Miss Sloane

March 3, 2017
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane (2016)
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane (2016)

Last year there were more than 11,000 registered lobbyists in the Washington DC. US$11 billion was spent on this makeshift industry, with some large firms retaining more than a hundred operatives. This well-supplied army is engaged in a continuous assault on a mere 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators. That’s roughly 20 lobbyists per politician. Yet it’s not quite clear what lobbyists actually do.

The banal answer is that they are professional persuaders hired to advance the political interests of corporate clients and special interest groups. The usual aim is to get politicians to support or oppose certain pieces of legislation, although there are many means to this end. Along with reasoned argument, flattery and cajolery, it’s widely assumed that lobbyists indulge in a range of extra-legal activities on behalf of clients that demand results. Bribery and blackmail may not be out of the question.

This is the “swamp” that Donald Trump has promised to drain. In Miss Sloane, our unlikely tour guide is British director, John Madden, best known for Shakespeare in Love and the Exotic Marigold Hotel.

At the beginning of Miss Sloane, Jessica Chastain gives us a brief lecture on what makes a successful lobbyist. She could be talking about a successful chess or poker player. It’s all about anticipating your opponent’s next move, about playing your trump card after he’s played his.

Chastain’s character, Elizabeth Sloane, is well qualified to tell us about the profession. She is a legendary lobbyist for the firm, Cole, Kravitz & Waterman, who never seems to lose. She dresses in sharp, expensive corporate uniforms, and keeps her copper-coloured hair neatly trimmed. She’s attractive but scary – hard as steel and seemingly free from the softer emotions that trouble the rest of humanity. A formidable intellect, a supreme strategist, all she cares about is winning.

Elizabeth can turn on the charm when meeting a politician at a cocktail party, but she will have researched her mark in advance. She lives alone in a luxury apartment, using escorts for commitment-free sexual gratification. Because sleep is as much of an inconvenience as emotional attachments, she pops pills day and night.

The film begins with Elizabeth fronting a congressional hearing in which she is accused of breaching professional ethics. Soon we are tracking back into the past to see how she arrived at this juncture.

We find her casually arranging a junket to Indonesia for a senator whose vote is crucial to legislation relating to palm oil imports. She explains to her team of keen, young assistants, how to do this while staying on the right side of the law.

Elizabeth’s reputation has attracted a group associated with the gun lobby, who want to kill a piece of legislation that will make it slightly more difficult to purchase firearms. When they explain they’d like to make guns more attractive to women, she laughs in their faces. It seems that Elizabeth does believe in something after all. Not only does she refuse the account, she leaves Cole, Kravitz and Waterman, to work with a small-time group of ‘ethical’ lobbyists, who are supporting the passage of the bill. Most of her team will join her, although her assistant, Jane (Allison Pill) decides to stay put, along with her colleague, Pat (Michael Stuhlbarg). In the struggle that follows they’ll become her mortal enemies.

The rest of the movie is a tense, political slug-fest, as the two sides compete for the votes that will ensure the passage or failure of the bill. The odds are stacked overwhelmingly in favour of the pro-gun camp, but Elizabeth’s tactics erode that advantage, until the fight becomes intensely personal.

Although she is now lobbying for a cause in which she believes, Elizabeth remains just as unscrupulous in her methods. She befriends one of her assistants, Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), only to betray her confidence in the most spectacular fashion. Convictions aside, it’s clear that Elizabeth’s biggest thrill is to succeed with a seemingly hopeless cause.

Chastain works hard to instill a trace of warmth into this anti-heroine. Beneath the corporate armour there is a twinge of sadness, a sense of futility. We can almost feel sympathetic.

Most films nowadays are let down by pedestrian scripts, but Miss Sloane is so loaded with meaningful dialogue one begins to wish for a moment’s respite. Scriptwriter, Jonathan Perera, lays it on thick. The exchanges are so fast, so relentless, that he obviously wants us to be picked up and swept along by the story, and for the most part this is exactly what happens.

Miss Sloane is a film with a powerful message about the corruption and debasement of democracy in the United States. Opinions will be divided as to whether Madden and Perera convey that message effectively, or in too heavy-handed a fashion. Although nothing is left unsaid in this wordy flick, there are enough twists and turns to keep us guessing to the end. There’s an element of melodrama, and even fantasy, but one leaves the cinema with a clearer understanding of why millions of American voters have lost faith in the political classes.

Miss Sloane
Directed by John Madden
Written by Jonathan Perera
Starring Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy
France/USA, rated M, 132 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th March, 2017.