Miss Sloane review – Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player

The Zero Dark Thirty star prevents a sometimes ludicrous script from veering off course with her forceful performance in the role of a Washington lobbyist

For Jessica Chastain, there’s a constant trait found in her best roles: the characters she plays are obsessive. In Zero Dark Thirty she played the female operative behind locating Osama bin Laden. Those obsessive qualities were also found in Crimson Peak’s Lucille Sharpe, as well as Anna Morales, the Lady Macbeth-type in A Most Violent Year. But Elizabeth Sloane, the tenacious lobbyist she plays here, is perhaps her most obsessive character yet.

Director John Madden (reuniting with Chastain following 2010’s The Debt) opens on a lucid Sloane peering directly into the camera. “Lobbying is about foresight,” she says. “Anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter-measures. I was hired to win.” From the outset of Miss Sloane, first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera establishes Sloane as a fighter with laser-like focus on her prize.

In what we come to learn is a flash-forward, Sloane is seen defending herself in a Senate hearing. The sequence eerily calls to mind Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi hearing, with Sloane soldiering on as the committee, led by an incensed Democratic legislator (John Lithgow), tear into her. The destabilizing introduction gives way to a main narrative that recounts the circumstances that planted Sloane in this scenario.

Months before being called before the Senate, Sloane fed off her reputation as one of the most powerful players behind the scenes in Washington. Chastain plays her as a woman who relishes the threat she poses to her adversaries, fully owning her worth in a similar way to Scandal’s political fixer Olivia Pope. Sloane might not run the old-school lobbying firm where she works (it’s headed by George Dupont, played by Sam Waterston), but she paces the office in her designer stilettos like she owns the joint.

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When the head of a powerful gun lobby calls on her to help convince women to oppose a bill that will impose new regulations on the sale of firearms, Sloane ridicules his pitch by laughing him out of the building. Sloane, it turns out, has a moral compass. She also sees the threat as an opportunity. Confident she has what it takes to uphold the bill, Sloane switches over to a scrappy boutique firm to fight the opposition.

Sloane is equal parts crusader and manipulator. She staves off any semblance of a personal life to push forward at work. Sex to Sloane is purely transactional – she pays for it, and shuts down any emotional advances from her male escorts.

With another actor in the part, Sloane could have come across as a stereotype: a robotic workaholic with no interior life. Chastain overcomes Perera’s at times crass characterization by imbuing her with an undercurrent of melancholy. Sloane never outrightly expresses that she regrets the path she’s chosen. But watching Chastain, it’s apparent that Sloane is unhappy.

As the stakes get higher for Sloane and her group of young junior lobbyists who report to her with a mixture of admiration and fear, she resorts to suspect means to stay one step ahead of the opposition. Her end goal, however, is always admirable.

Chastain tackles this challenging paradox by playing Sloane for who she is: tough, driven and uncompromising. The warmth that earned Chastain her first Oscar nomination for The Help is stripped away. As Sloane, Chastain’s only smiles are self-satisfied ones. The actor doesn’t sweat to earn sympathy; it’s Sloane’s tenacity that demands it. It’s a brave approach, and it works.

That central performance makes Miss Sloane compulsively watchable even as Perera’s script grows increasingly ludicrous in its final stretch (the film runs an unwieldy 132 minutes). What was first a lean thriller morphs into twist-filled jumble, resembling the John Grisham novels Sloane reads before going to bed. Chastain single-handedly prevents it all from veering off the rails by dominating Miss Sloane with her forceful presence. She grounds her heroine to ensure you’re with her.


Nigel M Smith

The GuardianTramp

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