Suggested alternate title for Miss Sloane: Bitches Get Shit Done. It would have been tough to market that, sure… or maybe not: just sprinkle a few asterisks across the posters, a few bleeps across the TV ads. That title would have sold this tough, ballsy — eggsy? — movie with the hard, crude honesty it deserves. Miss Sloane has no time for nonsense, unless anticipating and doing an end run around it in order to smack it down counts.
Miss Sloane is a thriller — a hugely gripping one — about politics and money and lobbying, which someone here deems “the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing.” It’s about the business of the government of the United States of America as a game of 12-dimensional chess played by smart, ruthless, unelected people backed, for the most part, by the endless and enormous financial resources of multinational corporations. It is sharp and funny, and then depressing and dispiriting. It’s Thank You for Smoking and Wag the Dog with all the satire stripped out and just the crass reality remaining. It’s Michael Clayton meets The West Wing, with no kindly and wise elder statesmen to be found. It offers a grim object lesson for everyone feeling crushed by the state of the world at the moment: Are progressives and liberals gonna have to start fighting dirty, like Miss Sloane does? If your opponent does not play by the rules, then should you? Can you ever win against someone who cheats if you don’t do the same? Can a good end ever justify less than savory means?
Elizabeth Sloane, lobbyist, may not be the hero we want right now — or ever — but she might be a hero we need. Yes, she takes on the almost impossible, and woefully underfunded, job of campaigning on behalf of new gun-control legislation for stricter background checks for gun sales, and she says she’s strongly in favor of such a law. But she says a lot of things, some of which are difficult to reconcile with any particular personal political bent, or even sometimes with other things she has herself said. (Her previous job was lobbying to allow Indonesia to continue its slash-and-burn clearcutting for palm-oil plantations, which is one of the most horrendous climate crimes happening today, and hence not exactly progressive work on her part.) She may be apolitical, and only relishes the game itself: it’s tough to accept at face value almost anything she says. She is most definitely cold, calculating, and efficient in pursuit of her goals. She most definitely loves a challenge, and defeating the NRA is a mighty one. The best we can say about her is that she does appear to have her own code of honor, such as it is. Or perhaps the best we can say about Sloane is that she is not actually a sociopath, because if she were, she wouldn’t suffer a few breakdowns in private — ah, so the work does get to her, in some negative way — when no one is watching who can be manipulated by such behavior.
It’s in those rare moments, when Sloane is alone, that we glimpse how remarkably subtle Jessica Chastain’s (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Crimson Peak) performance is throughout, as a woman who is unlike almost any we’ve seen onscreen before. (I’m not sure we’ve seen many male characters quite like this, actually.) She is both still-waters and all surface, cool and deep but not mysterious. She may lie — though even then never out of personal meanness but to a larger end, though that distinction is of course lost on those she hurts — but she never pretends. She is never anything other than what she actually is, and always utterly clear and aware of herself. She is a woman so defined by her work that it’s all she has: she doesn’t have a personal life so much as a sparse routine for satisfying her basic needs, such as eating in the same restaurant every night, and a weekly tryst with “escort” Forde (Jake Lacy: How to Be Single, Love the Coopers). (How much do gender expectations get flipped in Miss Sloane? Forde is damn near a hooker with a heart of gold.) Chastain holds up Sloane not as a contradiction or an impossibility but as a woman uncompromising not only in her work but in herself. She knows herself, and she is confident in herself, even unto a very bitter end. Sloane is like many women in the real world who, you know, get stuff done, and whose competence and intelligence and dedication — whose existence — is rarely acknowledged onscreen, never mind placed front and center.
Ah, but that bitter end is right there from the beginning, as well as a big question: Will Sloane, in fact, get this thing done, achieve a massive defeat of the seemingly all-powerful American gun lobby? The film opens with Sloane testifying at a contentious Senate hearing in her honor: she is being called to task over her work in a field that seems to run on open bribes and other illegalities. So why is she being singled out? (We have some pretty good guesses right off the bat: “She’s too good at her job and might actually win, which cannot be allowed” being the primary one.) The clever, suspenseful script — by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera — jumps back and forth between what led to this hearing and the ongoing hearing itself, slowly builds an engaging portrait of Sloane: she’s not nice yet hardly evil, but this whatever-it-takes level of mastery and drive in a woman is never as acceptable as it is in a man. This may be a harder-hitting story than director John Madden is best known for — the two recent Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, and more famously 1998’s Shakespeare in Love — but he plays it straightforward. He doesn’t need the tricks and tropes of a cheap thriller to create clashes — and crashes — of anxiety and tension. It’s all there, inherent in Sloane and in Chastain’s breathtakingly steadfast unapology for her. And it’s all there in the questions about her that we cannot help but ask, ones that have nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her methods, and how much those who share her goals should embrace her.