‘Miss Sloane’ is one of those movies that exists and (occasionally) thrives purely on a single star performance. Jessica Chastain has emerged as one of the great actresses of her era, and it was likely her clout and good will that got first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s pages in front of cameras. Unfortunately, while Chastain is immensely watchable in the film, she can’t carry it all herself.
The script is too stagy, overwritten and tiresomely obvious in its grand statements. At times, Chastain makes it work through sheer force of will and talent, but not nearly enough for the movie to be much more than a footnote in her career and a placeholder in this year’s Best Actress nominations.
Chastain’s titular Miss Sloane is a Washington lobbyist – you know, those scummy folks that pundits say crappy things about when they aren’t in a lobbyist’s pocket. She’s an insomniac workaholic who is the best at what she does and somehow even better at spitting out motormouth barbs and philosophy so quickly and consistently that it eventually turns into a piercing version of white noise. She starts the movie working alongside Michael Stuhlbarg protecting the gun lobby, then changes teams when Mark Strong offers her a deal she can’t refuse. From there, the righteous media and political manipulation unfold endlessly. Partnerships are made purely for trust to be broken. Back-stabbings become front-stabbings and back again. Eventually, Miss Sloan finds herself at a Congressional hearing with comeuppance doled out in a fury.
It’s pretty clear why Chastain wanted this role. It’s basically a feature-length Oscar clip comprised of a series of power moves. She’s required to trample over every actor and show a venomous strength rare in major roles for actresses. She’s even slips in a few moments of vulnerability, but for the most part the marching order is for every other actor and character to bend to her will, except when it’s a big misdirect forcing them to bend in a later scene as a “surprise.” She chews up the scenery and garbles through pages of dialogue with skill and ease, commanding the screen and showing off all her skills. Chastain is good enough that she almost makes up for the shortcomings surrounding her. Almost.
The biggest issue here is the script. Even though it boasts timely themes and a character strong enough to bring a star on board, this is very much the work of a first-time writer who’s still the product of his influences. In particular, it’s pretty clear that Perera adores Aaron Sorkin a little… no… way too much. The dialogue sounds like it was pulled from the scrap pile of rejected ‘West Wing’ and ‘The Newsroom’ spec scripts. Miss Sloane might be a distinct character, but she sounds like absolutely everyone else in the movie. They all sound like the same person talking to himself, and that person is trying too hard to sound like Aaron Sorkin. To be fair, the words are cleverly arranged, they have spark and rhythm, and cogent political points get made. But it’s all clearly a copy of something (and more specifically someone) else and never rises above to become its own thing.
The cast are all too talented to flail or fail. They’re good (especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just stuck speaking in an overly controlled cadence that prevents anything being added that wasn’t already on the page. John Madden (‘Shakespeare in Love’) directs with confidence, but can only do so much with a series of scenes of people talking in similarly bland rooms of various sizes. It feels very perfunctory and self-satisfied.
The movie doesn’t have many surprises for those who know how these sorts of twisty-turny political thrillers work. No matter how shady the morality seems at times, you can always be certain that the message will right itself by the end. Chastain is good, even if she’s as held back by her script as everyone else. She will get attention. She deserves it. Then the film will fade from memory.