“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 ahead of their opponents. Miss Sloan happens to be the best player in the game.
Directed by John Madden with elegant verve, “Miss Sloane” zings with the internal electricity generated from its script. Chastain, as the ruthlessly competitive and powerful lobbyist, reels off machine-gun rounds of dialogue, preaching the gospel of whatever client is paying the bills.
A congressional hearing investigating the ethics of her work is the framing device for “Miss Sloane,” with flashbacks to color in her more devious doings as a 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. She laughs because she finds the plan misguided, but there might be something more. This issue takes her from her conservative lobbying firm to a liberal boutique agency representing the opposing team. The film offers only morsels of her personal history, focusing instead on her vices, but there’s a nagging thought that something more might be motivating her assault on guns.
The debate about gun control is startlingly current. The stakes are high, and the film stares down the barrel of the controversy.
“Miss Sloane” 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. Sloane is a general in this war. She’s crisply outfitted in a uniform of high-end black, white and neutral pieces; her war paint slicked with a slash of crimson lipstick.
She marshals a company of young Sloane wannabes, a diverse, fast-talking bunch molding themselves in her likeness. A special protégé, Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just as smart and sharp as Sloane, manages to penetrate her armor, and their friendship heightens the stakes.
The third-act twist brings to bear the thriller roots just below the slick surface. It’s never schlocky, but the inevitable conclusion feels baser than the heady moral philosophizing that precedes it. The production value, smooth direction and Chastain’s show-stopping performance elevate “Miss Sloane” above typical genre fare, although it lands a one-two punch in managing to be both salacious and smart.
Rated R for language and some sexuality. 2:12. Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.