The title of political thriller “Miss Sloane” refers to the main character, a lobbyist played by Jessica Chastain, but the film could easily have been titled “Drain the Swamp.” Made before Donald Trump became President Elect, it only takes about twenty seconds before the word “trump” crops up in the dialogue. He’s never mentioned by name, but this look at “the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing” paints exactly the ugly picture of behind-the-scenes machinations that Mr. Trump railed against on the champagne trail.
Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, a sleep-deprived D.C. lobbyist “at the forefront of a business with a terrible reputation.” She’ll represent anyone, it seems, except the gun lobby, who offer her a lucrative contract, only to be laughed at and rejected. Soon after she leaves her firm—one of the biggest in the country—to join a small, scrappy group who aim to whip up support for a bill that will demand background checks for all gun owners.
The bulk of the film consists of the inner-workings of a campaign, the dirty tricks and money management it takes to influence the influencers. Sloane, focussed on the win, pushes protégé and mass shooting survivor Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) front and center, making her the face of the issue. Soon unexpected personal consequences of Sloane’s aggressive antics and a congressional enquiry into her behaviour threaten to derail all her hard work.
“Miss Sloane” is a fast paced political suspense that reverberates with echoes of Armando Iannucci, Paddy Chayefsky and Aaron Sorkin. Zippy dialogue flies off the screen probably easier than it would actually fly off the tongue, giving voice to colourful characters who say mostly interesting things. “When this town guts you like a trout and chokes you with the entrails don’t come snivelling to me,” snarls Sloane. It’s a catchy line and Chastain spits it out with conviction and often transcends the rat-a-tat dialogue by bringing some actual humanity to a character largely made up of bon mots and a bad attitude. It’s a struggle for Chastain to grow Elizabeth Sloane as a character but in her rare quiet moments, when she isn’t mouthing Jonathan Perera’s carefully crafted words, she finds warmth and vulnerability in a person described as the “personification of an ice cube.”
All the good work, the dialogue, the character work, the timely “drain the swamp” subject, all of it, is undone in just a few minutes as “Miss Sloane” climaxes with one of the worst endings in recent memory. There will be no spoilers here, but in the movie’s final moments a crescendo of over plotting takes over, pushing the story into a melodramatic territory. Instead of echoing Armando Iannucci, Paddy Chayefsky and Aaron Sorkin, Perera appears to pay tribute to Agatha Christie with a series of ridiculous revelations that defy logic.
“Miss Sloane” feels timely but its determination to live up to Sloane’s ethos—“It’s about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you.”—undermines it effectiveness.