Well “Miss Sloane” certainly picked an interesting weekend to make its world premiere. A barnstorming political thriller about a fiercely intelligent woman who breaks men over her knee and brings Washington D.C. to heel, the latest film from “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden may have been conceived as a story of empowerment, but in the wake of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, it can’t help but feel like a feminist fantasy from a more hopeful time when the glass ceiling seemed ready to shatter into 160 million tiny pieces — a time that I like to call “last Monday.”
But maybe that will change. Maybe tomorrow — after the smoke clears and our anger coalesces into action — this fierce, over the top, and wholly entertaining saga of lobbyists run amok won’t be seen as a nostalgic throwback so much as a cautionary tale about what’s to come.
Told with real courage and cross-eyed conviction, “Miss Sloane” is a film about the pleasures of gamesmanship that’s disguised as a polemic about the urgency of gun control. The story begins on the slippery slopes of Capitol Hill, where cutthroat lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is being subjected to a Senate hearing about her ethics. A jury of domineering white men (presided over by John Lithgow) is interrogating her character in front of a rabid audience, but the particulars of her supposed crime are initially unclear.
So are the particulars of her profession. What do lobbyists really do anyway, and why do the people judging Sloane’s behavior seem as unsure about that as the rest of us might? If nothing else, “Miss Sloane” provides an excellent answer to that question: Lobbyists do whatever they have to in order to get the job done for the special interests who pay them.
The crux of the trial dates back a few months earlier, back to when Sloane was the most feared and relentless employee of a soulless Washington firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). The Olivia Pope of selling people on bad laws, Sloane heads a team of young and hungry trainees who hang on her every word and feed off the meat she leaves behind from her kills. With no husband, kids, or friends to slow her down, she’s not a “strong female character” so much as she is a strong character who happens to be female. And woe to the men who refuse to see her in the same light.
When the cigar-chomping head of a powerful gun lobby drops by the office and offers the firm a mountain of money to help stir female sentiment against a bill that require background checks for firearm purchases, Dupont lays Sloane down on the table like he’s holding a royal flush. Big mistake. Huge. Following a panicked 3am phone call her to her seemingly loyal protégée, Jane Molloy (Allison Pill), Sloane assembles her crew and announces that she’s defecting to the other side, joining the good-hearted, granola-chewing boutique lobby firm across town that’s fighting in support of the bill. Most of her underlings agree to come along — Jane, to everyone’s shock, does not.
And so begins a chess-like war of the wills, a David and Goliath story that moves with the bitter energy of Aaron Sorkin (but lacks his sharpness or righteous moral anger) and the savageness of Sun Tzu (but lacks his logic or clarity of thought). Madden, a solid journeyman without a signature style, knows enough to stay out of his protagonist’s way. Sloane is a force of nature, an indomitable winner who’s refreshingly deprived of any lugubrious backstory to explain why she became this way. It’s possible that she’s developed a conscience overnight, that the gun bill triggered something in her that had previously been dormant, but it’s far more likely that she’s just tickled by the challenge of trying to gut the most powerful special interest in Washington. This is fun for her, and Chastain has the time of her life indulging the character’s bloodthirsty behavior.
Sloane is the meatiest role that the steel-jawed star has had to chew on since she played the motherfucker who found Osama Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and she picks the part clean to the bone. Cagey and commanding, Chastain is able to thread the needle between being a tactician on par with Winston Churchill, and a vulnerable person whose heart beats too fast for anyone to measure the size of its leaking hole. She claims victims on both sides, manipulating her allies to destroy her enemies. At one point, she even throws a fellow lobbyist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) under the bus, exploiting a personal tragedy from her past.
In a movie that likens passing legislation to pulling off a massive heist, eventually departing from reality altogether in a series of late-game twists so intricate they would make Danny Ocean blush, the sheer velocity of Chastain’s performance holds it all together. She’s doing what George Clooney did in “Michael Clayton” but backwards, in heels, and with an avalanche of snippy dialogue from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera. The less believable the movie gets (and it gets silly), the harder the actress bulldozes through it.
“Miss Sloane” spirals so far from reality that its farfetchedness becomes its own sad commentary on the current state of things — reasonable gun control is such a pipe dream that any fictional story which argues for its possibility feels like the stuff of high fantasy. But Chastain’s intensity refracts the plot towards a handful of other questions that may need to be addressed before the real world is ready for the kind of progress her character puts forward. What is the price of doing the right thing? For how long can we afford to live in a world where people refuse to pay it? And — perhaps most urgent of all — when will Michael Stuhlbarg, wasted in a bit part as Sloane’s most peevishly corrupt colleague, get another role worthy of the talent he displayed in “A Serious Man”?
“Miss Sloane” may seem like frivolous entertainment masquerading as a political call to action, but that depends on what you think it’s ultimately lobbying for. As a film pushing for less corruption in politics, it’s far too soapy to feel credible. As a revenge saga about Washington being tamed by the same people it has always been quick to trample, it might just be a little ahead of its time.
“Miss Sloane” premiered at the 2016 AFI FEST. It will open in theaters on November 25.