So, just follow along with me here.
Imagine a press release that told you about a new show coming to HBO, Miss Sloane. Jessica Chastain, supported by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Waterston, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, and Allison Pill, is announced to star in HBO’s answer to House of Cards. A dark, stylish show about a tough and amoral lobbyist with some deep personal problems who leaves behind her prestigious firm to pursue a moral conviction at a smaller and scrappier group.
The first season will focus on the initial fight, a battle by Miss Sloane (Chastain) along with that smaller firm (led by Mark Strong’s character) against her old firm (led by Stuhlbarg and Waterston’s characters) over a gun control bill. Sloane is firmly for gun control and her old firm has been hired to be against. They struggle over relevant and complex political battles and Sorkin-lite dialogue glides over the complex way you get anybody to care about an issue.
You can practically hear the sounds of excited Emmy voters panting in the distance. Hell, I’d be first in line if TV shows had lines.
Alas, this is not that better world.
Miss Sloane is still pretty good, but it almost feels out of place in how it chooses to tell its story. A constructed series of twists and turns and double crosses and telegraphed bits that feels more like an abbreviated flash through a first season than a narrative constructed on its own. I’m sure it was, but first-timer Jonathan Perera wrote a script with a lot of flash, but little to keep the flash going.
This feels like a film more imitating an ideal than actually trying to strike out its own way. Perera is writing a film that looms heavily in the shadow of Sorkin. I mean that quite literally, not just in the reams of dialogue where everyone is knowledgeable about something and witty. It feels like a dark version of Sorkin, where his characters find their knowledge and victory in idealism, the characters of Miss Sloane ultimately win through cynicism and self-sacrifice. It’s not the question of “What will it take to win?” but rather “What will you give to win?”
And that’s interesting. In a film that had more time to explore it, could take a quieter and more methodical pace, or A STORY THAT HAD A SEASON TO EXPLORE IT, you could have dived deeper in, and Chastain’s Sloane is certainly up to the task.
It should be no surprise but Jessica Chastain is great in this film. I’ll cop to my bias, but this is the kind of role she’s absolutely perfect for. Chastain is all about her control, the way she seems absolutely sure of everything she does and is absolutely pitch-perfect in what she reveals and what she doesn’t about her character.
Sloane is that kind of character, a dizzying collection of flaws and brilliances rapidly being spit out and Chastain is constantly in control of her own tone and how she’s moving the film along. It’s a performance that almost seems tailor-fit to her abilities, a continuation of her coronating work in Zero Dark Thirty. She’s given this movie to rule and barrel forward with blind and steely conviction with everyone there to get out of her way the crazier this thing gets.
The cast around her is largely up to the task, if no one is particularly standing out. This is a group of people who’ve all been great in other things and who are almost entirely here to support the film’s central Chastain-based pillar. I like what Raw and Lacy do, but there’s nothing to them besides objects for the film to move.
Which is maybe the point? I can’t help thinking that this film is doing a lot of interesting work thematically. The idea of self-sacrifice for good and the idea of doing things that are personally wrong for political good. But it feels so drowned under the weight of this movie’s need to be a thriller.
It’s drowned in double crosses and weird technobullshit. It’s drowned in twists that are overly telegraphed (including a shot that ends up being a brick to the face) or completely untelegraphed (one has almost no build-up to it). There’s so much plot here that there’s almost no story.
Which is why this should have been a TV show. Director John Madden’s work is competent, but nothing you couldn’t particularly achieve on TV, lots of muted colors and people dressed sharply. This story needed time to breathe and figure things out.
There’s a degree of fantasy here. Even with its cynicism, I think especially now we hold onto the fantasy that any one person could so control things for good, that the government as it functions isn’t a collapsing mess of people all looking out. It’s the fantasy that someone can make a difference for good. And why the hell not? Why not indulge that right now?
But look, any excuse to see Jessica Chastain act should be validated. Maybe someone will eventually get what this should be.
P.S. BEST PICTURE TO THE MOVIE THAT DOESN’T WASTE MICHAEL STUHLBARG