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AFI Fest 2016: "Miss Sloane"

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 but also 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, but you might not approve of how she satisfies them. And she isn't a femme fatale, but she looks good always. In the first scene, she seems like a damsel in distress, but this movie is categorized as a thriller. 

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) 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. 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 opponent's moves and devising countermeasures. 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 to 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 (played by Al Mukadam, Douglas Smith, Greta Onieogou and Noah Robbins) to the boutique firm of Peterson Wyatt. She's surprised that her 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, ethical. But Sloane adds a key piece to her ensemble, Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), 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. 

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 yesterday 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. 


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