It’s a common rule of drama that you can maintain suspension of disbelief on big things — cloned dinosaurs, flying men, whatever — so long as you maintain a certain level of believability with regard to the little things. This applies to political dramas as much as it applies to superhero flicks and sci-fi romps: I’m more than happy to believe in backbiting lobbyists performing black bag operations aimed at blackmailing congressmen so long as the rest of the world you build makes operative sense.
Consider “Miss Sloane,” expanding to 1,600 theaters this weekend. Jessica Chastain, turning in an impressively intense, awards-caliber performance, stars as a hard-driving lobbyist — a best-in-the-biz type — who bails from a conservative lobbying shop in order to join a PR firm backing the Brady Campaign in its efforts to pass a universal background check bill. What follows is a twisty political thriller that has all the sophistication of a mediocre hour of “Scandal.”
There are little things that feel wrong in the movie — a PAC that raises just $15 million from three million donors, for instance, suggesting an average giving rate of five dollars per donor — as well as one big thing. The massive new background check law that forms the heart of “Miss Sloane’s” conflict is, simply, an absurdity. It is pitched as the sort of law that would “close loopholes” and stop mass shootings, despite the fact that background check laws have been unable to stop recent killings and proposed expansions of background checks would have done nothing to stop them. I found it hard to care about the machinations surrounding the bill since no one really addresses the fact that the bill itself is an empty nothing.
When making a film like this, it’s imperative to do your research. As I learned in an interview, one of the reasons Chastain’s performance feels so perfect is that she spent time with Washington’s few female lobbyists, learning their mannerisms and seeing how they comport themselves in a male-dominated industry.
“Everything about the way they spoke, how they scheduled the meetings, how they were really brusque,” she said when I asked what she picked up by talking the lobbyists. “Seven out of the 11 women were wearing black nail polish. But different colors of black nail polish: like, there was a brown black and a green black and there was blue black, a red black. … And then I thought about the deeper, the interior choice of choosing that: you’re still polished, but it’s a very strong image that you’re putting out there, the strength. It’s not soft and feminine and subdued. It’s very, almost aggressive I guess you’d say.”
By nailing the little things — the casual assertiveness, the sharp dress, the impatience for nonsense — her character’s larger transgressions later in the film feel more believable. The same cannot be said for the cause she fights for; gun control advocates spout sub-Daily-Kos silliness, claiming, for example, that Texas regulates sex toys more stringently than guns with a straight face. I think part of the problem is that filmmakers didn’t consult with people heavily involved in the issue in order to see if the film made sense.
“We didn’t offer the script to the Brady Campaign, we didn’t offer the script to any Second Amendment groups,” director John Madden said when I asked if he had consulted with the NRA or other gun rights groups when making the film. “We didn’t want the film being adopted by one side or the other of the argument, because it isn’t a polemic. … I don’t think — the film is not political in its intent. It’s political in its milieu and it’s political in its, you know, the background of the story. But it’s more about political process to me.”
That’s fair, and, in its own right, quite politic. (No one wants to alienate half their potential consumer base ahead of their release.) Plus, no one likes filmmaking-by-committee; one’s mind is drawn to the scene in “Hail, Caesar!” where a rabbi, a priest, a pastor, an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, and a studio exec quibble over the nature of Christ’s divinity.
And yet! It helps to hear what the other side’s thinking, to get out of one’s bubble. Allow me to borrow a concept from Bill Simmons — who once suggested that sports teams should hire vice presidents of common sense in the hopes that a fan’s perspective would short-circuit ridiculous personnel moves — and propose that film studios hire “VPs of political common sense.” These would be studio outsiders who could look at scripts and recognize when a political argument has gone off the rails, when it bears no resemblance to how the issue is argued about by serious people in the real world. In theory, this would be a bipartisan position; in practice, studios would likely need to pick up a larger number of folks on the political right, given the natural tendencies and bubbles most writers and directors and actors and producers and, I assume, extras live in.
A VP of political common sense could have flagged “Miss Sloane’s” more egregious issues when it was still merely a script, helping massage it so it might pass an Ideological Turing Test. It is by no means the dramatist’s obligation to slavishly repeat “both sides of the argument”; but if you’re truly interested in making a movie that appeals to all viewers, it might make sense to understand what they actually believe, how they actually argue and, most importantly, what the issues on the ground actually are.