Think General Schwarzkopf in a trouser suit. Failure isn’t an option for her. She’s Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane and she’s going up against the top dogs of the Senate, Samson-style, in a pitched battle about gun regulation.
As we all know, this is a heavily divisive issue in America. The ‘doves’ say the right to bear arms in a post-frontier culture makes about as much sense as the right to arm bears. The ‘hawks’ tell us a gun is simply something a ‘good guy’ uses to kill a ‘bad guy’.
Jessica Chastain – all blood-red lipstick and sleek hair – plays Sloane with a spikiness that chills to the bone. She’s a cynical idealist – if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction.
Her crusading is compromised by a mindset where the end always justifies the means. Is this do-goodery or self-aggrandisement? Maybe a bit of both.
Julia Roberts was far too cute in Erin Brockovich, that other high-profile film about a woman going head-to-head against the powers-that-be. (Meryl Streep, for my money, epitomised the gold standard of the genre in Silkwood).
Chastain dominates the film by her ubiquitousness. In the early scenes her speeches have a kind of learned-off quality to them, despite – or maybe because of – their whip-smartness. But she grows into the performance as it goes on.
A smear campaign starts to bring her down. This isn’t too difficult to mount. She’s blotted her copybook on a number of fronts, cutting corners in her uncompromising odyssey up the corporate ladder. She’s also used a male escort for sexual purposes.
This should have been an Oscar-worthy performance from Chastain. All the ingredients are there to create a modern-day epic of a flawed icon. But the film has a flatness about it, a neutral vibe. It’s over-long. At times it plays out like an extended CNN documentary about a pill-popping insomniac.
We needed to know more about what makes Sloane the woman she is. John Madden, directing, tilts the emphasis instead towards courtroom hearings – presided over by the inevitable John Lithgow.
Madden highlights the issue rather than the woman behind it. He should have downplayed the agitprop angle. Charles Bukowski once said that making a ‘message’ film takes about as much bravery as “hitting grandma on the neck with a 2x4”. It’s a moot point.
Notwithstanding its longueurs this is a revealing porthole into the quagmire of American politics.
It gives us the tripwires and Trojan horses and double crosses and compromises and sacrificial lambs. It’s these more than anything else that we take away from Miss Sloane. Which is a pity because what we wanted to take away from it was Miss Sloane herself.
Chastain should have won us over in the final scenes. She could have if she pushed the emotional boat out a little more. Instead she becomes a very defused martyr, as much Rebekah Brooks as Karen Silkwood, a riddle even to herself.