AFI FEST 2016: ‘Miss Sloane” Takes on Gun Lobby in Cerebral Thriller

If you were intimidated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then you’ll want to steer clear of “Miss Sloane.” Sloane is a smart, driven woman maneuvering through legal tangles, legislative lingo and legislators’ ambitions. This is the other side of DC politics: the lobbyists.  Miss Sloane is the best lobbyist on the hill, the most driven and the loneliest.

Don’t dismiss Miss Sloane as another working woman ice queen trope on her way to becoming an asexual career woman. She does have needs although you might not approve of how she satisfies them. She isn’t a femme fatale although she looks good always. In the first scene, she seems like a damsel in distress, but this movie is categorized as a thriller.

Although Sloane looks uneasily like a younger version of Isabelle Huppert’s character, Michèle LeBlanc, in the French-German-Belgian psychological thriller, “Elle,” a movie also screening at AFI FEST 2016, “Miss Sloane” isn’t a rape revenge thriller. No one gets raped. No one gets murdered. Only careers are killed and trust abused.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain who was Lucille Sharpe in Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak”) is preparing to face Congress. She is a dark-arts lobbyist, someone who uses ethically questionable methods to win, including hiring actors and using cockroaches for surveillance. Her attorney, Posner (David Wilson Barnes) grills her to answer every question in a set way, essentially pleading the Fifth Amendment. Yet under Senator Sperling’s (John Lithgow) questioning, she loses her temper.

Yet she tells us very early that: “Lobbying is about foresight, about anticipating your opponents moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. It’s about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you.”

Then the movie flashes back, showing us how Sloane got before Congress. Miss Sloane turned down a lucrative offer from the gun lobby and was then given an offer she couldn’t refuse: To fight the gun lobby for an unnamed price on the fictional Heaton-Harris Bill. The bill would require more stringent background checks for gun ownership.

Sloane leaves her cushy offices at Cole, Kravitz & Waterman where she worked for senior partner George Dupont (Sam Waterson) and takes part of her team (Al Mukadam, Douglas Smith, Greta Onieogou and Noah Robbins) to the boutique firm of Peterson Wyatt. She’s surprised that her girl Friday and protégée, Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), doesn’t follow her.

At the new firm, the offices aren’t quite as nice, and her new boss Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) is idealistic and ethical, but Sloane adds ammo to her arsenal, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Esme is a survivor of an infamous shooting.

Back at her old firm, Jane warns Dupont and firm partner Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) that Sloane keeps secrets and likes to surprise her opponents. Connors and Dupont work up a few of their own  surprises.

Sloane also has another new person in her inner most circle. Her former boy-toy escort has been replaced by a too-friendly hunk, Robert Forde (Jake Lacey). Forde bumps into Sloane at an official function and that intel makes it back to Cole, Kravitz & Waterman as they work toward getting Sloane investigated by the Senate.

The movie is curiously an outsider’s view of insiders. First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera is a UK-educated attorney who hadn’t spent much time in the US when he wrote the script while teaching English in South Korea. He got the idea from a BBC News item about Jack Abramoff, who was investigated by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in late 2004 and served four years of a six-year sentence for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion.

And while the filmmakers rushed to complete the film and release it, thinking that gun control would be a central issue in this year’s presidential debates, at a PGA panel screening earlier this week director John Madden commented that instead the election was “hijacked by completely different issues…specifically about the issue of women and gender in politics.”  “Miss Sloane” then becomes about another strong woman taking on the old boys club from a different angle.

Moreover, recent developments may make this film even more timely. The New York Times reported today (Nov. 11, 2016) that lobbyists have an important role in with the president-elect transition into office (“Trump Campaigned Against Lobbyists. Now They’re on His Transition Team” ).

Under Madden, this is a brisk, intelligent thriller, a cat-and-mouse game. We’re never quite privy to Sloane’s inner most thoughts, but we understand that being good at her job isn’t good for her or anyone.  What is good for everyone is this portrait of a strong, polished woman in control and making hard decisions.

“Miss Sloane” makes its world premiere at AFI FEST 2016 tonight, Friday, Nov. 11 at 8:30 p.m. (Chinese 1). It screens again on Nov. 14 (Monday) at Chinese 1. “Miss Sloane” will be released in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 25 and nationwide on Dec. 9, 2016.




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