John Madden’s political thriller Miss Sloane is a contrived sledgehammer of a film. It navigates a complex subject matter from the top of a soapbox, spouting ersatz-Sorkin dialogue at the top of its lungs. Its near-infallible central character is always the smartest person in the room, except when she’s saved by the latest in a long line of plot conveniences. And though the film is stocked with talented actors, they often struggle to elevate the mediocre writing above the superficiality of a PolySci 101 term paper on the second amendment. Miss Sloane delights in its own cleverness and “message”, but seems to have considered making a film a secondary concern.
Miss Sloane sports a needless nonlinear plot, framed around a senatorial hearing on the title character, played by Jessica Chastain. Sloane, who is a lobbyist, has been hired to pass a bill on gun legislation, and her success has brought the ire of the gun lobby down on her. As the hearing introduces the audience to the stakes, we flash back and forth to the events that brought Sloane under investigation. It’s an oft-employed framing device, but in Miss Sloane it just feels tacked on. This is a story that gains little from hopping around like this; it would be better off pressing forward step-by-step, much like the concerted challenge placed before Sloane and her lobbying group. Throwing everything out of order is simply a trick to manufacture “gotcha” moments, and adds little to the film beyond a sense that these filmmakers consider themselves to be smart people.
Because if that wasn’t clear, the dialogue confirms it. Miss Sloane feels like it was written by Aaron Sorkin’s non-Union Mexican equivalent, Sr. Sorkiño. The hyper-political dialogue is awkward and blunt, and over-explains practically every single point ad infinitum from beginning to end without exception or deviation. It isn’t enough for the story to introduce a clever plot turn, it also has to let its characters explain exactly what we just saw happen – just in case the spectator isn’t quite as clever as the filmmakers. This “tell, don’t show” storytelling starts off as an annoyance, but continues through the film, up to and including the final sequence. Miss Sloane is bookended by “Tell” storytelling. It infects the whole film, and leave the audience feeling talked-down to.
This is all bad enough, but one has to marvel at the ridiculous conveniences that drag the plot of Miss Sloane to the finish line. A member of Sloane’s lobby group is a survivor of a school shooting. Then Sloane exploits her story to gain public approval. Then a gun-toting nutcase attacks her for championing the anti-gun cause. Then a man with a concealed-carry license kills the assailant, all which Sloan listens on the phone, guilt-ridden. A bizarre B-plot focusing on Sloane’s sex life threatens to doom her at the hearings – one of the few things she doesn’t have completely under her control. She’s only saved because, for some reason, this man decides to perjure himself before Congress.
The acting talent assembled for Miss Sloane doesn’t deserve this. Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Allison Pill, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw do a remarkable job with what they’re given, but it is rarely enough to erase the nagging feeling that they’re buffing out serious flaws. Occasionally one or more of these performers elevates the material to a passable level, but then they are required to bark a terribly blunt or obvious line and the illusion that you were watching a real film passes.
If there is one principle that unifies Miss Sloane, it is an overt lack of subtlety. The characters are drawn broadly, the dialogue lacks any subtlety, and the plot is contrived and wholly dependent on multiple convenient turns. The film aspires to be a clever political thriller illuminating and championing a particular point of view, in the vein of a Michael Clayton or The Insider. Instead, it feels like a subpar episode of The West Wing or The Newsroom, preaching over-simplified rhetoric in a distinct holier-than-thou tone. It’s like a fictionalized version of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Even if you find yourself in agreement with the underlying “message” the filmmakers are stuffing down your throat, the graceless means and slapdash execution is enough to make you to vomit it back up.