'Miss Sloane': Film Review | AFI Fest 2016

Smart and solid, with a smashing Chastain.

Jessica Chastain stars as a ruthless lobbyist who goes up against the gun industry in John Madden's topical drama.

For all their prominence on the American political scene, big-shot lobbyists have assumed a pretty low profile in American films, which helps make the takes-no-prisoners Miss Sloane a welcome arrival. Comparisons to Network would not be inapt for this cutting and corrosive drama packed with high-stakes Washington, D.C., hustlers as cutthroat as anyone on Game of Thrones or House of Cards, all determined not only to beat but to annihilate their adversaries. If low-profile distributor EuropaCorp USA can muscle its way into the spotlight against bigger Hollywood guns — not an idle question — this tart, topical drama could attract a solid following among audiences looking for something bracing and distinctive.

The last notable film that comes to mind that centered on a modern political lobbyist was Jason Reitman's amusing Thank You for Smoking (2005) but, given its concentration on women trying to hold their own with the big boys, a more direct parallel is provided by this year's Equity, a solid, if not entirely realized, look at women fighting to make their mark in investment banking. Neither of these films exactly set the world on fire commercially, and it may be that, these days, this sort of intricate, densely scripted, fast-talking topical melodrama is better suited to longform television than to the one-swing-and-you're-out realities of theatrical release.

Certainly the characters and political dynamics at the center of first-timer Jonathan Perera's pepper-pot of a screenplay would be worthy of attention before and after the pressurized events that make up the dramatic arc here. At the center of it is the never-ending battle over gun control as seen from ground zero, that is, in the trenches with the politicians and influence peddlers who are the ones who will determine what, if any, legislation will ever get past the entrenched gun lobby.

At the eye of the hurricane is Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a gloriously terrifying monster who has evidently devoted all of her 40 or so years to accumulating a put-down for every occasion and compiling a mental bank of the vulnerabilities of everyone in the nation's capital. Always flawlessly dressed and with her pale skin framed by impeccably coiffed red hair, which is itself outshone by a slash of crimson lipstick that suggests she's breakfasted on steak saignant, she lives and works by the policy that, “It's about making sure you surprise them and they don't surprise you.”

First seen pleading the Fifth for an upcoming U.S. Senate hearing, Elizabeth shows herself at her fiery best when, sometime earlier, she furiously quits her job working for big D.C. wheel George Dupont (Sam Waterston) after he assigns her to drum up flagging enthusiasm among women for the Second Amendment. “Start getting women into guns!” he roars, triggering her abrupt departure over being railroaded into working on behalf of a cause she can't endorse and momentarily raising concern that the film will just be a simplistic button-pushing liberal-agenda movie.

Instantly hired by a competing lobbying firm run by the amusingly named Rodolfo Vittorio Schmidt (Mark Strong), Elizabeth takes most of her old (albeit much younger) staff with her — excepting the steely Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), who stays behind to defend unfettered access to weaponry with Dupont, and associate Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's at least as tough as Elizabeth but looks much slimier.

The bulk of first-time screenwriter Perera's adroitly shuffled narrative is devoted to the crafty chess moves on both sides of the heavily charged issue. It's a tough climb, as always, for the proponents of more gun control. Along with the many politicians in the NRA's pocket, there are others compromised in one way or another, and the film keeps a careful tally of the realities pertaining to the longshot bid to stiffen regulations; 20 senators are judged as being in play.

But as forbidding as Elizabeth seems at first, enough of her protective armor is gradually stripped away to reveal glimpses of a real, breathing human being underneath. Noticeably without a mate or family, Elizabeth releases her tension with escorts, notably country boy stud Forde (Jake Lacy). While psychologically plausible, this subplot lurks as a too-obvious trip-wire for her downfall, but Perera is fortunately too shrewd, in the end, to use it in the predictable way.

More significant for its revelation of Elizabeth's true character, and her willingness to go to any emotional and personal length to achieve her desired ends, is her manipulation of Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a survivor of gun violence that afflicted her family. In the lobbying business, the end always justifies the means, a philosophy that Elizabeth embodies in everything she does, professionally and personally.

Elizabeth is far from likeable, but she is fascinating and emotionally complex, and Chastain crafts a tour de force portrait of a character whose relentless professional dedication and apartness from others makes her something of a sister to Chastain's similarly obsessed character in Zero Dark Thirty; certainly these two roles represent her signature screen appearances to date.

Crafty pros such as Waterston, Stuhlbarg, David Wilson Barnes as Elizabeth's attorney and John Lithgow as the senior senator who chairs the investigation of Elizabeth know exactly how to amp up their key supporting roles. So do Mbatha-Raw and Pill, both of whose characters have yet to come to terms with the vicious realities of life in the big arena to the extent that Elizabeth has.

The one character that doesn't emerge forcefully is Elizabeth's new boss, ironic in that he's played by an actor who always lives up to his name, Mark Strong. Rodolfo is written as the only principled person in the hornet's nest of lobbying, but how he's ever succeeded in this world remains unclear, as does the nature of his relationship with Elizabeth, whom he allows to run rampant. It's mysterious how the man has gotten anywhere in a world where the dirtiest player usually wins.

Otherwise, director Madden, who worked with Chastain on The Debt six years ago, maintains a rigorous grip on the narrative and characterizations. He and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov have employed a very hard-edged visual style that further amplifies the prevailing mentality and milieu. So intriguing are the driven, smart and compromised characters, and so infinite are the dramatic possibilities at the intersection of big business and politics, that a vastly expanded small-screen take built around these characters, and others like them, would be quite welcome. There are millions of stories in this particular naked city and, these days, we don't need to be content with just one of them.

Venue: AFI Film Festival
Opens: Nov. 25 (EuropaCorp. USA)
Production companies: Europacorp, FilmNation Entertainment, Archery Pictures Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alisson Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, David Wilson Barnes, Dylan Baker, Raoul Bhaneja, Chuck Shamata, Christine Baranski
Director: John Madden
Screenwriter: Jonathan Perera
Producers: Ben Browning, Kris Thykier, Ariel Zeitoun
Executive producers: Claude Leger, Jonathan Vanger, Patrick Chu, Aaron Ryder
Director of photography: Sebastian Blenkov

Production designer: Matthew Davies
Editor: Alexander Berner
Music: Max Richter
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

Rated R, 132 minutes