The title Miss Sloane might suggest a gentle biopic or Jane Austen-style comedy of manners, but John Madden’s new film boasts the most ferocious heroine imaginable. Elizabeth Sloane (a bravura performance from Jessica Chastain) is a Washington lobbyist. She is so devious, so driven and so addicted to winning that she makes Kevin Spacey’s machiavellian politician Frank Underwood in House Of Cards look like a normal politician. It’s exhilarating to encounter a protagonist so completely untroubled by the tugging of her conscience or what anybody else thinks about her in the office. “Were you ever normal as a child?” she is asked. “I guess I am just a piece of work,” Sloane proudly proclaims.
The whole point of Chastain in Miss Sloane is to walk off with it, and she’s not messing around. She talks of trump cards and whipping them out just after your opponent has played theirs. What keeps suspense in play is that Elizabeth Sloane, her character, makes an opponent of just about everyone on screen. But by far her largest is the gun lobby.
Initially, these deep-pocketed protectors of the Second Amendment want her on their side. Sought for her skills to defeat a new regulation bill, she’s a hardened campaigner who grows a fierce and unexpected conscience, promptly bailing on her livid boss (Sam Waterston) and taking up with the pro-gun-control opposition guy (Mark Strong) instead.
Arguing merely from principle isn’t Sloane’s style, and certainly isn’t her gameplan. Told by everyone – including those on her own team – that she can only hope to make gradual inroads by losing gracefully, she throws the kitchen sink at the bill, involving herself in shady surveillance games and virtual blackmail to swipe the Senate votes needed. As the script insists time and again, playing dirty is the only rulebook Washington understands, however exemplary your cause might be.
Miss Sloane finds ways to puncture its own cynicism about politics and take a vital stand when it feels like it. When Sloane goes on live TV with her opposite number (Michael Stulhbarg), no one, least of all her own team, is expecting her to come out swinging against the sanctity of the US constitution. She compares it to a horoscope, reminds everyone that this particular hallowed section was an amendment in the first place, and castigates falling back on it as a coward’s recourse.
Less striking than Miss Sloane’s box-office failure in America – an uncannily Clinton-mirroring result – is the gloating response to this from male, gun-toting, alt-right types, as if cash registers proved an argument correct one way or the other.
It’s hard to take the film entirely seriously in the first place – Sloane’s remorseless chicanery, especially when she gets called in for a Congressional hearing by John Lithgow’s harassed Senator, pushes it into the realm of fantasy. But it’s addictive fantasy, satisfyingly snappy even in its absurdity, and something no Chastain fan can afford to miss.