Miss Sloane misses mark – review

sloane-poster

I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

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More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

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The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

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Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

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That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)

Whiplash and soul crushing (a review)

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Good guys not only finish last, but they also end up in tears, sitting in abandoned hallways, facing a life devoid of love ones.

Or at least that’s the moral of the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of a young jazz drummer (Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller) attending a prestigious music school in New York. Neiman’s lone dream is to become the next Buddy Rich.

(Warning: The following contains teasers of spoilers…tried my best.)

While practicing late one night, Neiman finds he is being observed by Terrence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons), the god-like instructor of the school’s top band, which has won both national and international acclaim. The interaction doesn’t go well.

But the erstwhile Svengali sees something in Neiman and eventually invites him to join his class, which is where the student begins to see the master less as a dedicated and willful but nurturing teacher and more as the manipulative, malevolent force striving for an unreachable ideal.

Perfection or death is Fletcher’s creed, and if you’re not willing to kill yourself over your failings, he is willing and eager to do it for you. You are using up valuable oxygen.

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

Even in the face of this unending physical and emotional torture, which includes an airborne chair, however, Neiman is willing to sacrifice everything to become the Charlie Parker of the drums. And that sacrifice extends to his budding romance as well as his family.

Nothing will stand in the way

Nothing will stand in the way

But even that is not enough for Fletcher and we watch Neiman self-immolate while the monster emotionally fiddles with everyone’s lives. Unsatisfied with Neiman’s ashes, however, the master lures the student back with a siren song of greatness in a move that only the audience can see is designed to destroy Neiman yet again.

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

But just when Satan achieves his final triumph, he is surprised to learn that his fallen Angel has learned a few things. And this is the ultimate Fall of Man of which we hear in poetry.

The final moments of the film are like watching Luke Skywalker take Darth Vader’s offered hand on the catwalks of Cloud City and unite to rule the Empire, destroying both the Emperor and the Rebellion in one moment.

Throughout the film, the heart palpitates until threatening to arrest from the crushing weight of the increasingly up-tempo music (think frenzied, not dancing) and Fletcher’s relentless pounding on Neiman’s soul. By the end of the movie, you will be exhausted and sated by the ecstasy of what has been achieved.

It will only be later, in the calm aftermath of normal life, that you will begin to understand the dreadful cost of that achievement, not just for Neiman but also for humanity.

If the documentary Blackfish drove people away from marine parks, it wouldn’t surprise me if Whiplash drove parents away from music schools.

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (and Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG) for his performance as Fletcher, although as crucial to the story as his role was, it could be argued he was a co-lead. And although I admit to not seeing the films of any other performers in this Oscar category, I am surprised the award was given to Simmons.

The man’s performance was quite good—he played Fletcher so malevolently, I would probably take a swing at Simmons if I saw him—but it didn’t feel like the character required a lot of the veteran actor aside from pushing the portrayal beyond anyone’s comfort zone.

Where the film definitely deserved its Oscar and BAFTA wins was for sound. The music was amazing and despite being constantly interrupted, it still managed to deliver its power and its physical toll on mere flesh and blood. Each piece became its own rush toward a climax that never arrived, pushing you until your body screamed for catharsis and was instead met with a cut to the next scene. (Editing was pretty impressive.)

Again, however, despite all of these wonderful facets, it was the moral Fall of Man in the face of all this magnificent music that bothered me. For if nothing else, it made me question the purity of artistic expression and whether it was worth the exorbitant cost of another human soul.

The moment of our greatest achievement, writer/director Damien Chazelle tells us, is also the moment of our greatest loss. I find that sad.

You might be a writer

(Inspired by a post on The Writing Corp blog and of course, Mr. Jeff Foxworthy)

If you’ve ever freaked out because your partner loaned your pen to someone and neglected to get it back…

If you own 17 notebooks and still have a house littered with random pieces of paper containing ideas…

If your friends won’t tell you anything anymore for fear it’ll end up in your next novel, screenplay or comedy sketch…

If you’ve heard voices in your head and your first thought was grab something to write with…

If you go on a tropical vacation and only the back of your neck gets sunburned…

If you’ve developed the skill to write coherent notes to yourself without removing your eyes from the person sitting across from you…

If every jacket you own and every room in your house contains a writing pad of one size or another…

If you instinctively know what inks will smear and which pens write upside down…

If you’ve ever found yourself looking forward to a long bus or train ride…

If reaching a crisis is as satisfying as achieving a climax…

(Personally, I’m still working on the writing while looking someone in the eye, otherwise, I’m good.)