REVIEW: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 5, 2014)

5 12 2014

“The Man in the Moon” is a film that boasts many milestones.  Sadly, it is the last film of director Robert Mulligan, an accomplished (if not heavily rewarded) filmmaker whose credits include “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  On a lighter note, however, it is the debut film of Reese Witherspoon.

Her first performance comes not as some thankless supporting role but rather fortuitously as the lead in a very rare female coming-of-age story.  As Dani, a fiery 14-year-old experiencing a romantic awakening in 1950s rural Louisiana, Witherspoon gets some meaty material to chew on.  She spits sharp-tongued sass and wears her passionate emotions on her sleeve, foreshadowing two decades worth of memorable characters.

But “The Man in the Moon” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not simply for the novelty of seeing a pint-sized Elle Woods.  The movie actually holds up quite well as a whole, providing a rather stirring emotional journey.  (Don’t believe me?  Lena Dunham and Jimmy Fallon both count themselves as fans, even raving at length about it.)  Obvious, unabashed melodrama rarely works this well.

Mulligan supplies the film with plenty of corny underscoring and heightened sentimentality, which complements some of the plot developments that feel ripped out of a soap opera.  Yet these elements hardly stifle the satisfaction of watching “The Man in the Moon.”  It captures an innocence and purity of spirit that can supersede the banalities.

As Dani pursues her first love, her older farmhand neighbor Court (Jason London), something always rings beautifully true.  The film understands both the joy of discovering shared affection as well as the pain of uncovering competing attractions, bundling them all together into one touching package.  I just wish I was around in 1991 to see this when it came out, if only so I could have called that Reese Witherspoon was headed for stardom.  Perhaps the only bigger slam dunk for success from a teenage acting debut was Natalie Portman in “The Professional.”