'Miss Sloane' Digs Deep Into the Innards of Washington

‘Miss Sloane’ probes the inner workings of the U.S. government without romance or malice, and the ideological haze enshrouding the plot and protagonist, played by Jessica Chaistain, only enhances the viewer’s enjoyment.

Jessica Chastain in 'Miss Sloane.'

Miss Sloane Directed by John Madden; written by Jonathan Perera; with Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Douglas Smith, Dylan Baker

There are two major surprises about John Madden’s new film, “Miss Sloane.” The first is that it was made at all, because historically, American cinema is not known for movies that dig this deep into the innards of the government. In addition, the pivot of the picture is a figure rarely portrayed in American movies – the lobbyist – even though, as “Miss Sloane” shows, lobbyists play a key role in the workings of the U.S. administration. And, finally, movies about the nuts and bolts of American politics generally fare poorly at the box office.

The second major surprise about “Miss Sloane” is that it was made by John Madden, a British director whose previous work hasn’t exactly enthralled me, even if one of his films, “Shakespeare in Love,” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1999. (His other pictures include the American version of an Israeli movie, “The Debt,” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel.)

Madden’s directorial weaknesses are apparent here too, though it is his most challenging work to date. Added interest arises from the fact that the movie is based on an original screenplay that does not derive from a true story, a rare departure in contemporary American cinema dealing with acute political situations. Even if Jonathan Perera’s script is shrouded in an ideological fog that Madden is incapable of dissipating or controlling, the sophisticated screenplay makes the film consistently engrossing.

“Miss Sloane” probes the guts of the U.S. administration without the romantic or malicious aura that infused its portrayal in television series such as “The West Wing” or “House of Cards.” Senators and congressmen appear in the film, but the president and vice president are not so much as mentioned. Despite its dramatic extremes, the plot hinges on the everyday routine on Capitol Hill, focusing on the activity of lobbyists.

If we thought that lobbyists operate in backrooms and that their existence is more manifest to the administration than to the American public, “Miss Sloane” corrects that mistake by spotlighting lobbyists’ political activity. Their clout is exposed, along with the economic power and the status that accrue to companies that engage in lobbying.

Still, if the movie has a glaring weakness, it lies in the pervasive fuzziness of its dominant tone. Its hinge is the exposition of the character and working methods of the eponymous protagonist. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, with a reputation of being willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Work is her whole life. No biographical details about her are provided, though with its underlying duality the movie hints that she had a difficult childhood. (At one point she says that she was compelled to lie throughout her childhood years, a trait that laid the groundwork for her career as an effective lobbyist.)

Attired in suits or black evening gowns when she’s on the job, her red hair meticulously styled and her lips painted a bold red (which gradually fades as the film progresses), Elizabeth lives alone, sleeps little and pops bennies and tranquilizers. She has no social life at all; for sexual release she makes use of male escorts. As a boss, she treats her employees with such cold ruthlessness – not balking at using and then betraying them – that her character sometimes seems to border on a nasty caricature of a career woman.

Indeed, this only serves to underscore the fact that the film doesn’t entirely know what attitude to take toward this character. This ambivalence, or even trivalence, is reflected in the film’s title. The decision to forgo “Ms.” in favor of the archaic “Miss,” which is better suited to a Jane Austen novel, hints at a certain irony that Madden and Perera harbor toward their protagonist. (In fact, there are sporadic indications that the filmmakers aimed to introduce satirical elements, but these blend into the movie without densifying it.)

A woman of principle

The plot plays out within a frame story, to which it returns occasionally and on which it zooms in toward the end, at its problematic – to put it mildly – climax. Elizabeth, accused of violating the lobbyists’ ethical code, is under investigation by the Senate on charges which, if borne out, could land her in prison. Furthermore, the sputtering career of the senator leading the investigation (John Lithgow) depends on his success in incriminating Elizabeth. The film then goes back in time to recount the circumstances that led to this situation. Even if the episode for which Elizabeth is under investigation seems trivial – something having to do with the tax levied on Indonesian-manufactured palm oil – at its center the plot deals with a highly vexatious issue in American society, as was seen in the recent presidential campaign. At its heart is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants every American the right, with certain limitations, to bear arms.

Though work is Elizabeth’s whole life and she is driven by an ambition to win by any means, she’s also portrayed as a woman of principle, though it’s not always clear whether principles are to be believed in or are utilized by her as another method to achieve her goals. She resigns her key position in a prestigious and politically powerful lobbying firm when the company is hired to assist the weapons industry to transform its image and reduce the opposition it stirs among women. She finds the very notion absurd; there is, apparently, a limit to her willingness to betray her belief that the Second Amendment should be revised.

Taking with her several employees who worked with her in the lobbying firm, she joins a smaller firm, whose CEO, Rodolfo Vittorio Schmidt (Mark Strong), espouses principles that seem to be more believable than those advocated by Elizabeth. The two set out to lobby Congress to pass an amendment that will limit the ability of American citizens to acquire and bear arms – a goal with little prospect of success. A struggle ensues with Elizabeth at its center, between her and the company she abandoned and the other powerbrokers in the military industry. Betrayal, extortion, meetings in dark places and other familiar elements that come into play lend “Miss Sloane” in part the character of a thriller.

At the start of the film, Elizabeth, looking directly at the camera, states in her Senate hearing that it’s the job of a successful lobbyist always to be one step ahead of his rival. When the opponent plays his best card, you have to play a better card. Beyond its plot, “Miss Sloane” is above all a portrait, and so its greatest success lies in depicting the way Elizabeth puts this professional strategy into practice. She is always one step ahead – of her rivals and of the audience, too – and just when we think she has played her best card, she plays an even better one.

The same cannot always be said of Madden and Perera. Some plot elements are untenable; not all the developments are presented with equal clarity; and the fog I mentioned morphs into confusion that is seen in the way the movie resolves Elizabeth’s plight. Still, it’s this dimension of the picture, however ideologically hazy and befuddled, and however much it prevents the protagonist from coalescing into a fully coherent character, that is chiefly responsible for the interest and enjoyment the movie provides.

A salient contributing factor here is Jessica Chastain’s performance in the lead role. Chastain is one of the most impressive of the screen actresses who have come to the fore in recent years. Her best performances are characterized by a fusion of toughness with sparks of vulnerability that burst through the armor she seems wrapped in. Her interpretation of the Elizabeth Sloane character blends well into the film’s attempt to portray a realm of moral ambiguity. In fact, she achieves this better than the script and the production, which tend to stumble in their efforts to realize their goal with the necessary complexity.