Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), the antiheroine of John Madden’s chilly new drama Miss Sloane, is a character so archetypal, so prescriptive, that you imagine she wasn’t born in normal human fashion but rather created in a lab from leftover vials of testosterone and male tears. A pill-popping, spike-heel-wearing lobbyist, her singular quality is ambition, and her only two human traits are reading John Grisham novels and sleeping with male escorts. “I pay you,” she tells one of the latter midway through the movie, “so I can imagine the life I chose to forgo in service of my career.”
That Chastain imbues Liz with some humanity is credit to the actress, but it’s also worth noting that the lobbyist shines in comparison to her surroundings. Washington, in Miss Sloane, is rotten to its core, a town riddled with graspers and crooked politicians, and poisoned by its own greed. To be clear, the movie, written by the novice screenwriter Jonathan Perera, is totally preposterous. But it’s also often fun in a grim, burn-everything-down kind of way. It’s hard not to assume that its release was intended to coincide with the historic presidency of another “nasty” woman, but its vilification of D.C. also feels right on-trend with the national mood.
Miss Sloane is structured around a Senate hearing in which Liz is grilled by a panel of politicians on charges that she bribed public officials—all in front of the fascinated eyes of the world’s press. The timeline then jumps back a few months to show Liz working at one of Washington’s top lobbying firms, deftly arranging trips to five-star resorts in Indonesia for politicians in favor of palm oil tariffs, and lecturing her troop of young acolytes about the dos and don’ts of making it in This Town. Her bravado tends to supersede her professionalism: When a potential client approaches her with an idea about marketing guns to women, Liz laughs directly in his face, infuriating her boss (Sam Waterston).
After a chance encounter at a party, Liz is approached to by a rival boutique—“hippie,” she translates—lobbying firm to jump ship and help an effort to pass a gun-control bill. And she accepts, asserting her belief that moderate checks on gun ownership make sense. But her real motivation, it soon becomes clear, is to win a fight that’s largely understood as impossible. In the movie, the gun lobby outspends the gun-control campaign by a ratio of 38:1. And though public opinion is largely in favor of control, as she points out, fanatical gun voters are much better at actually showing up at the voting booth.
From there, Miss Sloane descends into a paranoid political thriller about how the sausage is made. Liz’s lobbying team mostly jumps ship with her to work on the effort to pass Heaton-Harris, a so-called bipartisan bill that requires background checks on all gun purchases. And she begins to coach the employees at her new firm, including Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), on some of her more nefarious methods. The key, she asserts pompously, is to always be one step ahead: “Making sure you surprise them, and they don’t surprise you.”
In some ways, Miss Sloane is a paint-by-numbers portrait of Washington, with its sweeping shots of the Potomac and the National Mall, its scenes of steakhouse lunches and networking galas, and its soullessness. There’s none of the humor or warmth of Madden’s strongest films (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and the action stays mostly in cold conference rooms, in generic luxury hotels, and on cable-news sets. Chastain, armored to the hilt in cashmere coats, silk blouses, and high-heeled boots, works admirably to make Liz seem realistic rather than the most tired cliché imaginable of an unhappy professional woman, but she has very little to work with. A lone nod to an unhappy childhood (“I grew up lying,” she says at one point) makes up the entirety of the character’s backstory. Otherwise, she’s just distilled ambition in human form.
The cast Madden has assembled is terrific, and generally wasted. Mbatha-Raw has a handful of solid moments as a do-gooder with a secret that Liz soon uncovers. Christine Baranski as a female senator with a sharp tongue only gets a single scene. Allison Pill has one of the movie’s most intriguing roles as Jane, Liz’s protegé-turned-rival. And Michael Stuhlbarg is almost comically evil as a lobbyist competitor greasing the wheels so the worst people in Washington can stay in power.
The movie does have flashes of sharp insight, though—particularly when it’s revealing how fiercely Liz’s drive and success enrages the men around her. Waterston, uncharacteristically malicious as George Dupont, expresses with real rancor to his team the importance of “neutralizing” her. Senator Ron Sperling (John Lithgow), who leads the hearing investigating the allegations against her, is infuriated by her poise under fire. Only Forde (Jake Lacy), a male escort with more defined morals than anyone else in the film, seems persuaded that Liz is actually human.
As a character, of course, she’s not. She’s one of the uglier portrayals of a successful career woman with a catastrophic personal life and various addictive tendencies in need of a catastrophic fall to bring her back to Earth (see also: Homeland, Scandal). That the ending of Miss Sloane (shouldn’t it be Ms. Sloane, come to think of it?) is surprising only puts into sharp focus how hackneyed its premise is. Portrayals of Washington and its most unscrupulous residents are only likely to continue over the next four years, so it would be gratifying if some of them could conjure up fresher takes than this grim portrait of a festering swamp.