At the very beginning of Miss Sloane, the titular character, played by Jessica Chastain, is looking us in the face and telling us that a good lobbyist need to always be thinking two steps ahead of everyone else. This turns out to be a handy little signpost indeed, for it pays to stay on your toes during this heady exploration into ethics, legal tactics and political machinations.
Elizabeth Sloane is an ambitious lobbyist with a formidable reputation, working for a prestigious consulting firm in Washington. When she’s offered a gig representing the gun lobby, she is remarkably up front with her would-be client about her personal views on gun control and refuses to take on the case.
Duly blasted by her boss (Sam Waterston), she resigns from the firm and accepts a case which can only be described as having a long shot chance of success. She crosses over to the other side and joins a small organisation that’s lobbying for more robust assessments when issuing gun licences.
Of course, the United States is infamous for its allegiance to the 2nd amendment of the constitution, the right of the people to bear arms. So while so many of Sloane’s arguments sound like common sense to most people in the Western world, the stack of cards is loaded against her from the start. The National Rifle Association has close ties with congressmen all over the country, so the task of catching the required amount of votes to pass the law seems insurmountable.
And of course, Sloane must withstand the personal attacks that come with the territory.
She doesn’t do herself any favours in employing some fairly dubious methods of her own to get the results she’s after, to the increasing frustration of her new boss Rodolfo Schmidt (the always reliable Mark Strong). Not since Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes in Damages have we seen this kind of devious paranoid-inducing chicanery.
This is such a robust, complex drama it’s easy to believe you’re watching something based on real events, a la Spotlight, but this is in fact a work of fiction by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera.
The dialogue, so dense with compelling arguments, clever insights and lethal zingers, is dizzyingly brilliant. You think there’s no way the pace of the early scenes can be sustained, but the Aaron Sorkin-like verbiage doesn’t let up.
This is quite a step up for director John Madden, after such comfortable feel-good movies as Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel duology.
Maybe the subject matter is something that Americans don’t want to reflect on while they’re chowing down a bucket of popcorn, because Miss Sloane barely mustered a whimper at the U.S. box office despite its many assets – the most obvious being Chastain’s performance, which is the best of her much lauded career. She’s absolutely riveting, and only becomes more so as the chinks begin to appear on her immaculately presented armour. The whole cast in fact is spot on.
This is such a smart, sharply focussed film, with the kind of ending that has you re-evaluating what you’ve just seen. You just might have to see it a second time armed with all the knowledge you gained from the first viewing.
Miss Sloane is currently in limited release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee