Miss Sloane misses mark – review

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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)

How I Met Your Series Finale

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Earlier today, my friend Marsha Mason posted her weekly blog on Why The Face. This week, Marsha chose to focus on series finales of television programs, picking up on the How I Met Your Mother phenomenon now that the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling have died down.

Marsha considered this outpouring from the perspective of the magnanimous response of the show’s creators. An excerpt of her blog post:

And while they did what they felt they needed to do to bring their story to its completion, there was no way they were going to tell their audience that any of their feelings were wrong.

A beautiful way to look at the uproar.

But of course, Marsha’s post also made me think about the challenges of writing a series finale (damn you, Marsha, you made me think again).

I truly feel for showrunners who are faced with this task. It is a daunting task made that much more difficult by a dedicated audience, who for the most part can only be disappointed.

For me, the best series finales were done by shows like The Fugitive and M*A*S*H, where luckily, the writers had a hard end point in their story, i.e., the capture of the real killer and the end of the Korean conflict, respectively. In these cases, the resolutions between characters was more obvious (not to give the sense that the episodes would have been easy to write or weren’t written well). Similarly, The West Wing had the end of Bartlett’s 8-yr term and the inauguration of the new POTUS.

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For other shows, the challenge is that the lives of the characters typically continue beyond the finale, if only in their fantasy worlds. From their perspectives, this isn’t the end of their lives; it’s Tuesday.

Thus, writers are forced to pencil in a flurry of seemingly arbitrary events to explain why the characters are parting ways or moving on, and typically, this means leaving a lot of unresolved questions for the audience. Closure is impossible when nothing is truly closing.

Take, for example, the end of The Sopranos…the family sits down to dinner in a restaurant…fade to black. After years of a series filled with violence that would make Titus Andronicus blush, the pure normality of this ending was almost a let down, and yet, rang as a true moment in human lives.

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The alternative is to go big, such as the ludicrous ending of my beloved series House. The final 20 minutes or so looks like it was written by a group of pubescent boys hopped up on 24 consecutive hours of Grand Theft Auto. For god’s sake, it’s Gregory House…you couldn’t have him die of something he and his team couldn’t diagnose in time, only to have a letter arrive a week later from House showing he knew the diagnosis months ago?

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Of course, the biggest complication is likely that most series have run out of steam well before they are given the opportunity for a series finale. All of the really great opportunities to end the series have long passed, the characters have little left to say to each other and it is only the blood-from-a-stone networks and die-hard fans who keep applying the paddles to the moribund concept. I give you the finale of Seinfeld. For this reason, I really do not look forward to the series finale of The Big Bang Theory.

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(I feel an admonition from Lee Aronsohn coming on.)

In these cases, better the mercy killing of cancellation than the sad wheeze of life-support equipment.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission…finale!)

What more did you need?

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There is an allegory that was better told by Karl Malden on The West Wing, but it goes something along the lines of:

There was a man who lived by a river, and one day, he heard a weather report that said the river was going to flood and that everyone should move to higher ground. A devout man, he said, “God will protect me. I do not have to leave my home.”

The rains started and a policeman came knocking on the man’s door, telling him he had to evacuate. The man smiled and said, “The Lord will protect me. I’ll be okay.”

The river flooded and the man was stranded on his roof, when a rescuer in a boat rowed by, telling him to get into the boat. The man shook his head and said “I have prayed and God will protect me.”

Eventually, the river swept the house away and the man drowned, and when he got to heaven, he stood confused before God and asked, “Lord, you let me drown. I am a good man, why did you not protect me?”

And God looked down and replied, “I sent you a weather report, a police officer and a rescuer in a boat. What more did you need?”

 

I recount this story because I have a colleague who is going through similar stages with her screenplay.

After months of feedback from writing groups and instructors that suggested several issues with her screenplay, the most prominent being the passivity of her protagonist and complete lack of conflict in her story, my colleague stood fast by her story. She defended her choices vigorously and left us in no doubt that she was going down the right road.

As it is her story, that is her right, and so many of us stopped discussing these issues with her.

More recently, she’s had the opportunity to send her screenplay to a film producer she knows, who was more than happy to give my colleague her thoughts. A few days later, she shared the feedback with us and smack in the middle was several issues related to the behaviour and actions of the protagonist. My colleague was unimpressed and vaulted upon her Steed of Rationalization, charging into the night.

A week or so later, my colleague received feedback from a film director and again, was smacked with a lack of central conflict and a passive protagonist. And again, this elicited response of being misunderstood and dismissive anger.

And the screenwriting gods looked down and replied, “I sent you a screenwriters group, a film producer and a film director. What more did you need?”

 

We all want people to agree with our views, particularly when it comes to something as personal as our art. Agreement validates us as individuals and confirms that our art has merit in the world beyond.

But in the search for that agreement, we must be prepared for disagreement. And while it is always our prerogative to ignore contrary opinions, we lose the right to complain when the contrary feedback is consistent and still we choose ignore it (or worse, rail against it).

I don’t believe that anyone has to accept external feedback; positive or negative. But if you want your art to be more than mental masturbation, you should be prepared to listen to all input and incorporate what makes sense to improve your art.

Otherwise, shut up and let the rest of us evacuate the flood plain.