Hot on the heels of a shocking presidential election which saw an experienced female candidate lose to a grossly unqualified male opponent, John Madden’s political thriller about a ferociously ambitious female lobbyist entrenched in a battle against the male-dominated gun manufacturing industry couldn’t possibly feel more timely. Jessica Chastain plays the titular Miss Sloane, to whom we’re first introduced as she prepares to testify before a Congressional committee investigating allegations of ethical misconduct.
Whether or not Sloane is guilty of the accusations levied against her is hardly something the audience need concern itself with, because the film isn’t really about the outcome of the hearing. Nor is it about the subject of gun legislation, although that most hotly debated of topics certainly plays a pivotal role in the narrative. No, Miss Sloane is about its title character, a fearsome and ruthless lobbyist whose career has been spent climbing the ladder of success by any means necessary.
“A conviction lobbyist need only believe in their ability to win,” she imparts to one of her many wide-eyed, scurrying proteges – a mantra that leads her into the lion’s den when she resigns from the upscale firm at which she built her career after being asked to help secure the defeat of a new gun control bill aimed at expanding background checks. Like a Russian scientist during the Cold War, Sloane opts to defect, joining forces with the charismatic head of a rival firm (Mark Strong) focused on ensuring the bill’s safe passage through the halls of Congress.
The ensuing events are full of surprises – not unlike this election season – as Madden deftly blends multiple genres into a finished product that’s part political thriller and part courtroom drama, and unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. The dense, intricate dialogue by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera feels like a less-polished version of something Aaron Sorkin would have written, and these characters – including Michael Stuhlbarg’s sneering rival lobbyist and Sam Waterston’s manipulative powerbroker – could stroll right out of frame and onto an episode of The West Wing or The Newsroom without missing a step.
Holding everything together is Chastain, in a tour de force performance that could result in some well-deserved Oscar buzz. It’s arguably the best work of her career, as she expertly crafts Elizabeth Sloane into the sort of character that we’re fascinated with and intimidated by, and who we can’t possibly help but cheer for.