Miss Sloane

Nothing but a wall of granite

miss_sloaneMiss Sloane comes at both the perfect time and too late.  It’s realistic, sharply written, and full of speeches we need right now – in fact, I suspect if everyone took to heart the words of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) during a live-TV debate with arch-nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the center of the film, I mean really took them to heart, maybe the conversation about gun legislation (and whom it’s for) would be different.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the character herself might not mean all of it, that it’s all part of a carefully engineered campaign to pass a bill, the very passing of which is ultimately for the satisfaction of the lobbyists pushing for it.  And while the film peels back some curtains about political games and machinations, it’s more of a character study than a movie about guns.

The film is a frame story that begins in the present with Liz Sloane on trial for something we’re not yet privy to, judged by overzealous senator Ron Sperling (a very impressive John Lithgow). Liz’s beleaguered attorney advises her to plead the fifth on every question, but once Sperling starts nitpicking Liz’s personal business (specifically prescription drug habits) and deliberately mixing up facts about a certain deal with Indonesia, Liz explodes, and is now obligated to answer the remainder of the tribunal’s questions lest she perjure herself.  Cut to a few months earlier.  Liz, a highly successful and sought-after lobbyist in D.C., is given a rather insulting directive by the Gun Lobby: use sophomoric fear tactics to get more women to buy firearms.  Smug, superior Liz shrieks with laughter.  Not only does she fully understand how irresponsible this approach would be, given the progressed crime rate, but she adores a good challenge.  She quits working for Connors, taking a skeleton crew of her best subordinates along with her, but leaving her protege, Jane (Allison Pill), who refuses to jeopardize her own career for Liz’s idealism.  Liz is soon hired by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) in support of a bill that would require universal background checks, and the battle begins.

As has been said about Jessica Chastain more than once, she carries this film.  Much of the script’s indulgent, snappy, Gilmore-Girls-esque dialogue is given to her, and she never wastes a word of it.  Gone, though, is the charm that many of Chastain’s characters are required to exude; Liz is ruthless, manipulative, and unapologetic.  She’s self-possessed, but not infallible, which is what makes studying her so fascinating.  Small fissures are visible when she’s alone.  Bits of her background come out in conversations with male escort Forde (Jake Lacy).  When one of her two long cons in the film – an ingeniously devious exploitation of gun-violence survivor Esme Manucharian (the amazing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – becomes more personal than expected, we get a very real look at what happens when trust is violated.  This is a world where the protagonist can be one step ahead of everyone, hit rock bottom and still win, but not where people magically become friends again.

The grandest manipulation of all involves the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Jane, who is far more than an ambitious would-be grad student who looks up to Liz.  Allison Pill plays her with an inscrutability that we aren’t even aware matters until the final minutes of the film.  Stuhlbarg once again plays an antagonistic bureaucrat, and accomplishes that amazing feat of performance that allows you to steadfastly root against a character whose actor you love (maybe that’s my own compartmentalization issues talking, but it is what it is).  Mbatha-Raw’s Esme is probably the only character in the film fighting for what she actually believes in for a pure and good reason, and she becomes the most important character when she causes Liz to realize that people actually do things for reasons other than their own ego, and that self-sacrifices are sometimes necessary (and let’s face it: Liz is far overdue for one).  Lacy’s character, the escort, helps catalyze the “defrosting” process, as it were, and Liz gets some surprisingly meaningful moments out of him.  Besides Lacy’s superb performance, it’s pretty cool to see a man finally play the Hooker with a Heart of Gold role.

Liz is asked, “Were you ever normal?”  It’s difficult not to wonder how she ended up the way she is.  But the film is less about that (and not at all about guns), and more about whether this kind of character can be anything else, whether one can untangle themselves from the moral web of the political system and the toxicity that comes with power.  And Jessica Chastain is the only actress who could answer these questions in such meaningful ways.

Literally the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this film is a certain photo of George W. Bush.

220px-miss_sloaneMiss Sloane (2016); written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain.

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The Debt

Transylvanians Vs. Nazis

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jessica Chastain carries this film.  I realize giving Helen Mirren top billing is a better marketing strategy, but y’know, credit where it’s due, and all that.

The Debt, as told by Matthew Vaughn and John Madden (director of a great adaptation of Proof, not the blowhard football commentator), is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film by Assaf Bernstein.  The story follows Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain in the sixties, Helen Mirren in the present day) as she recalls her days as a Mossad agent.  In the sixties, She and her partners, Stefan (Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson) and David (Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds) are dispatched to Berlin on a secret mission to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  The film opens in the present, after Rachel’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has published a celebrated book on her mother’s life, most notably Rachel’s capture and killing of Vogel.  After watching the actual events of the sixties timeline, however, we learn that Vogel escaped Mossad custody, and the trio of agents decided to tell a lie in order to get out of Berlin.

The film’s performances are passionate and impressive, despite some of the flaws in the writing of the characters themselves.  Rachel, as played by both Chastain and Mirren, is complicated, emotional, dedicated, and ever zealous.  Stefan and David take the Good Agent/Bad Agent roles, which comes off as easy characterization but also gives Sam Worthington an actual role to play, as opposed to just shooting at animated people and rattling off tired one-liners.  The gifted Christensen plays Vogel as your garden variety mustache-twirling villain, completely unashamed of performing horrific experiments on Jews during the war, and perfectly able to turn the trio of protagonists against one another while captured (which brings back unfortunate memories of the mediocre Suicide Kings).  It’s amazing to see how Nazis, as portrayed in film, have become almost caricatures of evil – psychological masterminds who physically embody the concept of manipulation.  If there is a group of people from history that should be demonized, it’s surely the Nazis, but this exact characterization is becoming routine in films.  When was the last time you saw a Nazi character who wasn’t a master manipulator and/or genius?  I wonder what effect this will have on folks studying history a hundred years from now.  In addition, the absence of Jewish actors in a film about Jewish characters is a bit disconcerting, as are the exaggerated accents, which made me wonder at times whether the characters weren’t from Transylvania.

Despite these issues, as well as the morally challenging and outright confusing ending, the film remains solid and engaging throughout.  Jessica Chastain goes above and beyond her previous roles, and her scenes in a doctor’s office (posing as a patient at Vogel’s OBGYN during the plot to capture him) render Rachel as vulnerable, both physically and otherwise, as any character you’ve seen in any one predicament.

It would be nice to see this film’s actors get some recognition for this project.  At least give Jessica Chastain’s legs an award for Best Fight Scene.

The Debt (2011); written by Matthew Vaughn; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen.