Sometimes, my job is easy. Take Miss Sloane, for example. This movie sets Jessica Chastain in the middle of a House of Cards-style political thriller, playing a high-powered Washington D.C. lobbyist who finds herself playing six different chess matches at once and needing to win them all. That sounds like something that would work.
Well, it does. We get to see Chastain smoothly barking out orders to her staff. We get to see her dashing her stuff off her desk and breaking down in sobs. We get to see her wear the living crap out of a series of black business suits. Maybe hardest of all, she makes a lobbyist into a convincing hero. She does it all with an ease that’s awesome to behold.
She portrays Elizabeth Sloane, an efficient and borderline sociopathic operative at a big D.C. firm who pays the price for her workaholism through sleepless nights and a sex life that’s confined to prostitutes. When a smaller firm offers her a chance to spearhead an effort to pass a gun-control bill requiring universal background checks, she shocks everybody she knows by accepting the job. She proceeds to go at it with a recklessness that seems to indicate a desire to blow up the system, herself, or both. Her ex-colleagues, now firmly in bed with the gun industry, are only too happy to try to reduce Liz to a red-haired spot on the floor. You can bet her prostitution habit is going to come back on her.
I’ve been a latecomer to the Chastain bandwagon, but it’s hard to imagine this affair working without her. The supporting cast here is larded with talented youngsters and veterans (among the latter: John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, Christine Baranski, and Dylan Baker), and they all inexorably fall into Chastain’s gravitational field. She’s at maximum sharpness here, whether Liz is theatrically overlaughing at a firearm honcho (Chuck Shamata) and his ideas about making guns appeal to women, or when she’s verbally crushing an assistant (Alison Pill) who stays with the big firm. Liz’ abrasiveness leaves a trail of pissed-off underlings in her wake. Most of those are women, interestingly enough, though you don’t have to be a woman to be appalled at the heartless way Liz turns a trusted colleague (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) into a prop during a nationally televised debate. Elsewhere, Liz skirts laws, keeps her staff in the dark, lies to her new boss (Mark Strong), and casually sets other people’s careers on fire, and neither Chastain nor the movie make any apologies about her maniacal win-at-all-costs mentality. Of course, when she ferrets out the mole in her office or engineers a publicity stunt to keep a waffling U.S. Senator in line, you just have to bow down to Liz’ badassery. Chastain taps into the suppressed glee of this Type A personality who’s allowing herself to cut loose and go off script. Liz is most in control of herself when she’s at her most self-destructive, and she is mesmerizing to watch.
If the movie makes little attempt to understand the pro-gun side of the debate, perhaps that’s because it’s taking a cue from Liz, who cares little about gun control and much more about the professional challenge of winning a fight that everybody else considers unwinnable. First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera comes up with his share of smart quips and director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) handles it all smoothly, yet the movie doesn’t do much to address the current political landscape. The film focuses so relentlessly on Liz’ tactical ground game and the holes in her soul that it never gets round to the larger issues that she’s supposed to be tackling. The deeply held beliefs of Liz’ staffers are just so much background noise here. A pro-gun activist could probably watch this without being overly disturbed.
Still, while Liz frequently behaves like a man at the office and in bed, both she and the script exhibit a keen awareness of the pitfalls that await her as a woman, and there’s a neat little stereotype flip when this movie’s hooker with a heart of gold turns out to be a man (Jake Lacy). The movie leads up to a Congressional hearing where Liz turns from prey to predator, and as she takes aim at the careerism and corruption at Washington’s heart, she strikes a chord with the discontent that just fired the results of the last election. Donald Trump’s voters would probably detest Liz Sloane, and yet in a weird way, she’s on their side.
Starring Jessica Chastain. Directed by John Madden. Written by Jonathan Perera. Rated R.