Clearly intended to land in the wake of a Clinton victory, Miss Sloane presents a tough-as-nails Washington power-player who will stop at nothing to advance her policy agenda. But landing instead amid calls to “drain the swamp” — seemingly to install its deepest dregs in the highest positions possible — it manages to find even greater resonance as a reminder of just how the “swamp” really works.
Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a D.C. lobbyist ready to work any angle. The sort who, in the name of protecting free markets, arranges five-star “fact-finding” trips for Senators and their families to induce them to give up higher tariffs on palm oil. And it comes as a surprise to her boss (Sam Waterston) when she refuses to help the gun lobby change its narrative with women. Even more surprising, she jumps ship to a “boutique” firm headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) who until now considered a noisy, valiant loss the best they could expect on issues like universal background checks.
But Miss Sloane plays to win, which is even more apparent when paired with her new, idealistic foil, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She’s not above using every dirty trick in the book to achieve her goals. That, in her view, is why Schmidt and “[his] liberal friends” are so ineffective, with their idealistic insistence on playing fairly.
In the wake of the election, it’s hard to argue with that idea. Eight years of reaching across the table and seeking consensus has only managed to further retrench the opposition’s refusal to even operate the government when it doesn’t get its entire way. It ends with an electoral college win eked out over states whose Republican-dominated legislatures have gone out of their way to put their thumbs on the scales in any way possible. And the legacy is about to be wiped clean by a pack of kleptocrats who don’t even pretend to care about ethical norms, because those norms have no effective enforcement mechanisms.
First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s best idea is setting this up as a caper film, and not just because of my affection for that genre. The actual process of policymaking has become a sort of caper, marked less by open debate and more by plotting to see who can pull off which media coup and stab the other guy in the back first. And as this sort of thriller, Miss Sloane unwinds with clockwork precision. Director John Madden plays out tensions with the same elegance as Miss Sloane’s impeccably tailored suits.
This way of turning real-world policy into a game degrades the body politic. Perera reflects that in the degradation of Miss Sloane’s own body as she runs herself ragged. A lifetime of pushing herself to the edge — abusing stimulants to keep going and prescription bennies to sleep when she must, the closest thing to companionship is an escort (Jake Lacy) she doesn’t even like — can only lead to a crash. And she knows it just as well as we know that the current system in Washington is unsustainable.
Chastain provides the anchor this film needs, delivering her best performance since her annus mirabilis of 2011. Her mannerism is spot-on as a woman forced to harden herself to compete in this male-dominated world. In her blue-black manicured hands, Miss Sloane is every bit the mastermind as any Mamet con man.
As the year winds to a close, 2016 is shaping up as the year process was more obviously important than policy. All the ideals about right and wrong and what’s good for the country matter less than who makes the most effective use of the actual levers of power. Huff and puff until you’re blue in the face about “that’s unethical!” or “that’s unconstitutional!” and the new ruling class will just look back and ask what you think you’re going to do about it. The left tears itself apart over whether good ends justify shady means, and I have to admit it’s cathartic to watch someone test just how far the rules will bend in favor of a progressive cause for once.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.