Jessica Chastain was in her thirties when she finally broke through as a major actress of this generation, and when she did it was akin to a seismic explosion hitting the movie world. Her breakthrough year 2011, saw her nominated for an Oscar for supporting actress for her superb turn in The Help (2011), but should just as easily could have been nominated for her luminous performance in The Tree of Life (2011) and Take Shelter (2011). One year later she was nominated for Best Actress as Maya, the brains behind the discovery of the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in the remarkable Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which many believe, myself included should have won her the Oscar. That same year she was outstanding in Lawless (2012), and remained busy for the next three years. A third Oscar nomination should have come for her seething work in A Most Violent Year (2014), she was both sexual and teasing in Miss Julie (2014) opposite Colin Farrell, outstanding as a brilliant young woman dealing with space in Interstellar (2014) and commanded respect as the captain of the ship in The Martian (2015). She will undoubtedly be an Oscar nominee next year for The Zoo Keepers Wife (2017) or Woman Walks Alone (2017), and with her brilliant performance in Miss Sloane (2016) she will take a shot at Best Actress nomination in January.
What does a lobbyist do?
Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is the single most feared (her opponents are terrified of her) and accomplished lobbyist in Washington DC, a barracuda able to get the other side over to hers with startling ease. She wins fights, major political fights, and turns the tide to a way of thinking. She works to get politicians to think her way or at least give her the support she needs in her latest cause. In this case it is for greater gun control.
As a whip smart, focused and intense lobbyist in Washington DC, Sloane (Chastain) is known for her iron will, her unbending and simple refusal to lose, for being a step ahead of the other guys, and for refusing to yield even when the odds are against her. Resigning from her cushy job at a major legal firm, she jumps into the gun control lobby, choosing her side and then making the decision to fight for their rights. Choosing a crack team to fight with her, she knows all along she is the weapon they best need to win their fight, and puts herself front and centre in the war. Knowing she has made enemies, she has no idea how powerful they are or the imminent danger she is in. It is not that she is naïve, just that believes herself invincible.
To say Chastain owns this film is an understatement, without her it is nothing. Blood thirsty, a ball breaker, she is vicious in her quest to win, willing to do anything, including throwing a devoted colleague under the bus, using an incident from that persons past to hammer home a point, to intimidate, even threaten to get what she wants. She does of course cross the wrong people, not to mention many lines, and finds herself in peril, not knowing who to trust, not wanting to believe that one of her own might be working against her. Steel jawed, like a hyena in heels, she moves in to attack mode and God help anyone in her path. This is a ferocious piece of acting as this brilliant actress grabs hold of this character and inhabits her in every way, from the strut she walks with to the way she directs her laser gaze at her prey.
At times we want to scream at her: Have you no sense of decency ma’m? Perhaps we fear the answer. Now more than ever I think we understand in the political game, decency does not exist. It is thrilling to see a strong woman in charge in the world of politics; Chastain is a revelation.
John Lithgow is perfectly sleazy as her enemy reminding us of what a gifted actor he can be, light years away from his comedy on his TV show Third Rock from the Sun, radically different from his recent performance as Winston Churchill in The Crown, a throwback to his serial killer in Blow Out (1981) so long ago. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is both brilliant and heartbreaking as the fellow lobbyist Sloane attacks for an event in her past, disregarding the young woman’s feelings on the matter, using it for her personal gain. The look in the fellow lobbyists eyes when she realizes what is happening to her is shattering, a trust is violated, and Sloane knows as she is doing it what she is doing.
John Madden directed the film, he is best known for Shakespeare in Love (1998) and in hindsight it might have been terrific to see Chastain cast in that movie as opposed to Paltrow. He is well aware his lead actress is in what the actors call the zone and no one is going to throw her off her game.