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D: John Madden / 132m

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, David Wilson Barnes, Al Mukadam, Douglas Smith, Chuck Shamata, Dylan Baker

At the beginning of Miss Sloane, the title character (Chastain) looks directly into camera and says the following: “Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.” Chastain delivers this short speech with complete conviction and due gravitas. And in doing so, the movie puts the audience on notice: what follows may not be as true or as real as you believe.

The movie follows lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane into a senate hearing where she’s accused of authorising expenses for the Indonesian government, something which is illegal for a lobbyist to do. At first she refuses to answer the questions she’s asked, hiding behind her lawyer’s brief to “plead the Fifth”. But a more personal line of questioning leads to her abandoning this line of defence and taking the fight to the hearing. Afterwards, her lawyer (Barnes) keeps repeating “five years”, the term of imprisonment she’ll receive if she’s found guilty of perjury. But Elizabeth appears unperturbed.

The movie then travels back to roughly seven months before. Elizabeth is working for a law firm owned by George Dupont (Waterston). A representative of the National Rifle Association, Bob Sanford (Shamata), asks for her help in connecting with a broader female demographic ahead of an upcoming vote on a bill that would mean mandatory background checks on anyone looking to purchase a gun. The NRA sees it as an infringement on civil liberties, and wants to make sure that the bill, the Heaton-Harris Amendment, isn’t passed. Elizabeth laughs in Sanford’s face, and refuses to have anything to do with it. Later, Dupont makes it clear that if she doesn’t work on the NRA’s initiative then her position won’t be as assured as she thinks. That night she meets Rodolfo Schmidt (Strong), head of the law firm Peterson Wyatt, and the man in charge of the fight to get the Heaton-Harris Amendment passed. The next day, Elizabeth resigns, and takes several of her team with her to Peterson Wyatt, though one of her best colleagues, Jane Molloy (Pill), chooses to stay.

In order for the Amendment to have a chance of being successful, Elizabeth, her team, and the staff at Peterson Wyatt, including Esme Manucharian (Mbatha-Raw), have to persuade sixteen out of twenty-one uncommitted senators to vote their way. As they set about this seemingly huge task – Dupont and the NRA only need to persuade six – Elizabeth plays out various strategies in her efforts to secure the necessary votes. But it soon becomes obvious that she’ll cross almost any line in order to win, even if it means sacrificing colleagues or lying to them deliberately. With the tide turning in her favour, and Dupont becoming ever more determined to derail her progress, her old firm launches a smear campaign, one that leads to Elizabeth’s sitting before a senate hearing committee and having to answer for her actions.

From the off, Miss Sloane is a thriller that throws the viewer deep into the mire of political lobbying, and which expects them to keep up with everything that’s going on. It’s an intellectual minefield, with so many issues dependent on the appropriate (or inappropriate) use of legal and ethical considerations, that looking away for even a moment could mean the difference between knowing exactly what’s going on – difficult enough thanks to Jonathan Perera’s dauntingly detailed script – and what might be going on. If you’re ever unsure as to what is happening, and/or why, then it’s best to bear in mind that opening speech, and the lobbyist always being “one step ahead”. Do that, and most of the movie will make sense… eventually.

By preferring (or needing) to stay one step ahead at all times, Elizabeth inevitably becomes a character that the viewer can’t trust. But we can have faith in her, in her need to win, and her commitment to never being out-thought, outfoxed, or outmanoeuvred. For all her manipulations and outright deceptions, Elizabeth is consistent in her efforts to be the winner, and she makes no bones about her methods: if they get the win then that’s all that matters. Along the way this means there are some casualties, notably Mbatha-Raw’s Esme, who has a personal secret exposed in front of millions of TV viewers. Elizabeth would argue that the end justifies the means, but as she is drawn deeper and deeper into the fight to get the Amendment passed, she begins to learn that some lines, once crossed, can’t be re-crossed. And as the stakes are increased, and the senate hearing hoves into view, Elizabeth has no option but to reassess her approach to lobbying and the people she works with.

Bringing the character of Elizabeth Sloane to mesmerising life, Chastain gives, arguably, her best performance since Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Cool, controlling, yet undeniably complex in both her motivations and her need to win at all costs, Chastain portrays Elizabeth as a restless, rest-avoiding predator, always looking for the weak link in an opponent’s armour, and always ready to exploit that weak link. She’ll even use her own people if she feels it’s necessary, but she’s up front about it, and it’s this straight-shooting, unapologetic persona that Chastain exploits so well, making her unlikeable and yet still strangely admirable at the same time. Chastain is the star of the movie, unforgettable whether she’s trampling on other people’s feelings or struggling to contain her own. She’s not alone, though. As her “boss” (a term you soon feel is inadequate in describing anyone who employs her), Strong goes from marvelling at her successes to feeling increasingly worried that she’s going too far with her own, hidden agenda. As the cruelly exposed Esme, Mbatha-Raw is a perfect foil for Chastain’s ebullient performance, her wide-eyed naïvete and quiet strength making her the movie’s most sympathetic character. And there’s further impressive support from Stuhlbarg as Elizabeth’s main adversary at Dupont, Lithgow as the head of the senate committee, and Barnes as her exasperated lawyer.

Orchestrating all this is Madden, now free from depicting events at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and displaying all the skills and directorial touches needed to shepherd Perera’s screenplay (a top five Black List script from 2015) through its varied twists and turns. Make no mistake, this is an intelligent, penetrating look at a world few of us have any conception of, and which is paced like a thriller, all of which makes Miss Sloane a much more compelling movie than expected. It’s also put together very skilfully by editor Alexander Berner, and he and Madden ensure that the many scenes that are taken up by immense amounts of exposition are as equally vital as those scenes where Elizabeth’s plans are achieving momentum, or are already in full swing. In the end, it’s a tale about personal redemption set against a dark backdrop of corruption and ethical malaise, and thanks to Chastain, is nothing less than exhilarating.

Rating: 8/10 – marred only by its predictable denouement, some by-the-numbers villainy from Dupont, and Elizabeth’s not-quite-credible overall gamble, Miss Sloane is still a political thriller with teeth, and replete with flashes of dark humour that leaven the serious tone; irresistible once it’s in full flow, this has unfortunately been overlooked by audiences – which is a shame given the pedigree of the cast, the skill of its director, and the sharpness of its script.

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