Miss Sloane opens with a clever gambit: Jessica Chastain’s face fills the screen in a tight close-up as she talks about strategy, breaking the fourth wall. From its opening minutes, the audience is put at the mercy of a charismatic figure and forced to piece together what she might represent about our increasingly bizarre political landscape. Chastain, with her fiery red hair and forthright delivery, is often cast as the ambitious woman who takes no bullshit.
In Zero Dark Thirty she brought down Bin Laden, and she returns in Miss Sloane with another politically charged livewire of a role, one not explicitly based on true events, but still resonant in unavoidable ways: Chastain plays a hyper-driven D.C. lobbyist pushing for stricter gun control laws. As Elizabeth Sloane, she talks a mile a minute, and every aspect of her self-presentation — blood-red lipstick, dark nail polish, sharply tailored suits, high heels — suggests a powerful shield against the men who might attempt to talk her down.
The November release date and the film’s focus on an ambitious woman of politics make it clear that Miss Sloane was expected to greet America in the wake of a newly elected woman president, and the reality lends the film a strange heaviness. The glass ceiling remains in place, but Chastain still strides briskly across the screen, her character always fighting for her beliefs. Director John Madden — whose résumé includes the considerably tamer Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Shakespeare in Love — keeps his camera in constant motion, though it seems no camera can move fast enough for Chastain’s frantic, sure to be awards-hyped energy.
That said, Miss Sloane, with all its Capitol Hill gloss, sometimes feels too much like a primetime political television drama. Too many of the characters in Elizabeth’s orbit — pro-gun lobbyists who want her on their side, plucky young idealists she ultimately ends up working with — never quite get fleshed out, as the film settles into an us-versus-them mentality. Elizabeth has been crafted to push against the seams of likable female character conventions. She’s bristly, tough and has little semblance of a personal life: Everything she does is strictly transactional. She even satisfies her needs via the services of a gigolo (Jake Lacy), and their scenes together are intentionally devoid of frisson. Viewers may laugh at the shirtless jock who seems at odds with the professional woman, but this is rookie screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s unsubtle way of trying to level the playing field when it comes to gendered depictions of power. Elizabeth’s intermittent pill-popping could merit further exploration, and the filmmakers leave us to wonder — what was she like before her work became her life?
Mainstream cinema could always benefit from more complex women — even this film could, as the character of Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who works with Elizabeth and becomes a pawn in her game of getting the gun control bill passed by any means necessary, is sadly underwritten compared to her superior.