Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, the brilliant, high-powered lobbyist at the center of John Madden’s timely new movie, does not suffer fools gladly. A barracuda in a business suit who rarely sleeps and never loses, she has a well-earned reputation for being cold, calculating and monstrously aloof. She is a blazing orator and an inveterate schemer, plotting out elaborate chess moves before her opponents have even had a chance to get their pieces in order.
Known as Elizabeth to most of her associates, but often described in more colorful terms behind closed doors, she is by turns a potent feminist creation and a sly, nightmarish caricature of the same. And much of the thrill of Jessica Chastain’s performance — a tour de force of rhetorical precision and tightly coiled emotional intensity — lies in how deftly it blurs the line between the two.
Even in a nonelection year, both Miss Sloane and “Miss Sloane” would merit considerable interest, not least for illuminating the shadows of a profession that remains more derided than understood. (A lawyer in the film calls it “the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing.”) But under the present circumstances, it’s hard to watch this taut, twisty, enjoyably overwrought Beltway soap opera without spotting a few parallels with our own real-world political tragicomedy.
You can read a lot into a subplot that shows Elizabeth being grilled for hours by an investigative committee bent on inflating an office technicality into a career-ending scandal. At the same time, figures on both sides of the movie’s political spectrum are shown to be more alike than they care to admit — united by their love of televised shouting matches, their skill at manipulating the media and their sudden, destabilizing shifts in personnel.
Early on, in a turn of phrase that now seems both hackneyed and painfully apt, Elizabeth notes that the key to success is knowing the right moment to play your “trump card.” She might be describing the ingenious method of Jonathan Perera’s screenplay, which is packed with the sort of dazzlingly acerbic flights of verbiage that bring Paddy Chayefsky and Aaron Sorkin to mind. Yet as choice as the jabs are — this is a movie full of the things people wish they’d been clever enough to say — they also turn out to be a canny form of misdirection.
On a superficial level, “Miss Sloane” is about gun control — specifically, a bipartisan bill that if pushed through the Senate and passed into federal law would require universal background checks on firearms sales. (The script duly acknowledges just how incrementally change happens, which helps neutralize the slightly wishful scenario it’s presenting.) But the debate here, contentious though it is, ultimately seems like a bit of a MacGuffin — the pretext for a deeper moral and professional inquiry that transcends any specific political issue.
When her employer orders her to represent the powerful gun lobby, Elizabeth impulsively resigns and goes to work for Peterson Wyatt, the smaller boutique firm that will be pushing the gun-control bill forward — a decision that establishes the film’s own political stance, but leaves a measure of ambiguity where Elizabeth’s is concerned. Does she actually believe in advocating for stricter gun laws, or is she simply in thrall to the greatest challenge — and potentially, the greatest triumph — of her career? What does she really want, and who or what is she willing to sacrifice to get it?
Those questions are answered, or at least intriguingly complicated, by a stream of revelations, setbacks and power plays that Perera, a British lawyer making an impressive screenwriting debut, dispenses with a cunning hand. And Madden, no stranger to sculpting reams of self-admiring dialogue into pleasingly nimble entertainment (“Shakespeare in Love”), uses cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov’s cool, glassy widescreen images and Max Richter’s brisk, pulsing score to draw us deeper into a labyrinth of Capitol Hill intrigue.
We observe Elizabeth’s ruthlessness as she makes her mutinous exit from her firm, calmly poaching several of her most trusted underlings — with the wounding exception of her top protégée, Jane Molloy (Alison Pill) — and installing them alongside her at Peterson Wyatt. Awaiting her there is a new boss, Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), whose more principled approach to the art of political persuasion stands in stark contrast with his new hire’s down-and-dirty tactics.
Elizabeth also finds herself working with a gifted junior lobbyist, Esme Manucharian (an excellent Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is at once repelled and fascinated by her new colleague, and who will experience firsthand just how willing she is to cross the line in pursuit of victory. Public humiliation, on-camera betrayal and illegal surveillance are all on the menu, as Elizabeth’s team and the much deeper-pocketed gun lobby race to cram as many senators into their pockets as possible.
A picture of serene loveliness in films like “The Tree of Life” and “The Help,” Chastain has also showed a knack for playing severe, supremely competent women in pressure-cooker scenarios, notably in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Interstellar” and her earlier collaboration with Madden, “The Debt.” The actress pushes that gift to riveting extremes here; without betraying Elizabeth’s intelligence or softening her demeanor, she provides powerful moments of emotional access to a woman characterized at one point as “the personification of an ice cube.”
In one of the script’s more daring formulations, Elizabeth hires a friendly male escort (Jake Lacy) who repeatedly tries and fails to strike up an intimate conversation. (“Let’s get to the point,” she snaps, disrobing.) It’s a rebuke to the idea that, as a woman, she owes him more than basic payment for services rendered; it’s also a nice corrective to the common Hollywood assumption that only men can treat sex as a form of emotionless physical release.
As a top-ranking woman in her field, Elizabeth is naturally surrounded by men who want nothing more than to see her fail, including two of her former associates (played by Sam Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg) and a senator (John Lithgow) who is leading her interrogation. The scenes of Elizabeth being questioned for possible misconduct provide this deftly time-shuffling movie with a narrative spine, even as they lay the suspenseful groundwork for either her climactic victory or her ultimate defeat.
By the end, we are invested in Elizabeth’s fate for reasons that have less to do with policy implications than with personal stakes. This is, in the end, not a sociopolitical tract but a movie, and one that unabashedly embraces the scintillating pleasures supplied in abundance on shows like “Scandal” to “House of Cards.” And why not? As the movie duly acknowledges, much of the debate over the 2nd Amendment has been subsumed by heavy-handed emotional appeals on either side — and the script, cynically bearing out that logic, supplies at least two wildly over-the-top twists that threaten to loosen its grip on reality.
Reality, of course, is a fairly elastic concept these days, and if there’s a flaw in “Miss Sloane,” it’s that in future years its juicy Machiavellian gamesmanship may not look farfetched but dated — a throwback to a time when there were clearer consequences for professional misconduct, when people still retained their capacity for outrage. See this smart, showboating movie now, before its simmering sense of justice begins to feel like a thing of the past.
Rating: R, for language and some sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood