At a time when angry voters in the UK and the US are intent on taking revenge on the political elite, along comes Miss Sloane, a movie that chews away at Washington’s rancid underbelly – the lobbying industry.
In Britain, this is a profession that does not attract as much attention as it probably deserves. Scandals occasionally surface, for instance when its more stupid practitioners boast about their influence on government to reporters posing as clients, or when even dumber MPs like Neil Hamilton promise lobbyists they will table parliamentary questions in return for cash. But, in America, the billion-dollar lobbying industry has long since been a target for any candidate running against the Washington establishment.
A key part of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was a promise to nail shut the “revolving door” between jobs in government and lobbying (he didn’t). Similarly, last year, Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists’ corruption (he won’t).
The simple explanation for this is that there is a lot more lobbying going on in Washington than Westminster. Each member of Congress can insert minor changes to legislation in a way MPs cannot. This, combined with their desire for more campaign dollars, puts US politicians in the target sights for the estimated 10,000 registered lobbyists encircling the US capital.
On Washington’s K Street, where such firms are traditionally based, and in the steak houses and fundraisers where so much business gets done, there is an aggressive lobby for almost every cause and corporate interest under the sun, from the big guns of the National Rifle Association to small fry organisations like the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association.
If lobbying is not always – or even usually – corrupt, it is deeply undermining to democracy because it gives a huge advantage to those with the deepest pockets. Miss Sloane, the latest film from British director John Madden (best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), should therefore be mining a rich seam of venality.
The film (in cinemas from Friday 12 May) opens with Jessica Chastain staring into the lens of a camera. She plays Elizabeth Sloane, a copper-haired, steel-souled lobbyist preparing for a Senate ethics hearing into her nefarious practices. “Lobbying is about foresight,” say her red lips, “about anticipating your opponent’s moves.” The eyes go dead as she adds, “The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition… and plays their trump card just after they play theirs.”
If we needed any more clues to tell us that Sloane is the “piece of work” her terrified boss later calls her, we quickly discover she eats handfuls of pills to get by without sleep, regards food as a biological necessity ranked equal with going to the toilet, and pays for sex with male escorts to avoid wasting time with emotional ties.
But, although Chastain manages to give her character some depth, the bigger problem with this film is that it seeks to be a thriller about an industry that – for all its power, money and moral challenges – is not very thrilling. Lobbying is a profession where people in suits analyse tax codes, regulations and footnotes to thousand-page legal documents. This is why there are more thrillers made about bank robberies – and why lobbying is always going to pay better.
The film does reflect some of the dark dullness of this industry, showing Sloane defeat a new regulation on palm-oil imports by branding it the “Nutella tax”, but then it retreats to the more familiar territory of power and redemption. Sloane turns down an offer to work with the gun lobby at a Big Bad Firm to take a job instead with a Small Good Firm trying to push a law requiring checks on people buying assault rifles.
But, ultimately, Miss Sloane undermines its own message. The determination to turn a film about a dull industry into a political thriller succeeds in glamorising – maybe even justifying – lobbying. And, by the end, Sloane is a crusader against corrupt politics rather than the corrupters of politics.
Chastain and Mark Strong in Miss Sloane
“Our system is rotten. It doesn’t reward honest politicians who vote with their consciences, it rewards rats who are willing to sell out their country to keep their noses in the trough,” she says. “These rats are the real parasites on democracy.”
Such a hackneyed caricature could have been delivered by Trump, Nigel Farage, or any of those self-styled populists who claim to be taking on the establishment on behalf of “ordinary people”. But if you think your problems are simply down to lying and cheating politicians, you can end up with perverse results. Trump’s “draining of the swamp” has seen him appoint a clutch of lobbyists, Goldman Sachs bankers and family members to his administration.
At the same time, the process of Brexit promises to be one big feeding frenzy for lobbyists and lawyers, as they feast on each tortured line of trade negotiation and every rewritten EU regulation. “Ordinary people” will hardly get a look in because the real Elizabeth Sloanes of this world will have more influence than ever before.