The title character in “Miss Sloane,” played by Jessica Chastain, is a Washington D.C. lobbyist known for her tactical brilliance — “the smartest operative on the Hill,” someone calls her. That’s all well and good, but what’s truly revealing is when an NRA representative tries to enlist her to help defeat a universal-background-check bill and her response is to laugh boisterously in his face.
Such behavior doesn’t endear Elizabeth Sloane to the partners of the lobbying firm that employs her (including Sam Waterston, whom I would never want to disappoint), but it speaks to what makes her such a fascinating movie character. She’s professional and shrewd, a master of manipulation with a reputation for winning. Yet she’s also glib, reckless, and unpredictable. She takes speed pills, doesn’t sleep much, ignores her doctor, and cuts ethical corners. She’s the lobbyist equivalent of a brilliant but temperamental artist.
The framing device of this highly entertaining, frequently thoughtful political dramedy is a Senate hearing at which Sloane must testify. (She’s been counseled to plead the Fifth on every question, but her interrogator knows that if he keeps needling her, she’ll be like Roger Rabbit hearing “shave and a haircut.”) A few months prior to the hearing is when her firm gets the NRA contract, whereupon she’s poached by a smaller firm that’s pushing the opposite position. Now she’s working against her former co-workers, who know her strengths and weaknesses. But she has the advantage of being smarter than they are, and of believing in the message she’s selling.
Much skulduggery and espionage follow as the two sides woo Senators in the days leading up to the vote. Their methods are ingenious, and it’s great fun (if you can stomach the cynicism) to see Sloane and her new cohorts jockeying against her old crew, which includes an assistant (Alison Pill) who stayed behind when Sloane switched teams. Both sides sabotage each other, coerce Senators to flip-flop, implement elaborate schemes to frustrate one another’s plans. This leads to the immensely satisfying sight of Michael Stuhlbarg as Sloane’s former boss being enraged by her tricks.
We’re thrilled to watch Sloane get out there and slay one political opponent after another, but part of the thrill comes from sensing that it can’t last. We wait for her to crack, or for the film to delve into what made her the way she is, or for some episode from her past to resurface. (More than one person assumes she’s must have had a traumatic gun-related experience to be so passionate about fighting the NRA.) I won’t say too much about it, but I admire how the jagged, witty screenplay (by first-timer Jonathan Perera) ultimately handles these expectations, revealing enough personal information about Sloane to make her three-dimensional without ruining her mystique with oversharing. Kudos to Chastain, too, for maximizing the impact of the handful of humanizing moments she does have.
The director is John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), who worked with Chastain in “The Debt” and knew she had the right mixture of grit, femininity, and not-giving-a-crap for the role of Elizabeth Sloane. Madden lets the film’s timely themes — political money, corrupt systems, influential lobbyists — play out with due seriousness without becoming strident, though the musical score (by Max Richter) often sounds like it goes with a more important movie. This one is a soap opera at heart, a delicious story of professional backstabbing that happens to overlap with some weighty issues.
B+ (2 hrs., 12 min.; )