Washington lobbying is a kind of salesmanship, and acting is, too. In John Madden’s Miss Sloane, Jessica Chastain—as Elizabeth Sloane, a fierce lobbyist who will do anything to get the job done, though she’s also guided by her own set of immutable, sometimes enigmatic principles—is selling something big-time. She’s the key to the movie. Watching Miss Sloane in a theater, on the big screen, you might be tempted to think, “This is something I could just watch at home on TV.” You’d be half right. In the raging television-vs.-movies debates, television seems to be winning, especially when it comes to the quality of the writing: Miss Sloane, which moves fast and is heavy on intricate, pinwheeling, Aaron Sorkin-style dialogue, appears to be trying to eat some of TV’s lunch. But if the sprawling, novelistic quality of a good television series is part of its appeal, there’s something equally satisfying in sitting down to a drama that you know is going to be wrapped up neatly in less than two hours. Storytelling efficiency is one of Miss Sloane’s most effective calling cards—that, and Chastain.
Elizabeth Sloane works for the top, and the toughest, lobbying firm in the city, and she’s driven to win. But when she’s asked to work out a way to get women to oppose a bill that will restrict gun sales, she blows her carroty top, much to the dismay of her boss (a slithery Sam Waterston). Not long after, another male authority figure (Mark Strong), lures her to a much smaller firm: Her job is to sell the bill that her old firm is trying to smother. Her old boss sets out to destroy her, impugning her ethics and her character, which means she’s not just fighting to push her bill through, but to define her own notions of how far she’ll go for her job—and whether that means using and betraying one of her new employees, a gifted and dedicated worker (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who approaches her job using both her soul and her brain.
Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), is adept at sleek entertainments, and there are worse skills to have. Working from a script by Jonathan Perera, he keeps things moving briskly. And though the picture riffs on some stock dramatic conceits—like rivalries between women in the workplace, and the hooker with a heart of gold—nothing is ever quite what you expect it to be. Miss Sloane is an evening out for adults, the sort of modest but hardy pleasure that shouldn’t be taken for granted these days.
And Chastain is simply fun to watch: Even though she’s playing a hypermotivated woman making her way in a world of men, she doesn’t chomp down on the role. The dialogue is tightly scripted, but Chasten treats it like improvisation, a drum solo that relies more on brushes than sticks. We just watched an election in which an experienced, qualified woman candidate was assessed on everything from the intonation of her speaking voice to whether or not she looked tired on a given day. There were times during the election cycle when her capability didn’t seem to matter: she had to pour extra energy into proving her approachability. Elizabeth Sloane, a fictional character, has the luxury of not having to be approachable. She can be a bad-ass, a man-eater, a lover of luxury. And as Chastain plays her, of course, she’s beautiful to look at, a luminous, copper-haired siren lounging on a rock, ready to destroy anyone who dares comes too near.
Even so, Chastain vests Elizabeth with translucent layers that fall away, scene by scene. By the end, we have a good sense of what she will or won’t do, of who she will or won’t be—we figured it out along with her. The question of whether or not we’re supposed to “like” Elizabeth is beside the point. She’s the success story we didn’t get on November 8. But she’s also a reminder that victory isn’t necessarily synonymous with winning.