Meet Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain). A lobbyist is a person paid to convince members of congress, via whatever means necessary as long as it is legal (or not), to vote for a specific issue or cause. This is what Elizabeth does. Working 16 hour days, taking uppers to stay awake, and downers to go to sleep, Miss Sloane approaches her work as a surgeon would approach an operation. She is precise, detailed, intricate, and armed to the teeth with knowledge. However, this is only in her mind. To others, she appears to be a drunk driver weaving between lanes going 75 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. Yet, every move is calculated. When she gets offered a chance to promote anti-gun legislation, it is an offer she cannot refuse as it an issue she actually cares about. As such, everything is on the table to win, even her career.
In a powerhouse performance, Jessica Chastain stars as this DC lobbyist that is capable of swaying public opinion with the flick of her wrist and making politicians jump when she says jump. Every misstep is merely a calculated move to distract the opposition and she is always prepared for how to react to any counter-move by the enemy. It is as if this were a book she had read before and was merely going through the motions of re-reading it to re-live the moment. Having developed a penchant for playing these tough-minded female leads, Chastain lifts the film up and breathes life into what is a pretty typical political thriller. Without her bravura performance, this film would certainly struggle. Yet, her portrayal as a woman willing to be commit career suicide in order to actually experience a normal life having made a positive impact on the world, is a nuanced and precise performance. Though Elizabeth appears emotionless and calculated at all times, she is a deeply troubled woman. She has no idea where the line between good and bad is mostly prescribed to the philosophical belief that “the ends justifies the means”. Yet, she is also deeply unhappy. It takes a truly brilliant performance to evoke this feeling without actually expressing it, yet her brutal antihero has just the right tinge of emotional vulnerability to make her sympathetic. She is seen as heartless and cruel, but in moments with prostitute Robert Ford (Jake Lacy), we see that she is not some black pit of emotion. In her private moments, she longs for a normal life and love, a world where she is not attacked for just being.
In its plotting, Miss Sloane can play out a bit predictably, but is always captivating. With some whip smart lines in its back pocket, the gun control battle is always center stage with Miss Sloane and her colleagues fighting against her former employers in the battle. Always having some trick up her sleeve to pull off the impossible, the film is entertaining political thriller that can often feel like a mystery with how it keeps the viewer guessing as to what trick she will pull next. Is this moment intentional and part of the plan or did she get caught off-guard and was forced to react quickly? While no political thriller is ever truly original, Miss Sloane’s blending of the genre with mystery and this superhero-esque character with nary a flaw in her career and operating weeks ahead of the competition, makes the film’s plotting captivating and thoroughly engaging.
Yet, this film is undoubtedly a character study. As much as it is about gun control, Miss Sloane - for nearly an hour and fifty minutes - refuses to grandstand. It is reserved and never loses sight of its central character. Cases are made for and against gun control and the audience roots for Miss Sloane and the gun control cause, purely because the film is written in such a way that she is the good guy. As an antihero, however, we see her flaws and her downsides and nearly wind up hoping she gets convicted by the Senate Ethics Committee because we have seen her willingly break the law, but cover her ass. Her brilliance is admirable, but entirely reprehensible with how it skirts around legislation. In essence, she is no better than a mercenary and fights for whoever pays her the most. Yet, gun control - for reasons unknown - speaks to her heart. Willing to work for whatever to make it a reality, this issue being the one that breaks her cold, black heart is a politically timely move in the present world we live in, but also one that speaks to her character’s past. She denies having been touched by gun violence and does not reference it, but it is clear that there was something that made her realize that this was “the” issue for her. Something made it click in her mind that this was a cause she had to fight for, no matter what the NRA offered her in return for fighting for them. It is quite admirable and shows that she has a heart (regardless of your personal stance on gun control), as she cares deeply about some issue and its impact on everyday Americans. They are not just data points. They are means to an end. While this may not always seem right, it is the light that guides her down her career path, In essence, she has realized that to be the change you wish to see in the world, she must convince others to want that same change. If she were the only one fighting for gun control and calling for it, the issue would die. If she rallies bases from the ground up and convinces average Americans to believe something, the change will occur. Her means are not always savory, but they are in the service of an end that she feels, and many feel, is worth the means. The only issue is whether or not one can sleep at night which, given her insomnia, is clearly not something she can do.
Coming in at over two hours, the film’s last twenty minutes are incredibly disappointing. After creating a tremendous character study and timely political thriller, the film hops on its soapbox and preaches about lobbying’s role in politics and how the moral backbone of politics has decayed to simply basing votes on who pays the most. While this is something I agree with, it is unnecessary. You can feel the screenwriters preaching at you about how lobbyists are not the bad ones. Instead, it is the politicians who accept the bribes and gifts or breakdown under threats. This may be accurate, but the method of doing this - a monologue delivered in court by Chastain - is far too hamfisted and on-the-nose to actually come off smoothly. Though impassioned and excellently delivered by Chastain, the moment comes off as hollow and lacking cinematic purpose. Instead, it is a grandiose display of politics in a film that, though about politics, feels as apolitical as possible for a film depicting a lobbyist arguing for gun control. Its nuance in focusing more on the ills of lobbying and the lengths they go to instead of necessarily focusing on message is done away with at the end, which is a shame.
The film’s conclusion to its senate trial and Miss Sloane’s career-as-depicted is also far too fantastical. It is clearly cinematic and feels fake. Immediately following its soapbox moment, the film’s epilogue similarly rings hollow and feels a bit too detached from reality to actually make an impact. It is tough to describe without spoilers, but these final twenty minutes depict a sense of justice and punishment that can only be found in film with hardly any basis in reality. If these were to actually play out in real life, the United States government would literally collapse upon itself. In essence, these moments are pure Hollywood, cliched, and far too neat for a film depicting such a messy world. After spending nearly two hours unraveling everything, director John Madden tries to put all of the glitter back in the bag. A fool’s errand, the stuffing of the glitter back into the bag in such a quick and surreal ending really takes some of the punch out of the final product.
With Jessica Chastain leading the charge here as a tough-nosed, yet emotionally vulnerable, lobbyist, her Miss Sloane inspires fear and admiration in equal measure. She is a menacing presence who thrives on her unpredictability. Yet, by the end, we see her most unpredictable trait is that she has a heart. Being cutthroat and expecting to sleep soundly is a big task to ask of anyone and Miss Sloane, no matter how brilliant, is not immune to the ramifications of her line of work. Had the film not indulged the political beliefs of its creators - and not regarding gun control either, as the film tries to mostly toe the line on that issue, in spite of what the marketing for the film may have suggested - and the fantasies regarding how the world should work at the end, Miss Sloane would be even better. As it stands, it is a largely by-the-books political thriller with an excellent central character and even better lead performance that has a lackluster ending. All-in-all, it may not be brilliant, but Miss Sloane is greatly entertaining and always deeply compelling.