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‘Miss Sloane’ just misses

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Political thriller’s reach exceeds its grasp

We’re smack dab in the middle of prestige season right now. There are going to be a lot of films aiming for critical acclaim trotted out over the next few weeks. But while some of these offerings will indeed be exceptional and go on to win various and sundry trophies for their makers, many others will not.

“Miss Sloane” belongs in the latter category. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie – it’s not – but rather that it simply doesn’t have what it takes to ascend to the heights necessary to capture awards attention.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) is a Washington lobbyist, the star player for one of the most prestigious firms in town. She has a reputation of being willing to skate right up to the line (and occasionally over it) if it means winning whatever fight she happens to be in.

At the behest of her colleague Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg, “Doctor Strange”) and her boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston, TV’s “Grace and Frankie”), she meets with a blowhard senator who’s pushing for the defeat of a gun control bill. Despite her misgivings, she’s ordered to take on the job.

But when a rival company led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong, “The Brothers Grimsby”) offers her the chance to work on helping pass that same bill, she jumps at the chance, bringing a number of her co-workers with her.

From there, we see Sloane do what she does, bringing the full force of her ethically flexible lobbying might to an issue that she genuinely believes in. She soon takes one of her new colleagues – a woman named Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Free State of Jones”) – under her wing and starts showing her what it really means to be a lobbyist.

As the fight goes on and Sloane starts to turn the tide in her favor, conflicts start to arise – both with her new co-workers and her former ones – and she finds herself targeted from all sides. However, all Miss Sloane knows how to do is win … and she’s got more than a few tricks up her sleeve.

We don’t see a lot of cinematic representation of the lobbying world; when it’s played for drama like it is here (as opposed to the satire of something like 2006’s excellent “Thank You for Smoking”), there’s a lot of potential. The infighting and backroom dealings and amorality certainly lend themselves to engaging dramatic interpretation.

While “Miss Sloane” embraces that drama to an extent, the story that it tells is a bit wanting. This narrative seems like it would have worked much better as a longer arc, spread out and allowed to breathe. Despite a 132-minute runtime, chunks of the film feel rushed and/or underdeveloped; it all would become considerably more compelling with some space.

It’s abundantly clear that this film was intended as an awards vehicle for Jessica Chastain. While there are a couple of interesting supporting roles – Rodolfo and Esme in particular – this is unmistakably Oscar bait. It’s the sort of strong, foundational character that exists in part to win trophies for actors. And make no mistake – she’s very good. But there’s a constant feeling of effort; it’s one of those performances where the actor seemingly wants the audience to know just how hard they’re working. Watching Chastain here is like watching Sean Penn – she’s good, but it’s all just a little exhausting.

Strong is a wonderfully understated talent who does some good work here. Mbatha-Raw is solid throughout, but she also has a couple of scenes that she out-and-out crushes. Guys like Stuhlbarg and Waterston are pros and they act like it. There are plenty of other quality talents scattered around here as well – Allison Pill, Jake Lacy and John Lithgow all do great work – while the young actors that make up the Sloane team are generally enjoyable as well.

Director John Madden seems a bit of an odd fit for this material – his only feature work in the past five years has been “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel – but for the most part, he’s on point. There’s nothing particularly striking about his stylistic choices, but nor are they a distraction. One could argue that screenwriter Jonathan Perera – a first-timer – has constructed an overly-busy script that tries to do too much; a more streamlined story might have corrected a number of the film’s issues.

Like I said – “Miss Sloane” isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty good. It just isn’t quite good enough to reach the ambitious heights to which it so transparently aspires. Despite the best efforts of Chastain and the rest of the cast and crew, the film doesn’t quite get to where it wants to be.

[3.5 out of 5]

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