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Movie Review: 'Miss Sloane'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- About the only lobby that moviegoers relate to is the one they walk through to get to their seats.

Miss Sloane changes that in a hurry by offering a protagonist who is a lobbyist, but not by as much as you might think, given that the title character played by Jessica Chastain remains a riddle even as she continues to fascinate.

Directed by Oscar-winning director John Madden (for 1998's Shakespeare in Love), it's an absorbing, topical drama – a political thriller, really, as well as a surefire conversation starter – about the murky world of big-money corporate lobbying and the powerful and influential gun lobby.

In addition to also being a character study, the film uses the urgent, contemporary debate about the Second Amendment as a way to explore ways in which the back rooms of the American political system really work – when they work at all, that is.

Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, a brilliant, take-no-prisoners lobbyist who's feared and revered for her winning-at-all-costs mentality and vividly demonstrated political skill sets: she's an overachieving girl in what is essentially and overwhelmingly a boys' club.

In his debut screenplay about the battle over gun control by attorney Jonathan Perera, Elizabeth says:

"Lobbying is about foresight, about anticipating your opponent's moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. It's about making sure you surprise them and they don't...surprise you."

And that's not just speechifying: the narrative provides a third-act payoff that plays out satisfyingly, like a kept promise.

Early on, Sloane walks away from her job after her boss, played by Sam Waterston, asks her to drum up support of the Second Amendment among women – which she finds morally objectionable.

So she goes to work for a competing lobbying firm run idealistically and ethically by Mark Strong, to take on the NRA. And she takes most of her staff with her, with two prominent exceptions – previously devoted protégé Alison Pill and aggressive colleague Michael Stuhlbarg.

Let the chess moves begin.

And let the David-versus-Goliath competition commence over a bill that would require more stringent background checks for gun ownership.

Sloane, whose consuming work life doesn't allow for a soulmate, partner, or family, turns to – and, let's face it, manipulates – a survivor of gun violence, a colleague played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in her campaign to take the NRA down a peg or three.

And that includes facing off in a hearing against a powerful Senator played by John Lithgow, who leads an investigation with Sloane as its target.

Chastain, an Oscar nominee for Best Actress for 2012's Zero Dark Thirty and for Best Supporting Actress for 2011's The Help, certainly doesn't struggle to make Sloane likable, but somehow she manages to win us over with steely determination and fierce intelligence.

This despite her ends-justifying-the-means arrogance and ethically questionable maneuvering.

An obsessive pill popper, Chastain's Sloane is relentless, chilly, lonely, and riveting.

Director Madden (Ethan Frome, Golden Gate, Mrs. Brown, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Proof, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who also directed Chastain in 2010's The Debt, is a bit stingy with explanations of how Sloane got to be a person like Sloane.

So we do exit with unanswered questions, but we also feel legitimately and pleasantly surprised by the cleverly constructed plot.

The ending might divide some moviegoers by seeming extravagantly contrived, but the buildup to it registers as both original and important, its most memorable component the nuanced, compelling turn by Chastain as a woman everyone else – including us – is always a step behind.

So we'll lobby 3 stars out of 4 for Miss Sloane, which should send discriminating moviegoers home challenged, stimulated, and rewarded.

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