Arts MOVIE REVIEW

D.C. drama casts light on shady lobbying

Miss Sloane captures Washington policymaking in all its inglorious ignominy

★★★★✩
Miss Sloane
Directed by John Madden
Starring Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston
Rated R
Now Playing

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that politics today is all about performance — a conclusion inescapably reached in Miss Sloane, the new Beltway-based political thriller from John Madden.

The eponymous Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is an ambitious politico working for a strictly amoral DC lobbying firm. Yet Sloane has a secret, something that passes for heresy in her firm: on some political issues, she actually cares. This is revealed when, approached by a gun-rights group to take down a gun control bill before Congress, she leaves her firm to fight for the other side.

What follows is an intense, intriguing game of cat-and-mouse, pitting the upstart firm Sloane has just joined against her former employers, led by the scheming George Dupont (Sam Waterston). Needing 60 votes in the Senate to break the filibuster and pass gun control measures, the deck is stacked against Sloane’s team, who embark on an ambitious attempt to bring enough senators across the aisle. Dupont, meanwhile, launches an effort to bring down Sloane herself.

The story is at its sharpest as a depiction of decay in the nation’s capital. Absent is the antiquated notion that senators should faithfully represent the views of their constituents in any meaningful sense. Winning over senators is purely a matter of changing their incentives, by deploying huge financial resources, negative media, and the occasional threat of blackmail to force them to change their mind.

Yet for all these machinations, human drama stays in the foreground. Sloane herself remains enigmatic throughout: constantly criticized for her ruthless tactics, she is comfortable jeopardizing her colleagues’ careers and her own health for a cause which she seems to genuinely believe in. Undoubtedly, her gender plays a role how this tension plays out: that her only sexual relationship is with a prostitute is a somewhat unsubtle but forceful break from the common depiction of women in politics as operating in the shadow of their more powerful husband. The needless gendering of the movie’s title notwithstanding, Sloane is less Lady Macbeth and more an unmitigated Machiavelli.

Gun control is a smart choice for the policy over which the political battle is fought: unlike tax reform or infrastructure funding, it is enough of an emotive, high-stakes issue to drive the story, even as the plot deviates quite significantly from the policy debate itself. Only once is the practical impact of gun control brought to bear on screen, but even this single, visceral moment almost instantly becomes fodder for the larger policy fight.

To be sure, Miss Sloane is considerably closer in tone to House of Cards than The West Wing: politicians are universally shown as craven and self-serving, far more concerned with reelection than representation. Of course, as a reflection of reality this may not be far from the truth. But frustratingly, this moral indifference extends as far as Sloane herself, whose dispassionate mask seldom slips to reveal much more than half-hearted apology for, or even begrudging acknowledgement of, any mistake. The archetype of the amoral protagonist is very much in vogue at present on both the big and small screens, but without the luxury of thirteen episodes to explore Sloane’s background and motivations, it comes at the cost of character development and empathy generation here.

Yet for its disparaging depiction of D.C. alone, Miss Sloane is worth a watch. The movie offers a withering look at how greed, corruption and egotism seem to have rendered Washington an almost entirely unprincipled place – a malaise which may extend as far as the protagonist herself. The film also offers keen insight into the way in which performance and perception shape modern politics and policymaking. Sloane’s main efforts — using methods as diverse as conducting state-of-the-art surveillance, and manufacturing media moments – are geared towards constructing a particular narrative to be served to the public. This may sound familiar – and in this sense Miss Sloane serves both as a sobering coda to this year in real-life politics, and perhaps as a sign of things yet to come.