Breathless walking and talking down shadowy, marbled corridors; clandestine meetings in deserted parking garages; the cold and methodical execution of your opponent’s career, where tactical press releases turn words into spears, and political theater into a bloodsport worthy of the Roman arena. These are the hallmarks of most political thrillers, which for a certain type of moviegoer are as addictive as any spy game trapping. And Miss Sloane, this holiday’s newest chatty potboiler with Jessica Chastain in the driver’s seat, veers awfully close to espionage, providing political junkies like myself an irresistible fantasy: A Washington D.C. where all the cutthroat grandstanding and backstabbing amounts to something actually important.
So yes, John Madden’s Miss Sloane is exactly what you might expect, a Capitol Hill caper where dialogue is king, and there are a plethora of twists and turns, many of which that think they’re cleverer than they are. Still, there is one aspect that is quite unusual about this yarn of what happens when lobbyists go to war: one of them is played by Jessica Chastain in a sensational turn. Almost single-handedly, she elevates the whole enterprise from amusing to riveting, and places her name on the shortlist of actresses up for award nominations next year. And in the process of doing so, she makes Miss Sloane something very worthwhile for audiences with a taste for adult-oriented pyrotechnics.
When the film begins, the eponymous Elizabeth Sloane is the most successful and cunning—read: amoral and bloodthirsty—lobbyist in D.C. She has brought her team of whip-smart 20-somethings, plus the reliable Michael Stuhlbarg as Pat Connors, to a prestigious and gray-haired law firm whose government and lobbying affairs arm is overseen by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). Dupont is the typical power broker of a certain age in the beltway. He orders filet mignon for lunch (rare), he likes the comfort of a tweed bowtie, and he has nothing but contempt for the fact that his star lobbyist is a woman.
However, when “the gun lobby” comes to ask the famed Elizabeth Sloane to help improve their outreach to women voters, Sloane flatly declines. Well, actually only after she literally laughs in their faces. It seems the one issue that disgusts her more than a love for winning, and all the money that comes with it, is the NRA’s stranglehold on even the most timid of common sense gun regulations, such as universal background checks. Thus when Dupont demands her to apologize to the gun lovers and accept their business, she sees an opportunity to sharpen her credentials by quitting the firm and taking up a job with a boutique law firm with one major client, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Switching from the red-fanged capitalists to the side of well-meaning nonprofits, Sloane intentionally places herself on a collision course with Dupont, Connors, and the full weight of the NRA as yet another universal background check bill is coming before the Senate for a vote next year. Whereas everyone else expects the bill to die as surely as the sun will rise, Sloane intends to use the most duplicitous of extracurricular activities, as well as cable news-grabbing publicity stunts, to beat the NRA at their own game and get at least one major gun law on the books. Of course, when you play with that kind of fire, they’re going to come at you with everyone thing they’ve got. Hence, the movie is told in a series of flashbacks as Sen. Ron Sperling (John Lithgow) prepares to crucify Sloane to the wall at the behest of the NRA American voters.
One of the more telling things about this film’s attempt to tackle the most entrenched and single-minded lobbyist in the U.S. is that while Miss Sloane has no trouble using the words “Brady Campaign,” not a single character once utters the phrases “NRA” or “National Rifle Association.” Instead, it is Sloane vs. “the gun lobby,” which unto itself might suggest how insurmountable a task it is to dislodge that group’s vicelike grip on democracy’s throat.
Nevertheless, the film offers an appealing fantasy scenario where one of the beltway’s most unrepentant devils attempts to crusade on the side of the angels. And this is depicted with able dexterity by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera. Displaying a fine ear for dialogue, and the kind of rapid-fire rapport that has been a staple of Aaron Sorkin’s work for years, there is a refreshing amount of maturity in the words. However, the film does not quite capture the lyrical nature of Sorkin’s best work, and the plotting itself relies too much on the cliché of a career woman in quiet distress, because she chose climbing the ladder over having a family. (In one fairly questionable subplot, her late-night rendezvouses with a male escort turn into something akin to therapy.)
Fortunately, whenever the movie begins to lean on banality, Chastain pushes back by offering a powerhouse of a performance that ventilates every challenge on and off the screen until the film actually convinces viewers that the gun lobby should be afraid of her, rather than the other way around. Precise, meticulous, and eying her co-stars with the constant thoughtfulness of a seagull judging a school of fish beneath her, Chastain’s Elizabeth Sloane is a fascinating creature. A bird of prey who’s balanced right on the jugular of the U.S. Senate’s Rules and Procedure.
Even when viewers may know where the plot is headed, attempting to get a handle on Elizabeth or her motivations might be as foolhardy as Dupont and Connors often appear in constrast. In this vein, Madden, who directed Chastain in The Debt, and Perera are allowed to paint a portrait where even the merits of the Second Amendment being included in the U.S. Constitution are put on public opinion trial. So, again, fantasy.
The rest of the supporting cast is also sharp, with Mark Strong as the mythical good lawyer and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a grassroots do-gooder standing out as Sloane’s new bleeding heart allies and unwanted conscience. They also capture something of the dedication found in real nonprofit crusaders. Alison Pill is also present as Jane Molloy, Sloane’s one-time protégé turned foe, however she is mostly wasted after the first act.
The film eventually culminates, as so many D.C. fictions do, in a showdown in a committee chamber. By this time, the conventions of the genre takeover, and the resolution heads toward a point of reliable familiarity. But in spite of such missteps, Miss Sloane is always commendable for giving a close and earnestly pessimistic view of the lobbying industry that works so diligently to stay out of the spotlight and headlines. Yet stay in that hot-seat it will since this film’s star performance is sure to keep Miss Sloane visible well into next February.
Miss Sloane opens in select cities on Friday, Nov. 25 and opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 9.