I love a good political drama. I particularly love it when a political drama pokes at a subject guaranteed to bring the drama: power grabs. When I first heard about Miss Sloane, I was conflicted. On the one hand, I wondered, did there really need to be another movie about lobbyists and what they get up to in the Capitol? I mean, House of Cards has pretty well covered the ins-and-outs of political intrigue with story craft excellence. But on the other hand, I really do enjoy a well-done politico movie and this one looked like it could rival some of the best in the genre. I mean, it does star Jessica Chastain. After watching the trailer, I was so intrigued I knew I’d have to watch it and (fervently) hope it wasn’t just a gender-swapped Michael Clayton knock-off.
An extreme close-up of Elizabeth Sloane (played by Jessica Chastain) seemingly speaking directly to the camera opens the show. She’s telling you her personal work ethic and strategy, you know, the one in all the trailers: “lobbying is about foresight; about anticipating your opponent’s moves, devising countermeasures… the winner plots one step ahead of the opposition it’s about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you.” I’ll be honest with you, I was relieved to see this catchy line used so soon in the movie. I absolutely hate it when you’re watching a movie and the entire build up leads to… the line you’ve already heard a million times in the trailers.
You quickly realize – and if you’re like me it amuses you to no end – that she’s talking to her lawyer (David Wilson Barnes). You learn she’s about to go into a Senate hearing and he’s trying to prep her for questioning. So, you already know that someway, somehow, she’s gotten herself in more than a little bit of trouble. You also see almost immediately that Sloane is deliberately yanking his chain to rile him up and that you can almost touch her ego from your seat in the theater.
This movie has more than a little bit of foreshadowing. It jumps back 3 months after the opening sequence to really introduce you to Elizabeth Sloane.
This movie does a lot of show, not tell. You see Sloane talking to her assistant Jane (Alison Pill) quick stepping toward the ladies’ room. They’re talking about Jane’s new debt free from student loan status, her plans for her future, and talking shop about their latest client: the Indonesian government. They’re throwing out details a mile a minute – I know at this point it’s a cliché that all of D.C. talks in quips and barely breathes between syllables. I’ve always taken it as an attempt to convey the dynamic nature of the environment they work in – trying to give you the sense of how quickly things change and if you move too slow you miss your opportunity. But if this bothers, you then it’ll be a struggle because there are few moments when the pace slows (which HELLO is a big hint you should maybe watch closely to what’s being unraveled before you) and lots of snarky one-liners from amongst the cast. You see her in the whirl of a business mixer (the likes of which if I ever had to attend I jump off a building) and her seeming never slows down all work – even when she’s playing – focus and lifestyle.
If you don’t like moves that have a flash back storytelling and embedded foreshadowing – if your mind wanders during movies, – you may get confused. It also means we could never be movie buddies… I know, you’re crushed.
I’ve said before I hate spoilers and I don’t think the point of a review is to give away the game so I can sound all smart. But my opinion on some things need context. What I say next doesn’t give anything except some basics (nothing the commercial spots don’t cover or give away) away:
The gun lobby comes looking to hire her (and her company) and you discover there’s an issue she’s not all-in to defend no matter what. Now it may be the head of the gun lobby’s insulting as hell pitch to have Elizabeth be the poster girl head of a front organization meant to lure women into whole-hearted, no-holds barred support of the gun lobby (please note I said the gun lobby not the 2nd amendment – because contrary to what some will tell you, it ain’t even close to the same thing). She not so subtly conveys her disdain for why he’s come and then goes to face down her – rightly – furious boss (Sam Waterston).
Shortly thereafter, she’s approached by the head of the firm (Mark Strong) lobbying for the other side with an offer to come work for him and help the bill the gun lobby wants to kill pass. I will say for those who may have missed it. This movie is a battle between two lobbying firms. You’ll need to look elsewhere for your battle of pure good v pure evil. You’ll only get shades of grey here. You, know like in the real world… .
Elizabeth Sloane is a ruthless, woman who seems to run on ambition and whatever she carries around in that little silver case she’s always got on her. She doesn’t come across as emotional even when it seems her feelings may be involved. This character is on one hand the physical embodiment of successful, a driven and focused woman who willfully chose career before all else, and on the other a tortured, conflicted, CLEARLY has some issues that need to be addressed but damn aren’t they her business not yours, woman. In other words, she’s real. This movie isn’t about what causes her to act the way she acts or what emotional thing dives her to make some decisions – no matter how many times she may be asked that at work. This movie is about who she is when she suits up – in the most wonderful wardrobe mind you – and steps on to the professional stage. She isn’t trying to be one of the boys. She took their bat and ball and dominated the sandbox. She isn’t seeking approval or hoping to please some male counterpart, she’s seizing victory and stepping over the bodies of those who must fall in order for her to win.
I found the movie’s decision to let those slight emotional moments creep in through small scenes that infer her state of mind to be most compelling. I am wholehearted tired of walking into a movie supposedly about an unapologetically cutthroat woman doing badass things only to get a story about her “redemption” and emotional catharsis instead. Elizabeth Sloane is not the hero of this movie. She is not the anti-hero in this movie. You’re not really supposed to like her. You’re not supposed to identify with her but I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize some of the things she doesn’t say with an uncomfortable familiarity. Jessica Chastain plays this part to perfection. Elizabeth Sloane talks fast, moves faster, pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and is a shoe in to win most likely to stand over a corpse and stab it on the battlefield just to be sure her enemy is vanquished.
I can’t say more without ruining the fun so I won’t. This is a top-shelf cast who all play their parts beautifully. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Esme Manucharian with a centered stillness that brought power and grace to the part. If you really have to have someone to root for, she’s your girl. Michael Stuhlbarg as Pat Connors brings an assholish wittiness to the role that is a brilliant foil for Chastain’s Sloane. You almost feel like everyone is along for the ride with you in hoping to survive the wake from the passing typhoon that is Elizabeth Sloane. I mean that in the best way possible.
The issue in play may be gun control because if you’re making a movie about pitting a lobbyist against a lobby, you need to pick a lobby big and powerful enough that practically controls the narrative on an issue (and that is known for rabid protection of that issues and its membership at all costs and against all comers) but that’s all the justification you need for that bit of writing to hold up. Credible storytelling then you’re talking about the gun lobby. The gun lobby isn’t the villain in this movie. The 2nd amendment isn’t really under discussion; the fictitious bill isn’t really important outside of being the thing that motivates Elizabeth Sloane to act outside of what people think is her character. This is not some thinly veiled social commentary on the right to own or carry a gun or insult to gun owners.
This movie is about lobbying and the shit lobbyists get up to in the name of their cause. The lines they’ll cross, the muck they’ll sling, the abuse they’ll take, and the deals they’ll make – and the shortcuts they’ll use to get it done – all in the name of winning.
While all her counterparts are setting up the board, Elizabeth Sloane’s already moved her pieces forward into battle. Her colleagues are play chess while she’s playing Go (if you’ve never heard of the game, trust me head to the Googles it’s meta in the extreme).
It’s a savvy, metaphor for conscience versus conviction. With some unsubtle points addressing inconsistencies we have in this country when it comes to issue framing, policy making, and the protection of rights thrown in because – why not they’re just SITTING THERE. The makers of this film are expecting an audience awake and aware to the nuances in the current political climate and a healthy sense of irony.
There are some points that I wished were given more air time but I understand why they couldn’t be if the main story arc was to be served. It’s these bits that keep me from 5 out of 5 because given the slick facility of the movie, I don’t think these ends had to be left loose.
This entire movie is some of the best visual sleight of hand I’ve watched in a good while — maybe since watching Anthony Hopkins in Fracture. Even when Sloane shows you all the pieces beforehand, you still don’t see all her turns. Settle in, pay attention and see if you can figure out her moves and counter moves before the jig is up.
Oh, and for the record, Elizabeth Sloane would kick Michael Clayton’s ass and not even scuff her Louboutins.
Note: I feel the need to say something else that’s not really “reviewee” – because I think people would really enjoy this movie. There’s been some skewed – read annoying as hell – chatter about this movie. Sight unseen it’s been declared by some as “leftist propaganda” because it embraced the #nastywoman slogan that came out of the presidential debates in its marketing – once you’ve seen the movie you’ll absolutely see why Sloane is the D.C. chapter president of the “nasty woman” brigade – and a liberal agenda attempt to undermine support of the 2nd amendment.
Don’t listen to those people. Seriously, not only have most of them not seen the movie but if they did they weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to what was happening on the screen. This movie wasn’t supposed to be some victory lap to cap off an election win for a woman – it has not the first thing to do with that type of politics and if it had been Edward Sloane instead – with no other script changes – no one would’ve uttered such claptrap.
Here’s the thing I think some folks missed: Elizabeth Sloane is a free-market samurai warrior. Her clients are the elite from among oil and gas companies. They’re leaders of commercial industry. She is a literal gun for hire. She’s an undefeated assassin with no loyalty but to “the way.” When she advocates from her “convictions,” they call her to represent the country exporting palm oil (which, if you’ve ever seen the episode “Last Stand” from the documentary Years of Living Dangerously, you know is literally destroying entire ecosystems in Indonesia) an industry staple for many a beloved American product. She’s is a power broker, a will bender, a battle-tested badass holding the line on behalf of capitalism and free enterprise.
This is a long way to say, Elizabeth Sloane is Republican; she’s so Republican she keeps pictures of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush right next to her degrees in her office even after she goes to work for the lobbying firm with a “conscience.”
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars
In the world of high-stakes political power-brokers, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is the most sought after and formidable lobbyist in D.C. She’s a free market advocate known for both her strategic cunning and her track record of success. If you’re looking for someone who’ll get the job done no matter what, Sloan’s who you want on your side. She’ll do whatever is necessary to win. But when she takes on the most powerful opponent of her career, you learn what’s the true cost of winning no matter what.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Sam Waterston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, John Lithgow, Jake Lacy, Michael Stuhlbarg
Screenplay: Jonathan Perera
Director: John Madden