From the very first to the final frame, Jessica Chastain sells Miss Sloane – John Madden’s thriller about a lobbyist who takes on the masterminds of Capitol Hill to manipulate the pushing through of strengthened gun restrictions in America. Hers is, with delicious irony, an all guns blazing performance of addictive watchability, which proves essential in holding together the film’s increasingly contrived plot. So good is Chastain here that she very nearly manages to lobby you into an assumption that the film is a political masterpiece. It’s not that, but it is good fun.
Steely, cool and powerful, Elizabeth Sloane grants the Zero Dark Thirty actress both familiar territory and intense dramatic opportunity. Sloane is a woman who, we are told, has the ability to end careers with a click of her fingers. An insomniac, she works sixteen hours a day, delivering scabrously ruthless dialogue for fifteen of them, and has no qualms when it comes to rule- or heart-breaking in the route to success. Lobbying, she tells us in a straight to camera opening, is ‘about foresight…about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you’. As if this initial fourth-wall-breaking encounter were not evidence enough, her tight lipped refusal to play ball in a congressional hearing, under the questioning of John Lithgow’s Senator Sperling, immediately establishes the character as one to whom authority is bendable. It is this attitude that has landed her in the hearing after all, with accusations of ethics violations in her work the last chance saloon of Sloane’s opponents to bring her down.
Jump back three months and one week (Sloane is a fastidious pedant), and the lobbying firm for which she works is employed by Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata), a representative from an armament manufacturer and archetypal sexist old man, to spearhead the opposition to a vote to increase background checks on the purchase of arms. Sanford’s fear is that his company doesn’t ‘connect’ with women. His hope, meanwhile, is that the famous Miss Sloane can target the demographic and instigate a one-eighty whirl around from the perception that women have to be protected from guns, to the image of women protecting their own families with guns. Ludicrous that the idea is, Sloane’s response is naturally mirthlessly derogative. Not only does she refuse to participate but, when Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) from a rival lobbying firm leading the support of the bill approaches, she switches sides and takes a handful of her co-workers with her.
Among the new team, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is particular standout, offering another terrific performance, after Belle and her appearance in Black Mirror last year, this time as a women with traumatic connections to the cause. Likewise, Strong manages to do the impossible – next to such a strong feminist (although not in the role-model sense) lead – in conveying the role of a man both true to his word and not utterly useless. A US-French co-production, there’s an interesting comparison to be made in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle here, further so than Chastain simply matching Isabelle Huppert’s hair and chic-sharp styling. Both characters demonstrate an analytical understanding of how people work and each presents a woman in control of her sexuality on a transactional level. Similarly, both films are equally absurd. Whereas such surreality allowed Elle to thrive, however, in Miss Sloane the effect is a touch harder to swallow – the deployment of Robo-Roaches (literally: cockroach cameras) to illegally spy on opponents particularly stretching credibility for example.
The dialogue is less sharp in Madden’s film too. Scripted by first-time writer Jonathan Perera, it’s the pitter patter delivery, trademarked by Armando Iannucci (In the Thick of It), that is targeted here but successes are tempered by occasionally heavy-handed metaphors like ‘You never washed your hands’ and set ups such as the snooker table reveal of a tactical move by the bad guys – who are a touch too obviously defined as being so.
As a cat and mouse thriller, Miss Sloane has plenty to keep audiences engaged, even enraptured. At 132mins, though, it does feel overlong. The problem being less a lack of material in the film, rather an excess of twists which become increasingly unwieldy, with film’s talent on and off screen, a little more refinement and depth of study would have worked wonders. That said, Madden’s work is ambitious and mostly successful.