Miss Sloane review: Jessica Chastain's gun lobby drama is a blast

Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane - © 2016 EuropaCorp - France 2 Cinema. All Rights Reserved
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane - © 2016 EuropaCorp - France 2 Cinema. All Rights Reserved

Director: John Madden. Cast: Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Sam Waterston. 15 cert, 132 mins

You could hoover through a whole box set of some quippy-quippy, walk-with-me, West Wing-y campaign drama and hear just as much dialogue in Miss Sloane, John Madden's ferociously gabby thriller about Washington power-broking.

Little here is news – American politics is a corrupt bunfight, with careers at stake more than principles?! No!! But lots is entertaining, not least the voracious Jessica Chastain as a she-shark coolly gliding her way through these murky waters.

Madden previously directed Chastain in his overwrought Mossad spy flick The Debt, where she handily walked off with the business end of the movie. Hanging on to his flame-haired trophy star is one of the smartest moves this director has made since the Shakespeare in Love era.

The whole point of Chastain in Miss Sloane is to walk off with it, and she’s not messing around. She talks of trump cards and whipping them out just after your opponent has played theirs. What keeps suspense in play is that Elizabeth Sloane, her character, makes an opponent of just about everyone on screen. But by far her largest is the gun lobby.

Initially, these deep-pocketed protectors of the Second Amendment want her on their side. Sought for her skills to defeat a new regulation bill, she’s a hardened campaigner who grows a fierce and unexpected conscience, promptly bailing on her livid boss (Sam Waterston) and taking up with the pro-gun-control opposition guy (Mark Strong) instead.

Arguing merely from principle isn’t Sloane’s style, and certainly isn’t her gameplan. Told by everyone – including those on her own team – that she can only hope to make gradual inroads by losing gracefully, she throws the kitchen sink at the bill, involving herself in shady surveillance games and virtual blackmail to swipe the Senate votes needed. As the script insists time and again, playing dirty is the only rulebook Washington understands, however exemplary your cause might be.

Miss Sloane
Miss Sloane

For its own part, this first-time screenplay by Jonathan Perera cleaves near-religiously to the Aaron Sorkin instruction manual: it measures the intelligence of every character by how speedily cynical their ripostes are. Many of the minor roles feel ill-defined, and actors are let down by having to snigger at other people’s least original witticisms. This film’s DC is a shallow playground for buzzwords and voguish coinages – “conviction lobbyist”, say – which only have a thin, glib ring of reality.

Then again, Miss Sloane finds ways to puncture its own cynicism about politics and take a vital stand when it feels like it. When Sloane goes on live TV with her opposite number (Michael Stulhbarg), no one, least of all her own team, is expecting her to come out swinging against the sanctity of the US constitution. She compares it to a horoscope, reminds everyone that this particular hallowed section was an amendment in the first place, and castigates falling back on it as a coward’s recourse.

Mark Strong and Jessica Chastain
Mark Strong and Jessica Chastain

Chastain is a dervish in this scene, and that’s even before we’ve spotted the ace up her sleeve, involving her underling Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the only campaigner we meet with a personal reason for strengthening gun controls. The film makes solid points about the feminist case against firearms, then scrutinises these a little more closely, and backs its agenda up with its roles for women – Alison Pill’s opposition turncoat is another case in point.

Making its heroine a pill-popping careerist with no time for a love life – she pays a male escort (Jake Lacy) for occasional sex – is more questionable and dated. It risks making her a slightly tragic specimen, unlike the go-getting Erin Brockoviches of this world.

Less striking than Miss Sloane’s box-office failure in America – an uncannily Clinton-mirroring result – is the gloating response to this from male, gun-toting, alt-right types, as if cash registers proved an argument correct one way or the other.

It’s hard to take the film entirely seriously in the first place – Sloane’s remorseless chicanery, especially when she gets called in for a Congressional hearing by John Lithgow’s harassed Senator, pushes it into the realm of fantasy. But it’s addictive fantasy, satisfyingly snappy even in its absurdity, and something no Chastain fan can afford to miss.

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