Thanks to a handful of unexpected casting choices among the supporting cast and an impressive turn by lead actor Jessica Chastain, the battle of the lobbyists tale Miss Sloane is a far better film than the overwritten screenplay by Jonathan Perera might lead you to believe it should be. Chastain leads the charge through a complicated story as high-paid, well-regarded D.C. lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane. Known for bending the rules to win at any price, Sloane finds her breaking point when the NRA comes to her firm’s door looking to use her influence to push guns by using the mothers of children killed in school shootings as spokespeople in a campaign obtusely aimed at women, who the NRA believes to be an untapped market. If you’ve ever held the belief that politicians are pawns of special interest groups, this movie is going to hermetically seal the deal for you.
Leaving her boss (Sam Waterston) and condescending co-worker (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the dust and snatching up a handful of low-level associates to take with her, Sloane accepts an offer from Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the head of an anti-gun group, to go head to head with her old firm. And the rest of the film is essentially each side taking turns out-zinging each other until the day of a big gun-regulation bill comes to a vote before the Senate. Like most films that feature a hot-button topic at the center, Miss Sloane seems to exist in a vacuum where this battle is the only thing going on the world for months. And while I don’t think the film underplays the influence that both the NRA and other interest groups have in D.C., I’m not sure I buy that a sudden Congressional hearing to investigate Sloane’s business practices would be called on the eve of the bill’s vote, nor would said hearings influence in any way the way the senators would vote.
That being said, Miss Sloane is not about guns. It’s about shady practices done mostly within the fluid confines of the law in the hopes of steering the way a major vote will go. And that part of the film is fascinating and eye-opening, whether it’s complete bullshit or not. The movie is also a fantastic character study of a woman who has devoted every ounce of her being to winning and anticipating the moves of her opponents. Her personal life is relegated to occasional hotel visits with a male escort (Jake Lacy), who seems interested in getting to know her outside of the bedroom, even if she’s having none of it. I also like the relationship she forms with co-worker Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has a hidden personal stake in the gun debate that Sloane is eager to support, even at the price of their friendship.
Directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare In Love, and the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films), Miss Sloane also feature some nice supporting work from Alison Pill as Jane Molloy, whom Sloane mentored at her old job and then betrayed her by not following Sloane to the new gig; and John Lithgow as a crooked congressman. But the fuel that jet propels the movie throughout is Chastain, who gives her best performance since Zero Dark Thirty and occasionally even fools us into believing she has/does not have a soul beneath the lapels of her power suit.
Without question, there are moments in Miss Sloane where believability is sacrificed in the name of heightened drama. And while I have no doubt that there are such things as surveillance cockroaches (they literally have little cameras embedded on their backs, so they can not only film things but those watching can control their movements), it feels silly in this context because it is. And if lobbyists are using these methods to clandestinely record conversation for use as blackmail, then we truly have crossed over with no hope of turning back. Keeping that in mind, I was impressed that the movie never seemed to be dumbing things down for audience members too lazy to keep up—a frequent issue with many talky films. At its ice-cold core, Miss Sloane is a testament to scheming and those who scheme masterfully, usually for all the wrong reasons, using the ugliest methods. But this film digs deep enough to show us a bit of the price these people pay to be this good at their jobs, and that—as well as Chastain’s soaring performance—is why I’m recommending it.