The making of an inherently political film with an inherently political angle requires artistic justification: if your politics are clear and you aim to send a message, there are more effective routes to go by, there has to be an artfulness and a humanity to the work you are presenting. Politics and art can co-exist, and, indeed, thrive: John Frankenheimer’s classic The Manchurian Candidate, Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Zero Dark Thirty, not only contain both human and political elements, but exist in such a way that these diametrically opposing elements nurture, support, and enrich each other. It is in the justifiable coexistence of these two lives of a film that John Madden’s recent effort Miss Sloane falls short.
Miss Sloane is the story of Elizabeth Sloane, a fierce and ruthless political lobbyist played by Jessica Chastain, who forgoes her usual blindness to the dubious morals of her practice to join a small lobbying group headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) fighting for a gun control bill. It doesn’t take a foreigner like me to understand that gun control is an ever present hot button issue in America, particularly the restrictions on those who can buy semi automatic weapons, which is the nature of the bill in question. Sloane fights against her former department at her old law firm, headed by Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg).
For all the film’s excessive politicking, the politics of the film itself are quite shallow. Obviously made with a pro gun control angle, the filmmaker is unable to temper his own biases, and provides the kind of ignorant arguments that have been making the left wing so ineffective these last few years. He refuses to provide any compelling characters with pro firearm stances, instead making them all soul sucking corporates or boring old conservative white men. The topic is an incredibly important issue to be discussed in an open forum, but Madden choses to make it a one sided conversation within the forum of his own prejudices, and both sides learn nothing about each other.
The script, provided by Jonathan Perera, has all the verbosity of an Aaron Sorkin script without any of the intelligence, subtext, or rhythm that make Sorkin’s work so compelling. The characters are dry and unfunny, and shift between these misdirected attempts at wit and clunky exposition of political movements and discussions on corruption. Very few of the conversations are useful, educational, or ultimately necessary for the story Madden is trying to tell, whatever that story is. The actors, extremely talented as they are (the cast also contains Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, and Alison Pill: this is one of the strongest casts I’ve seen on paper in recent times), struggle against, and ultimately cannot succeed in finding anything below what is written for them. I cannot blame them. The only one to leave with something resembling a compelling performance is Lithgow, as a troubled, corrupt senator, whose humanity is endowed not by any level of writing, but by Lithgow’s howling, indomitable inner life, present in all his work. Chastain’s charisma is buried in words, Stuhlbarg’s natural intelligence smothered in clichés, and Mbatha-Raw’s vulnerability is swept away in the current of the story.
The film is advertised as a political thriller, however it is seemingly without stakes and only a few dramatic chords and overly dark photography throughout seem to suggest any tension at all in the story, so viewers looking to watch the movie from the edge of their seat will probably fall asleep there, lose balance, and fall off.
The storylines which interest the viewer the most are the ones investigating Liz’s motivations for her work: her drive to win, her never discussed childhood, her sociopathy. There are moments between Liz and a friendly male escort which seem to be leading to something more important, more consequential, that never reach any cathartic heights. Ultimately, the investigations of Liz’s humanity are too many and too shallow to be of any real consequence or imagery regarding her psychology.
The art of the political thriller is a tough one, requiring tension, incisive politics, and, as in all art, humanity. Miss Sloane may succeed in providing illusions of all three of these things, but does not succeed in a comprehensive embodiment of either.