On the moral-authority scale, government lobbyists probably land somewhere between Vladimir Putin and those guys who sell protein supplements on the internet: They’re all venal pay-to-play opportunists, ruthless political animals who will do or say anything for the endgame. At least that’s what most experience, and movies like Miss Sloane, purports to tell us. And Jessica Chastain’s title character does seem like a paragon of the type when we meet her, a sleek D.C. shark in scarlet lipstick and stilettos (the better to backstab you, my dear) who never met a shady despot or bogus baked-goods tax she couldn’t spin.
Except she does apparently draw one ethical line in the sand, risking her entire career in an early scene by laughing down a powerful gun manufacturer’s bid for a more “lady”-friendly NRA agenda. Instead of signing on, she quits her current firm and takes up a new post with the opposition—a band of far less monied idealists helmed by a good man with the improbably cartoon-villainous name Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Should Rodolfo trust that Sloane has suddenly developed a conscience, or is her apparent 180 into altruism just another kind of long con? If the results are the same, does it even matter?
We’ve tread this cinematic territory—the conference rooms, court chambers, and cubicles where the legislative sausage gets made—many times before, and in more nuanced settings. It’s clear that first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera has a pretty serious case of the Sorkins, though his take on snap-crackle dialogue generally lands a ways south of The West Wing. (There’s a lot of emphatic consonants and frantic shouting down telephone lines.)
But Chastain fully commits to her boss-bitch persona, even if we only obliquely learn why she might have chosen such a lonely, mercenary life. And veteran director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) pulls smart turns from his supporting cast, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a vulnerable team member scarred by a school shooting, Jake Lacey as the male escort Sloane keeps on the payroll for strings-free sex, and Allison Pill as her watchful would-be protégé. He also sows just enough doubt in Sloan’s motivations that the ending comes as a genuine jolt—a series of last-minute turns so gleefully pulpy that they hardly need to stand up to closer examination, as long as they stay faithful to her favorite credo: “It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.” B