The eponymous Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) of John Madden’s political thriller, is one of Washington DC’s most unscrupulous but highly sought-after lobbyists. Whilst working for a prestigious firm Sloane is asked to lead the opposition to a bill proposing stricter background checks during gun sales. However, instead of taking the job she leaves to join a smaller ‘boutique’ firm that is fighting to get the bill passed. The ensuing machinations and political manoeuvring are interspersed with flashes forward to a congressional hearing, at which we see Sloane being questioned about her ethical practices with both her career and the bill’s success at stake. Miss Sloane is at its strongest in many of these congressional scenes where there is little else going on to distract from Chastain’s performance. She’s irresistibly entertaining as Sloane and the film is lucky to have her. Chastain’s charisma and tenacity are enough to draw you in and prevent Sloane’s scheming from getting too hammy, but the screenplay doesn’t do her any favours.
A lot of the script is bogged down with jargon, particularly in the flashback scenes where the film really throws lots of lobbying action at you. Jonathan Perera is clearly aiming for ‘Aaron Sorkin-esque’ in his screenwriting debut, but it’s not as slick as it’s trying to be, with a lot of the quips coming off a little clunky. Mark Strong and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give reliably strong performances, with Mbatha-Raw in particular bringing some emotional weight. The whole thing is instantly more watchable when focused on Chastain, Mbatha-Raw and Strong. The rest of the cast suffer from a complete lack of development, a lot of their interactions feel forced and their convoluted scheming is pretty uninteresting. The lobbying talk and plotting from all sides often just doesn’t engage, curbing Miss Sloane’s potential to be a truly sharp and intelligent political thriller.
The film has a lot to say about gun control and the highly questionable ethics of lobbying, but it’s heavy handed with its message and the script isn’t great at earnestly making these points – particularly as the drama escalates to almost soap-ish levels. The dramatic revelations of the film’s final act are undeniably entertaining but Chastain is the film’s clear draw. Elizabeth Sloane is a complicated, driven and unapologetically devious woman – which we don’t see nearly enough of on screen – and Chastain excels in these kind of roles, even if Miss Sloane does fall back onto a lot of clichés about successful women. Of course Sloane is icy cold and emotionally stunted, having sacrificed a ‘normal life’ in pursuit of her career, but you can’t help but be absorbed by Chastain’s ability to bring pure steel with just the right amount of vulnerability. Miss Sloane isn’t quite the smart, stylish political thriller it wants to be, but Chastain’s commanding performance is reason enough to give it a chance.