The Sneak Attack

Miss Sloane
(USA/UK, 129 min.)
Dir. John Madden, Writ. Jonathan Perera
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow
Jessica Chastain stars in Miss Sloane.
Courtesy VVS Films.

“All you’re missing is a dick,” says a sly Congresswoman (Christine Baranski) to cocksure lobbyist Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain). Liz Sloane might be the most badass character of the year, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that her strength comes from her masculinisation. She’s simply a driven career woman who cuts through the bullshit and looks wickedly good in a pantsuit. Jessica Chastain is ferocious as the often unlikable lobbyist, and Miss Sloane offers audiences the new icon of Pantsuit Nation for the era of “nasty women” and rotten politics.

Liz Sloane is the Miranda Priestley of her generation as she strides successfully and confidently through the corridors of Washington. (Actually, Toronto standing in for Washington in a fun game of “spot the familiar locations.”) Where Miranda Priestly commands the fashion scene, Liz Sloane rules the chess game of Capitol Hill. She swings votes like Miranda spots trends, and clinks glasses of brown liquor at her desk like members of the old boys club do. Miss Sloane, like Miranda Priestly or (sadly) Secretary Clinton, is prone to the double standards of other eyes in a world traditionally dominated by men. Political animals even wonder about the propriety of shaking her hand, as opposed to doing something girly, like, you know, giving her a hug. Miss Sloane asserts that women can and should occupy spaces alongside men in any field. They’re not just players, though: like Liz, they’re in it to win it.

Gender comes into play big time in Miss Sloane when Liz receives a proposal to lobby in favour of America’s gun owners and against the pesky liberals who want thorough background checks on prospective gun buyers. The plan of attack, her inquiring gun enthusiast Sanford (Chuck Shamata) suggests, is to make guns appeal to women. Put a pistol in their hands to make America safe again. Empower them through firearms. In film theory psychoanalytic terms, Sanford thinks the effective campaign is one that endows women with confidence through a phallus. In other words, give a woman a big honking dick.

Miss Sloane doesn’t play this preposterous angle, though, and she takes a sweeter offer from the other side to make the USA safe by lobbying in favour of stricter background checks. She accrues a team of players from her firm, but divides her comrades when two key people, Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) and, surprisingly, her driven assistant and closest ally Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), stay among the firm as Liz separates the sheep from the goats. At the new firm, she works under the guidance of Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) and finds a new protégé in young upstart Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who shows the strongest potential as Liz lays out the plan of attack.

Sloane becomes a conscience for America when the dirty dealings of the lobbying game put her on trial in hearings before Congress. Forced to withstand questions about the legitimacy of her affairs and plead the Fifth to politicians who are themselves corrupt, Liz Sloane’s frequently unlikabililty tasks the audience with playing judge and jury. It’s a case of hating the game and not the player, though, as Chastain creates a character who is so thoroughly compelling because she inhabits such a wide swath of greys. Without a black or white shade on which to fall, she’s admirable because one must admire the fight and conviction that exceeds Liz Sloane’s character. Whatever one thinks of her personality, one must admire her drive and conviction. Chastain chews up these moments that show Sloane’s drive and perfectionism and she humanises a very difficult character by building an exterior that needs to be broken down. Imagine Michael Clayton if it focused not on George Clooney’s suave fixer, but on Tilda Swinton’s sharp, precise, and pit-stained lawyer.

Chastain owns the character’s faults, like her dogged perfectionism and unhealthy drug-addled addiction to the high of winning. She similarly uses the character’s perceived masculinity to challenge the notion that men and women exist on a binary scale as Liz hooks up with escorts for quick fucks to release her steam. She even bags a paid gentleman named Robert Forde (Jake Lacy), who gets all girly and wants to talk and maybe grab some breakfast after business.

These character traits all circle back to the film’s play on guns and gender. Twirling her Blackberry like John Wayne whirls a revolver, Chastain is a powerhouse in this performance. Her Liz Sloane is a plugged-in, no-nonsense, straight-shooting, poker-faced renegade with the coolness of a freewheeling lawman who paved the way for America in the early days. Unlike the heroes of classic westerns, though, Liz Sloane knows that the sun is setting on old America. Chastain gives the audience a figure who, unlike The Duke’s westerner, is boldly empowered without a pistol at her side. She’s strong with her sharp mind and wily intuition.

Chastain’s excellent performance fuels a firecracker supporting cast that includes a number of up-and-coming character actors from the Toronto film scene, like Raoul Bhaneja as Sloane’s cocky rival and Grace Lynn Kung as one of Liz’s resourceful ragamuffins, while Alison Pill’s expert poker face guides Miss Sloane through unexpected turns. Mark Strong and Sam Waterston stack the cast playing the boys of Capital Hill who can’t keep the pace with Liz Sloane, and Stulhbarg is a worthy sniveling foil to Chastain’s icy resilience.

The standout from the supporting team is up-and-comer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, though, who gives Miss Sloane its vital core of humanity in a relatively unshowy role. Like Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, this performance puts the character’s compassion front and centre as Esme becomes the crux for human connection in Liz’s campaign against gun violence. Mbatha-Raw’s subtle, humane, and accessible performance shows that Liz Sloane’s coldly protective shield comes at a cost. Humans aren’t made of bulletproof vests, and when Liz’s ammunition stealthily aims to explode the campaign, Mbatha-Raw’s Esme becomes the audience’s viewpoint into a risky business with no easy answers.

Madden keeps the film smart, engaging, and unpredictable by making the action and the cutting as energetic as the dialogue. Miss Sloane speaks fluent Sorkinese as the lobbyists hunt in the world of the walk and talk, and the briskness of the film keeps it unpredictable. The script from Jonathan Perera understands the complexity of confronting the Second Amendment as Liz and Connors assert their campaigns and pull strings, lobbying in favour of collective safety on one side and an individual’s right to bear arms on the other with dramatic hyperbole.

Coming out at the end of a year that puts far too much gun violence on the history books, Miss Sloane hits a nerve as it encourages audiences to take a side on the debate that weighs personal rights against countless human lives. The film turns the argument on its head in a climactic on air debate in which Sloane and Connors trade barbs with more acidic bits than Trump and Clinton, and Chastain firmly gains control of the film by blowing the lobbyist’s passion and conviction wide open with an argument so articulate that it demands Congress’s ear.

Here’s where the character and the movie firmly become one. Liz Sloane is all about the sneak attack. Her battle plan is one of alternatives, forward thinking, and counter-manoeuvres. She’s always one-step ahead of the competition even where she seems two paces behind. Miss Sloane delivers a sneak attack of its own, as the film initially seems like a conventional thriller, but as Liz Sloane makes the case personal, she shows that it’s the individual’s responsibility to stand up and fight the system. Miss Sloane isn’t out to fight the Second Amendment: it’s out to nail a corrupt system that is full of rats and rotten to the core.

Miss Sloane opens in theatres on December 9.

And don't miss the Cinemablographer interview with John Madden!