2016, R, 132 min. Directed by John Madden. Starring Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Jake Lacy, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 9, 2016
What am I missing? Most professional women single or otherwise lead with “Ms.” Maybe the filmmakers meant the title’s “miss” as a punk – as in, “miss this woman’s awesome fury at your own peril.” Yet the opponents of Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain), a D.C. lobbyist with a hard-earned reputation as a real ballbuster, may not like her, but they don’t underestimate her. When she turns her attention to passing a firearm regulation bill, the gun lobby throws everything they’ve got at her, including a congressional hearing.
That hearing, teased early and returned to late in the film, forms the framing device of this Michael Clayton-like thriller. Less charitably, you might call it Michael Clayton-lite: The two films share some resemblance, built around a morally conflicted, corners-cutting hero reluctantly questioning their own role as a cog in a corrupt machine. I imagine screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s vision board also saved a fat space for Aaron Sorkin; you can hear echoes of Sorkin’s patterns – a call back, a seeming non sequitur, a casual Latin root – in Perera’s dialogue. More to the point, Sorkin and Perera both favor protagonists who are always several steps ahead of the opposition. But math matters: Too many steps ahead and a character stops feeling believably shrewd and starts feeling like a thin Hollywood fiction.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures) has stocked the cast with talented actors, including Brits Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mark Strong (so often a baddie, notable here as a paragon of decency), Michael Stuhlbarg (ghosting Snidely Whiplash’s mustachio), and Sorkin’s Newsroom players Alison Pill and Sam Waterston. But Chastain owns the film. Miss Sloane opens with her scrubbing off her eye makeup, a succinct introduction to a professional soldier removing her war paint. The film is less successful at exploring the chinks in her armor – the stuff that makes her human, and a person of interest. Chastain is great – she’s always great, right? – and the brittle braininess she radiates is the film’s crowning seduction. She even sells the plot’s preposterous twist like a boss. It’s not her fault, but the movie feels a little silly next to her stature.