Miss Sloane is Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a brusque, ambitious D.C. lobbyist who exudes flair, fire, and an unassailable refinement. It comes as a mild shock, then, when a first-act montage shows her reading a John Grisham novel. Wouldn’t someone of her intelligence be knee-deep in policy or law? Well, it turns out to be a fine metaphor for the world around her; Miss Sloane is a smart, thorough film about a rare subject that is also as breathless, broad, and crowd-pleasing as your standard Grisham thriller.
After being asked by the head of the gun lobby to conduct a campaign that makes guns more palatable to the female voter, Sloane abandons her conservative lobbying firm to join a small band of lobbyists pushing for a stricter gun control bill. But her move isn’t motivated by idealism, necessarily. Instead, Sloane seems motivated by the challenge — the gun lobby is one of the most powerful in D.C. and a win over them is a win to be cherished. After rounding up a motley crew of her former colleagues, Sloane joins forces with ethical lobbyist Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) to cull the support of undecided politicians.
The simplicity of the plot (and its race against the clock) makes the complicated subjects at Miss Sloane’s center approachable to those unfamiliar and/or uninterested in backstage political machinations, as does the suspense provided by the ruthlessness of both Sloane and her former employers-turned-current adversaries. What this approach doesn’t allow for, however, is nuance. Sloane’s team of gun control advocates are portrayed as young, idealistic, and (mostly) ethical, while her conservative opponents are stodgy, snarling, and unempathetic. Sloane lies somewhere in between and, in trying to dissect her motives and emotions, director John Madden and screenwriter Jonathan Perera have drawn clear lines between good and evil elsewhere.
By doing so, the filmmakers also forge an idealism that, in the grander scheme, feels hypocritical. One of Miss Sloane’s most engaging aspects is the way in which it explores how lobbyists have to consistently undercut each other by bending (and sometimes breaking) the law to push their cause. Early on, it seems that the movie is interested in how a morally righteous cause almost needs to do as much if they hope to combat a well-funded behemoth like the gun lobby, which is a fascinating and ethically chewy idea. The idea is muddled, however, by the film’s double standard: Sloane’s underhanded tactics are savvy, while the conservative lobbyists are savage for doing the same.
By its latter half, Miss Sloane sets its sights on peeling back the layers of its titular character. Her ideals and political convictions are never revealed, nor is much information about her past. Instead, there are scenes with a male escort (Jake Lacy) which cunningly reveal details of her personal life. There’s a simple, delicious value in seeing Sloane engage with someone who has no political or monetary interest in her. Also of note is Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a passionate gun control advocate whose idealism is both manipulated and absorbed by Sloane. The evolution of their relationship is perhaps the one moment when Sloane’s personal struggles truly dovetail with the larger plot at hand.
Unfortunately, much of that is undone during the climax, which (through subterfuge and a bravura speech before the Senate) nearly walks back everything that came before it. Max Richter’s stirring score and Madden’s flashy direction are irresistible here, and Perera’s storytelling is strong in the moment-to-moment, but it never quite coalesces into something satisfying. At the film’s end, we’re still left with a fuzzy picture of who Sloane is and what, exactly, she set out to accomplish.
Still, Chastain is a formidable screen presence, thriving particularly in moments of silence and reaction. She does her best with the script’s overwrought dialogue, but its attempts to emulate Aaron Sorkin’s whip-crack banter isn’t clever enough to distract from the fact that none of it sounds even remotely human. That’s okay, though, because Miss Sloane, like a good Grisham, is best enjoyed for its simpler pleasures. It’s everything your typical bestseller is: brisk, sharp, suspenseful, and a little bit silly.