Compromised by too many plot twists, “Miss Sloane” is not a searing condemnation of Capitol Hill politics nor a penetrating character portrait of an adrenaline-addicted power player. But it is a terrifically acted, electric thriller.
Conventionally but skillfully directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Proof”) from a screenplay by newcomer Jonathan Perera, the drama transpires in the cutthroat world of Washington, D.C., lobbying, where Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a force of intelligence and ruthlessness. The closest thing she has to friends are the underlings she dines with and eventually betrays. She uses male escorts for attachment-free intimacy.
The opening shows Elizabeth taking the Fifth Amendment when testifying before a Senate panel investigating her for ethics violations. The story then flashes back to events that led to the interrogation.
A notoriously cunning lobbyist at a prestigious firm, Elizabeth reveals hidden scruples when refusing an assignment that would benefit an NRA-like group seeking to persuade lawmakers to reject a bill that would subject gun buyers to background checks. Her boss, George Dupont (Sam Waterston), wants her to make guns agreeable to women.
Furious, Elizabeth leaves the firm and accepts a job with a boutique group lobbying in favor of the bill. Dupont and his pro-gun client set out to destroy her.
Driven by her obsession with winning, Elizabeth, in her new post, pursues the near-impossible goal of swaying votes of about 20 pro-gun senators, tackling the challenge by cranking up her usual methods: bullying, blackmail and surveillance (sometimes conducted on her own employees).
She clashes with her principled new boss (Mark Strong) and uses employees as pawns. She particularly exploits Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her new protege.
About-faces and other twists, some preposterous, abound in the final act. Credibility suffers. As an indictment of the lobbying business, the film lacks the satirical wit of Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking.”
At the same time, it adroitly addresses unsavory practices of lobbyists who influence congressional voting and the slipperiness of elected officials.
The egregiously rule-bending, brainy Elizabeth (who, with her crimson lipstick and pallid complexion, looks positively bloodthirsty) makes an exhilarating and entertaining protagonist. Chastain, while not softening the unlikable character, wisely gives her enough humanity to keep viewers captivated for 132 minutes (even as the screenplay has them shaking their heads).
Although Michael Stuhlbarg and Alison Pill as Elizabeth’s colleagues turned adversaries, John Lithgow as a senator leading the congressional investigation, and Jake Lacy as the escort who ends up on the witness stand, are excellent, “Miss Sloane” is Chastain’s show.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg
Written by Jonathan Perera
Directed by John Madden
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes