There’s never a hair out of place in “Miss Sloane,” a painstakingly slick political thriller from director John Madden about a brilliant lone-wolf lobbyist consumed with the win. It’s a wannabe Aaron Sorkin-meets-Shonda Rhimes glimpse into the hollow and cynical world of inside the Beltway dealings from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera that’s never quite snappy, insightful or salacious enough to be as fun or damning as it should be.
All the pieces are there, especially in the film’s subject, the steely Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a pill-popping master manipulator who is always at the ready with a perfect quip, biblical verse or history lesson for the moment. She’s the kind of do-it-all wonder woman who is just as comfortable working a room of scuzzy Washington insiders or pleading the Fifth at an intimidating congressional hearing as she is directing a team of spooks to illegally surveil someone with a camera-equipped cockroach.
Elizabeth Sloane’s mantra is that lobbying is all about foresight and making sure you play your trump card after the other guys play theirs. Our first glimpse of her in action shows her willfully neglecting Senate ethics rules by arranging some luxury travel for a congressman and his family to try to sway him on a palm-oil tax initiative. She’s a mercenary who is out for the win at all costs, and she’s the best at it.
But she also has principles, and leaves her top firm for the opposition when a powerful gun group asks her to devise messaging to turn women against universal background checks for gun ownership. Her cavalier dismissal of a massive new client for her firm enrages her boss, a scenery-chewing Sam Waterston, and makes the audience a little more intrigued about why this woman does what she does.
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Now fighting for the underdogs, an increasingly obsessed Elizabeth uses everything at her disposal to try to ensure that the background-check bill passes, testing the loyalty and limits of those around her (including the firm’s head, played by Mark Strong, and an ambitious protégé in Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with her sliding morality and deep distrust of others. Relationships are nothing but arsenal (and thus disposable) and she’s the only one who will ever know the grand plan.
The only person who manages to get close to Elizabeth is an inquisitive male escort with a heart of gold (Jake Lacy) who gets her to say that she chose to forgo a simpler life with kids and family and whatnot for her job. That life wasn’t for her in her early 20s and isn’t for her now, in her late 30s, either. It’s not the most revealing conversation, but we’ve let many a male character get away with far less.
While it is fun to see Chastain as a powerful boss lady, raising a martini glass to her competitors (including a sniveling Michael Stuhlbarg), whom she’s just publicly embarrassed with another move of political cunning, the story itself just skates along an already well-established surface of corrupt Washington narratives. It fails to add any distinctive flair to the genre, and, despite its sleek composition and top-notch talent (including John Lithgow as a congressman), seems more like prestige television than anything else.
Then there’s the matter of timing. “Miss Sloane” has the misfortune of coming out in this political moment. Crafted in a different climate about a still-relevant issue, it should have been more resonant. Instead, through no fault of its own, it already feels woefully out of date.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Waterston, Jake Lacy
Director: John Madden
Rated R (language and some sexuality)