Jessica Chastain’s poised and predatory performance is the life force behind John Madden’s urgent new political thriller “Miss Sloane.” Chastain plays the titular character Elizabeth Sloane, a political power broker who works to try and get a gun bill that will require background checks passed in the Senate.
Sloane bears some similarity to Chastain’s CIA man hunter from Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,”—obsessive and cunning in equal measure. She’s defined by her work, without a moment of downtime. In an environment that is primarily male dominated she more than holds her own. Much of “Miss Sloane” (and “Zero Dark Thirty”) consists of Chastain holding court with old white men who think they’re smarter than her (they’re not) and its great fun to watch her talk them down with a mix of elegance and aggression. She has no semblance of a social or romantic life. Without work she has little self-purpose, little motivation to get up in the morning.
In Madden’s film, Chastain goes further in making Sloane morally and ethically murky. Her political power broker is cold and manipulative, always scheming, always thinking ten steps ahead, willing to do whatever it takes to win, often at the expense of others. Her body language (arms crossed, usually standing against a wall or doorway) screams, “I don’t have time for your b.s.” Her thousand-yard stare could make Michael Myers run away. Politicians sweat when they hear she’s working on something. Now that’s power.
Though Chastain also finds the delicate nuances, the chinks in Sloane’s tough exterior. The points where even the ruthless, sometimes machine-like Miss Sloane gets rattled by opponents or acquaintances and is left exposed and vulnerable. Sloane is relentless but she’s also a multifaceted human being capable of emotion and remorse. It’s a virtuoso performance, among the best of the year.
The movie itself is a slick, well made look at the inner workings of political lobbying—the schmoozing, the backstabbing, the blackmailing, and the thrill of trying to sway votes in favor of the position you’re fighting for. The screenplay by Jonathan Perera crackles with rapid fire Sorkin-esque dialogue (“They’re going to try and rattle you so hard they’d make Gandhi want to cut his tongue out”), there’s lots of walking and talking down office hallways, scheming and strategizing in glass wall conference rooms, secret meetings in parks and parking garages. The movie occasionally switches into autopilot but it moves at such a quick pace and Chastain is so compelling that “Miss Sloane” is always watchable.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the movie proceeds to put the whole system on trial. Sloane is cold and conniving but so is everyone else in Washington-- her rival power brokers (played by Sam Waterson and Michael Stuhlberg) and the politicians (the prominent one played by John Lithgow) they’re trying to sway. By the time the picture reaches its fiery courtroom conclusion there’s little subtlety. The picture presents a searing, cynical portrait of U.S Politics where just about everyone is looking out for themselves and no one else. It’s like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” if Mr. Smith was also dirty.
Unfortunately, “Miss Sloane” settles for the easy way out, undermining its cynical tone and urgency. The film’s bittersweet ending not only feels preposterous but too neat. Things are resolved too quickly using one of those convenient “I-had-everything-planned-out-the-whole-time-even-when-it-looked-like-I-didn’t” twists, which left me underwhelmed. Perhaps the filmmakers thought they needed an upbeat ending to make the film more crowd-pleasing and they’re probably right, but it feels disingenuous.
“Miss Sloane” is timely in its commentary on politics and Chastain is magnificent as always but the easy resolution ultimately softens its impact.