The US release of Miss Sloane came in the same month as the 2016 presidential election finally came to pass, and perhaps it’s only down to a general exasperation with politics that it has been so overlooked. The absurdity of the news has only been compounded over the six months that it’s taken to arrive in UK cinemas, but it’s testament to how well executed the film is that this story of corruption and skullduggery in Washington DC still seems remarkable.
The film centres on Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a ruthless lobbyist who has been hauled in to plead the Fifth in front of an ethics committee (chaired by John Lithgow’s pompous senator), and the three months that led to these proceedings. Miss Sloane has quite the reputation in Washington, and it’s her lethal cunning that brings the gun lobby to her door.
Sensing a challenge, she laughs in the face of a client who wants her to sell guns to women and decides to work for the other side instead, here represented by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the boss of a single issue firm fighting to pass a bill that requires universal background checks for gun ownership. Elizabeth locks horns with her former colleagues and the most powerful lobby in Washington, but her compulsion to win leads her down a very morally grey path.
As you might expect, this is absolutely Jessica Chastain’s film. She’s terrific as the outwardly cool and calculating shark, who is one step ahead of her rivals, and invariably the viewer as well. A battle against the gun lobby, with their deep pockets and aggressive conservatism, is definitely depicted as a David and Goliath story, but such is the power of the performance and the lead character, you can be forgiven for getting foggy on who the underdog is as the film goes on.
Chastain has worked with director John Madden before, on the 2011 spy thriller The Debt, and both of them rediscover the steely quality of that film here. Her performance speaks for itself, but the director is worlds away from his Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies in this riveting, wordy thriller and Madden keeps pace with the zippy, compelling tone of the film on the page.
The script marks screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s debut, and his style approximates Aaron Sorkin’s quickfire conversational style without desperately aping it. There are echoes of David Mamet and Glengarry Glen Ross too, with the way in which Elizabeth addresses her young underlings and, early on, differentiates identical snacks as either cookies or cakes depending on what tax code they come under. There’s also a terrific exchange about the illegality of sex toys in Texas.
Certainly, the presence of Allison Pill and Sam Waterston from The Newsroom (on the baddies’ side this time) amplifies its Sorkin-ness to where it’s the nearest relevant comparison, but Perera deserves credit for telling a witty and compelling original story about political lobbyists. He really goes out on a limb with one surveillance-related plot device that feels really original, albeit immediately Googleable for those who doubt its plausibility. That’s not the only regard in which it’s not entirely realistic, but it’s always enjoyable.
The supporting cast are in fine fettle too, each playing strongly opposite Chastain. Mark Strong is the principled boss who tries to stay on top of Elizabeth’s myriad manipulations, Gugu Mbatha Raw brings real gravitas to a junior lobbyist who comes under her tutelage, and the great Michael Stuhlbarg, who has been wasted in minor roles for a long time now, gets some quality screentime as a foul-mouthed rival, giving this film its Malcolm Tucker. Even David Wilson Barnes makes the most of what could have been a minor role as the scrupulous lawyer for whom having Elizabeth as a client is a nightmare.
As a feminist riposte to the pro-gun contingent, it’s intelligently put together. Elizabeth repeatedly rebukes people for assuming that her considered opinion on guns is down to some past personal trauma, and the one other character who does have such a motivation is maturely written and played. The film’s feminist credentials also get a boost for the lack of a benevolent President Jeff Bridges figure coming to the rescue when it all starts to feel a little bit like The Contender, courtesy of a sub-plot involving Jake Lacy as a male escort. It’s a film built for its lead actress and she never misses a beat.
If you’re looking for some more grown-up entertainment at the multiplex, Miss Sloane is a rare, moreish treat, whose terse, snappy script gives its litany of character actors something to chew on while never straying too far from Jessica Chastain’s supreme, magnetic lead performance. It’s not always quite as sharp or as truthful as it could be, but it cuts through quite enough of the bullshit around its subject in an entertaining fashion. If you’re any sort of fan of political thrillers, this is like nectar: a film that’s not content to trot through the motions, but completely owns them instead.
Miss Sloane is in UK cinemas now.