Jessica Chastain further cements her status as one of the best actresses working today with “Miss Sloane,” the engrossing new political thriller from “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden.
Chastain stars as Elizabeth Sloane — a brilliant but ethically unscrupulous Capitol Hill lobbyist — who as the film opens is being grilled at a Senate hearing called in order to uncover whether or not her ruthless methods have crossed the line of legality. From there, the swiftly-plotted script (from first-timer Jonathan Perera) flashes back several months to track the events that lead to her landing in hot water, starting when the prestigious firm that employs her agrees to work on behalf of the gun lobby.
When her boss (Sam Waterston) orders her to head up the campaign to put the kibosh on a bill that would require universal background checks, Elizabeth promptly jumps ship and immediately gets herself hired by the much smaller firm that happens to be working to pass that very same bill. This seemingly principled stand is rather out of character for a cutthroat opportunist like herself, and her true motives remain one of the central mysteries of the film.
Elizabeth’s shady approach to lobbying creates some friction with her more ethically-minded new employer Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), and when her new team of underlings show some wariness in climbing aboard the Elizabeth Sloane train, she knows exactly how to bulldoze them into seeing things her way. Knowing she’ll need someone to back her up, she identifies the most talented junior lobbyist, Esme (the excellent Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and takes her on as a protégé.
The decision to shift allegiances naturally makes Elizabeth a number of enemies, not least of which are her old employers, who’ll stop at nothing to get their way. And if them winning means they get to destroy her career in the process, all the better.
Elizabeth has no compunction about using people as stepping stones toward getting what she wants. She’s a person for whom every relationship is transactionary, every action is a means to an end, and manipulation is just part of the job. Dedicated to her career, she substitutes a personal life for occasional liaisons with a charming escort (Jake Lacy, good as the hooker with the heart of gold), and keeps emotions strictly out of the equation.
Chastain is fantastic ash she sinks her teeth into this juicy, complicated character, although the film around her doesn’t always live up to her performance. Too many of the surrounding characters feel two-dimensional, and there’s not a lot of ambiguity in Perera’s portrayal of the other side. Waterston practically foams at the mouth, while Michael Stuhlbarg is stuck playing the weasely character he’s increasingly asked to play these days (see: “Doctor Strange” and “Arrival”).
The plot gets increasingly farfetched as it goes on, especially during some preposterous developments in the third act, but seeing the mechanics of lobbying is fascinating stuff. Particularly enjoyable are throwaway moments like Elizabeth detailing her foolproof method to discredit an opponent: simply hire actors to wave around signs with some bat-shit crazy slogans behind them during an interview, and make them look like lunatics by association. The film is at its best when it’s delving into these enjoyable little details.
As political soap opera, “Miss Sloane” is sleek and entertaining, even if its ultimate adherence to the idea that truth will win out and deception has its consequences seems more and more like a fantasy.