In a memorable scene from Miss Sloane, a high-stakes political drama about a Capitol Hill power broker taking on the gun lobby, the title character—played by an ice-cold Jessica Chastain—describes the job of a lobbyist to a Senate ethics committee that suspects it has backed her into a corner. It’s wrong. “Lobbying is about foresight,” she says. “It’s about making sure you surprise them—and they don’t surprise you.”
As zingers go, it’s OK. But it’s also a line the filmmakers might wish they could take back. When French indie distributor EuropaCorp sought a late November release for Miss Sloane, it anticipated a moment when post-election policy wonkery and Academy Awards buzz might coalesce into a single, ripped-from-the-headlines conversation. The film is, after all, about a strong, ambitious woman—a Washington heavyweight—navigating a male-dominated industry while fending off sexism to get meaningful work done. The timing looked perfect.
Under different circumstances, Miss Sloane might have emerged as this year’s soapier answer to 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight, a small-studio offering that rode sturdy performances and topicality to critical acclaim and an $88 million worldwide box office. Instead, it stands to send holiday movie-season audiences in two directions, drawing in those who are up for a taut political counterfactual and scaring away people who’d prefer to sit through Bad Santa 2.
It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like. Chastain pops as Elizabeth Sloane, an insomniac workaholic and grade-A ass-kicker, the kind of unscrupulous lobbyist who learns all the rules so she can better circumvent them. When her boss (Sam Waterston) recruits her to drum up more female support for the Second Amendment (one suggested slogan: “God created women; Samuel Colt made them equal!”), she abruptly switches sides, joining a competing lobbying firm to ensure the passage of the Heaton-Harris bill, a piece of legislation proposing tighter gun control.
But Sloane’s conversion isn’t a go-and-sin-no-more moment. To rouse congressional support, she dupes a school-shooting survivor (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) into becoming the public face of the movement. She also lies, cheats, and has emotionless sex with a high-priced male escort (Jake Lacy). Eventually she’s dragged in front of a holier-than-thou senator (John Lithgow) to answer for her professional indiscretions. In Sloane’s world, the end always justifies the means, no matter how often she’s told she’s gone too far this time—and she gets told that a lot, mostly by her new boss (Mark Strong), who’s more of a not-by-any-means guy.
First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera delivers a surprisingly ambitious script, full of twists and turns and, perhaps most satisfying, the type of rat-a-tat dialogue that warms the hearts of West Wing fans. (The movie is directed by Oscar nominee John Madden.) Perera was inspired by real-life former lobbyist Jack Abramoff—who went to prison for conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion—but the script also shares DNA with two Big Tobacco political films of the late 1990s and early 2000s: the Michael Mann thriller The Insider and Jason Reitman’s satirical Thank You for Smoking. It’s worth noting that, unlike the cigarette industry in those films, the pro-gun contingent in Miss Sloane isn’t a boo-hiss villain. There’s even a good guy with a gun. When he stops a bad guy with a gun, it lends credence to the National Rifle Association’s cherished ideal that more guns equals more safety—and gives the movie political verisimilitude.
Still, nothing—not good guys, not bad guys—can stop Sloane. Like any good lobbyist, the case she makes proves too compelling. The question is whether audiences will want to listen.