Image courtesy of Trans Film/Archery Pictures
Box Office Bust
| published December 23, 2016 |
By Cameron Dale, Thursday Review contributor
Despite a whole lot of glowing, even fawning reviews by a cross-section of mainstream and highbrow media, Miss Sloane, starring Jessica Chastain and directed by John Madden, is sinking rapidly at the box office, washed to sea as the mega films like Rogue One: A Star Wars story control the box office numbers, and fans still flock to see either fantasy-adventures like Doctor Strange or Fantastic Beasts, or the kid-friendly stuff, such as Moana, Trolls, and Sing.
Such gluts in middle brow and low brow fare usually create this sort of problem for “serious” films, like last year’s Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton, or this year’s Snowden (directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt)—also well done and masterfully edited but buffeted by too many mainstream movies and a busy (to say the least) political year.
But Miss Sloane, aside from its problems at the box, is nevertheless a high caliber, slick political thriller—a movie presumably about the perils of Washington lobbying and its heavy influence on the American political, but a plot wrapped not-so-subtly around an anti-gun morality play. Pro-gun control folks love this movie; pro gun-packers hate it. Either way, the movie is performing sluggishly.
Miss Sloane stars Jessica Chastain in what may be her finest, most dazzling performance to date, exceeding even her standout job in Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) as the CIA analyst charged with the singular task of finding Osama bin Laden in the months and years after 9/11, and a film loosely based on the real cat-and-mouse game as well as the team of Special Forces men who executed that dangerous operation. Miss Sloane also packs a powerful punch with a well-cast ensemble of other actors: Mark Strong (who also had a supporting role in Zero Dark Thirty), John Lithgow, Michael Stuhlberg, Sam Waterston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Alison Pill.
Miss Sloane tells the fictional story of a high-powered and effective Washington lobbyist, Elizabeth Sloane—so efficient at her work that she ranks among the most sought-after of the top arm-twisters in the U.S. capital. Self-confident and intuitive to a fault, and a battle-hardened protagonist who knows every political dance step and every form of leverage, she is also largely mercenary in her approach to selecting clients, deploying her skills and that of her tech savvy and well-trained lieutenants to the highest bidder. But in all literature, hubris solicits nemesis.
Told as a series of recollections to her defense attorney in advance of what we understand is the trial of her life, we revisit the most serious challenge of her career: a lobbying campaign in which she has been accused by Congress of bribery, campaign finance violations, and extortion, all in order to score a massive political win on the issue of guns and gun control. We are given a glimpse of the inner workings of Sloane: she at first seems to defer any interest in collaborating with a pro-gun legislative agenda (there are references to gun violence in her family history, thus a perceived “bias” against gun ownership), but then seems to slide toward supporting it, drawn by the challenge and seduced, perhaps, by the flattering words of the heavyweight law firm backing the pro-gun bill.
Thus the narrative becomes immensely complicated, with everything we expect from a smart, slick political thriller: complex political deals, arguments of moral equivalency and public perception, the effectiveness of “rebranding” an issue to make it more or less palatable to members of Congress and the voters, and the minutiae of deal-making and leverage, as in no political deal is a simple quid pro quo, this-for-that. All deals involve some form of moral compromise by nearly every player on the field, and idealists (as we have long been trained by the media and by the literary world), are tragic and doomed figures.
There is no spoiler alert needed: in fact, the ending is a sort of box-within-a-box double-cross. Sloane indeed goes to jail. An entirely unsympathetic character (to me at least), her act of falling on her sword does little to make her more likeable or approachable, and in fact dooms her to appear to be not so smart after all. Why wait until 15 minutes before your prison sentence to express either doubts or remorse? And the ending therefore becomes a sort of Perry Mason cliché, as she exposes for everyone her secret agenda.
At any rate, this is a very sharp, smartly-written film. But it suffers for several reasons, the first being an over-abundance of snappy, machine-gun dialogue which makes it seem more like a TV crime drama than a real-life portrayal of Washington lobbying. Secondly, though I am personally unopposed to better gun laws and some form of gun accountability in the U.S., this film falls all too easily into the broad category of movies-with-an-agenda. The writers would say they merely picked the gun lobby as an ideal example of lobbying at its worst, but rightists are correct to interpret this film as propaganda, too peppered with anti-gun platitudes and oversimplified interpretations of gun statistics (Are there really 370 “mass shootings” in the U.S. each year? There are if you count any bullet-hurtling altercation in which two or more people are struck, according to some theorists).
The short version: an excellent and well-crafted film with aptly sluggish box office numbers, but hardly worth the big screen treatment. Don’t waste hard-earned cash to see it at the theater; wait and watch this on Netflix or HBO on the smaller screen at home.
Related Thursday Review articles:
The Accountant; Cameron Dale; Thursday Review; October 26, 2016.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Cameron Dale; Thursday Review; December 3, 2016.