Friday, 29 December 2017

Movie Review: Miss Sloane (2017)



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The plot: Lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) has been brought before a congressional hearing under suspicion of violating U.S. Senate ethics law. She recalls the events of the last three months, specifically her involvement in getting a gun control bill passed into congress and the efforts of her and her team to secure the votes. However, in the process of trying to win the battle, her determination has led her to increasingly dubious choices that may show her to be the bigger threat than the people she’s fighting against.




Character pieces require actors who truly get how important layered performances are. With a film this politically-charged, making a prospective lead look like more than a talking head is crucial to keeping the audience’s attention. Chastain has that down, possibly more so than any other performance I’ve covered over this past year. Every single frame containing her in this film possesses this immediate air that this is someone who can tear a person down in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee, and yet it never crosses into the realm of inhumanly motivated. Instead, because of how well she is able to balance out both the political machinations and the personal impact that those actions end up taking, she is shown to be a powerful human being but a human being nonetheless. Mark Strong brings in another great performance, acting as the counterpoint to Sloane’s aspirations and frequently serving as a potential voice of reason. The fact that he can stand his ground alongside the living hurricane that is Elizabeth Sloane is a true testament to his experience with the craft.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw serves as the emotional sticking point for the story, contrasting the cold machinations of her peers with a sentimental core that ends up driving home a lot of the more practical sides of the central debate. Jake Lacy as an escort helps bring out the more human side of our main character, Sam Waterston as one of Sloane’s main opponents fits in very nicely, Michael Sthulbarg as Sloane’s direct rival shows the kind of savviness that such work would require (not to mention pulling off an amazing bit of symbolism connecting political work and playing pool, in easily the film’s most defining moment) and John Lithgow as the senator in charge of Sloane’s hearing does quite well at playing one in a series of pawns in the larger game being played.

As much as I want to highlight how refreshing it is to see Exotic Marigold Hotel director John Madden attached to a story that isn’t completely saturated in treacle, I’m far more impressed at the work by writer Jonathan Perera. This is his first credited work as a writer full-stop, and I can only hope that this is the prelude to a length career because the dialogue is absolutely fantastic. The man has clearly read up on his Aaron Sorkin, as his wording carries that same tone of being punchy, to-the-point and unrelenting when it comes time to reduce a person to nothing through sheer conversation. It’s honestly quite dizzying how much this film breezes through so many hot button topics and intense industry jargon, to the point where not even being able to see the point becomes redundant because it’s just fascinating watching these characters talk. It’s scriptsploitation, make no mistake, but it makes the ideal choice as far as that style of filmmaking is concerned: If you’re going to put so much focus on the script, make it a script worth being focused on. And sure enough, even when some of the finer details may fly past some audience’s heads in how long and winding they can get, that’s exactly what we get here.

I’ve largely given up when it comes to discourse concerning gun reform laws in the United States. Not a single discussion I’ve been party to concerning the topic has ever gotten further than “We clearly not going to agree on this, so let’s just stop here”. The beauty of looking at a film like this is that, without even needing to dip into any real personal experience on my part like usual, the answers for why are all here: Politics is a cutthroat profession. In order for even the slightest thing to be passed, so much dealing and double-dealing and sleight of hand is needed to get the pure numbers required. Doing so requires an icy constitution, something that the titular character definitely possesses, but it also requires an understanding that there are no allies, only resources. Part of what makes the tricks and stunts pulled within the film so enthralling, aside from how in-depth the dialogue gets with the details surrounding them, is that the film as a whole is rather frank about how utterly dehumanizing a lot of deeper politics can be. You are not an individual person; you are only a single integer in a collection that could be the tipping point between victory and defeat. And the people walking the walk, the people pushing for one of those two outcomes? They will go to terrible lengths in order to secure it.

Lobbyists are not well-liked. This is as much of an understatement as saying that the gun control debate is slightly contentious. Aside from depicting the work involved in exhilarating detail, this film also dips its toes into the mindset behind those actions. Some of this is topic-specific, like when Sloane and Esme debate whether or not personal experience is needed to have a concrete opinion on the topic of gun control, but a lot of it is more general. What makes a lobbyist ‘champion’ a given agenda? Is it the thought of an extra comma in their bank account? Is it the want to do what the person actually believes to be the right thing? Or is it simply for the thrill of the fight; the chance to say that you managed to win a battle that no-one thought could be won? We are presented these possibilities, some of which are directly confirmed or denied, but the film is far more interested in the matter by which their drive is sated. As we are given more and more glimpses at just how far Sloane is willing to push the boundaries of law and ethics to secure the numbers, we see that this cutthroat business produces cutthroat workers. As I said, in order for anything to be done, compromises always have to be made. And through a truly fleshed-out focal point in the form of Miss Sloane herself, we see how those compromises can whittle away a person’s resolve. She’s a powerful human being, but a human being nonetheless.

All in all, this is a political thrill-ride that is worth the price of admission. The acting is stellar, with Jessica Chastain giving a career-highlight performance as the title character, the direction by John Madden shows what the man is capable of when he’s working with scripts worth working with, and the writing by Jonathan Perera shows an almost supernatural nimbleness in how the film goes over political lobbying, and by extension the U.S. political process as a whole, in a way that shows a genuine understanding of both the finer details involved and the effects it can have on the human soul. This film might stir up some irritation in those more closely involved in debates for gun control in the U.S., but its willingness to admit that the means are far darker than the ends for both sides helps keep this from becoming a soapbox moment for the debate itself. It’s much more fun watching the games of political chess being played here anyway.

It ranks higher than Flatliners, which will come as no surprise to most of my readers but bear in mind I really friggin’ liked that film. As much as I appreciate that film managing to give itself a reason to exist as a remake, I still have more appreciation for this film’s existence on its own. However, it still doesn’t pack the same punch for me as something like Split, where it didn’t feel like so much of the film was just soaring right past me. I still liked the experience but I prefer to stick to things I can actually break down into simple logic; this film’s main draw is the opposite of that.

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