across its runtime. That implied conflict between the canny lobbyist and the just cause bubbles throughout the film. Most successfully, it plays out in Jessica Chastain’s superb central performance as the eponymous character; a keen observer of human nature who often seems to be battling with herself as much as with any singular rival. However, it also plays out in the film’s conflicted tone, with Miss Sloane often at odds with itself as it tries pitch itself at the right level.
On the surface, Miss Sloane is very cold and detached. Director John Madden shoots most of the sequences through the sort of sickly green lens that defines films like A Most Violent Year or Green Room. The colour scheme suggests something mechanical, keeping the audience at a distance from the emotional realities of the film. Madden frequently shoots his lead character from a distance, as if scrutinising her; tracking her through airports or watching her at the office table. She is a mystery.
“Whose idea was all the glass?” Sloane challenges her employer at one point in the film, acknowledging the sleek modern design of the office. She might as well be talking about the film itself. Miss Sloane is populates with barriers; television screens, floor-to-ceiling windows and backstage mirrors. At every available opportunity, Miss Sloane draws the audience’s attention to how mannered all of this is, how carefully constructed and choreographed, how almost every interaction is mediated and micromanaged.
There is an endearing attention to detail in Miss Sloane. The film pays a lot of attention to the mechanics of its world, explaining repeatedly and thoroughly how its core concepts work. This is obvious from the opening scenes, with Miss Sloane offering a much more thorough and mechanical explanation of how “invoking the fifth” actually works. Sloane herself skirts legality by following strict rules of procedure. Miss Sloane suggests that the corridors of power are simply a machine that can be manipulated by those who understand the workings.
It is a very effective dynamic, one that plays well with the core themes of the film. “She has a plan for everyone,” reflects one character of Elizabeth Sloane. “Sometimes, she won’t tell you until you’re right in the middle of it.” Every interaction in Miss Sloane is presented as a power game, an up-to-the-minute improvisation on a carefully-mapped-out plan. There is a healthy thread of paranoia running through Miss Sloane, the constant fear that nobody is who they claim to be and that any interaction is just an anvil waiting to drop.
Miss Sloane looks beautiful, even in its quiet moments. The film is striking, even the smaller throwaway shots, like Sloane walking through Dulles Airport as the camera pans across the cityscape behind the terminal windows. Although far from the best thing about Jessica Chastain’s involvement in the film, her pale skin and strong lipstick, coupled with her insomnia and active night life evoke something from a vampire film. At one point, Sloane likens lobbyists to “parasites”, but the comparison works better as a visual metaphor.
Chastain is brilliant in the role, imbuing Sloane with a complexity and nuance that reaches deeper than the script would suggest. Miss Sloane is populated with wry observations and witty one liners, more than one character makes reference to Ancient Greece over the course of the film, but it is Chastain who finds a human heart at the core of the movie. Chastain suggests that Sloane herself is the core battleground of the film, her psyche playing out the key conflicts of the film. Chastain pitches Sloane as a chess grandmaster, playing very much against herself.
Chastain is the core that holds the film together, the centre of gravity around which the rest of the movie turns. However, Miss Sloane never balances that central conflict as effectively as Chastain. The film is so sleek and so stylish that any attempts to portray organic interactions can feel inert. The world of Miss Sloane is so carefully put together that it often feels like there is no room for chance interactions or lucky breaks.
As a result, some of the larger plot beats feel hackneyed and off-tempo. Miss Sloane suggests that the world is a more complicated and chaotic place than even its title character would allow, but the film never seems to venture beyond that very polished and choreographed world. Miss Sloane never leaves its cynicism behind, which causes problems when it asks the audience to take several major leaps of faith over the course of the film. Miss Sloane unfolds in a world so rigid that coincidence plays like contrivance, and so cynical that optimism feels like naivety.
Still, Miss Sloane is a beautiful film anchored in a powerhouse of a central performance. It just feels a little bit too clinical and precise for some of the points that it tries to make.