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Movie review: ‘Miss Sloane’ is salacious and smart

Jessica Chastain, center, in a scene from, "Miss Sloane." (Kerry Hayes / AP)
Jessica Chastain, center, in a scene from, "Miss Sloane." (Kerry Hayes / AP)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

“Lobbying is about foresight,” Miss Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) declares. It’s her mantra, her battle cry, her affirmation. In the crackling political drama “Miss Sloane,” lobbying is a game of chess, and the best lobbyists can see the moves and twists steps ahead of their opponents. Miss Sloan, Liz for short, happens to be the best player in the game.

Directed by John Madden with a coolly elegant verve, “Miss Sloane” zings with the internal electricity generated from its script, penned by first-time writer Jonathan Perera. Chastain, as the ruthlessly competitive, ambitious, and powerful lobbyist, reels off machine-gun rounds of dialogue – monologuing, debating, lecturing and preaching the gospel of whatever client is paying the bills. She articulately parries and jabs and delivers verbal roundhouses in her style of no-holds-barred down-and-dirty political combat.

A congressional hearing investigating the ethics of her work serves as the framing device for the story of “Miss Sloane,” with flashbacks to color in her more devious doings as D.C.’s most cutthroat lobbyist, which have led to her pleading the Fifth before Rep. Ron Sperling (John Lithgow).

With a reputation that precedes her, she’s not above cackling in the face of a high-powered gun rights advocate when he suggests she lead a campaign to bring more women to his side of the gun debate. Though she laughs because she finds the plan trite and misguided, there might be something more behind her dismissal. This issue takes her from her conservative lobbying firm to a liberal boutique agency representing the opposing team. The film offers only morsels in terms of her personal history – focusing instead on her vices – but there’s a nagging thought that something more might be motivating her political assault on guns.

The debate about gun control is both startlingly current and an unfortunately evergreen topic to power this sordid D.C. tale. The stakes are high and the consequences are all too starkly realistic when it comes to the narrative around guns in this country, and the film stares directly down the barrel of the controversy.

“Miss Sloane” sharply dissects how politics as usual has slid into a swamp of special interests, bribes and constant campaigning. The real wars are waged by the lobbyists pressing the flesh at receptions and on the front pages of newspapers. Liz is very much a general in this war. She’s crisply outfitted in a uniform of high-end black, white and neutral pieces (the costume design by Georgina Yarhi is nothing short of stunning); her war paint slicked on in the form of a slash of crimson lipstick.

She marshals a company of young, hungry Sloane wannabes, a diverse, tech-savvy, fast-talking bunch molding themselves in her likeness. A special protege, Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just as whipsmart and sharp as Liz, though softer and more empathetic, manages to penetrate the Sloane armor, and their friendship heightens the stakes.

The third-act twist brings to bear the thriller roots just below the slick prestige surface. Though it’s never schlocky, the inevitable conclusion feels baser than the heady moral and ethical philosophizing that precedes it. The production value, smooth direction and Chastain’s show-stopping performance elevate “Miss Sloane” above typical genre fare, though it lands a one-two punch in managing to be both salacious and smart.

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