Jessica Chastain’s ‘Miss Sloane’ Echoes Campaign Rhetoric


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Jessica Chastain in “Miss Sloane.”

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EuropaCorp

In the new political drama “Miss Sloane,” Jessica Chastain’s titular lobbyist explains how to win in Washington. You have to play your last trump card, she says, right after your opponents play their last trump card.

Set for release on Friday, the film is filled with echoes of rhetoric straight from the campaign trail. But in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s presidential victory, has the story of a tough woman trying to make a difference in Washington been overtaken by current events?

The filmmakers acknowledge that their project plays very differently than it would have had Hillary Clinton defeated Mr. Trump. But they say they can’t control how “Miss Sloane” will be perceived by filmgoers and critics in light of the election outcome.

“This is a movie predicated on the idea of surprise,” the thriller’s director, John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), said last week. “But few developments could have been more surprising than the election results. For some reason, in film, being upended can be a very pleasurable experience, where in real life it often isn’t.”

In the movie, Elizabeth Sloane is a ruthless conservative lobbyist who takes on the National Rifle Association and tries to get gun-control legislation passed. “You’re going to see the film differently through the prism of what’s happened, and it depends on which side of that argument you come from,” Mr. Madden said. “But these are such extraordinarily fluid and provocative times in the world that people’s interest in the political process is either completely exhausted or it’s extremely heightened.”

And Ms. Chastain argued in a postelection interview: “I don’t think the movie is going to play to either side of the debate. It’s about a bipartisan bill, and it’s a bipartisan movie.”

A two-hour-plus drama about a divisive issue represents a gamble in the superhero-driven marketplace, and the odds against “Miss Sloane” may have increased since Mr. Trump’s victory.

“I’m sure they’re very nervous to be releasing a movie with an explicit political theme when the whole political landscape has suddenly changed,” said the film historian Peter Biskind, the author of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” who has not seen the movie.

An unexpected resonance with headlines can cut either way for a movie’s box-office prospects. “The China Syndrome” became a hit in 1979 after an accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania moved nuclear-safety issues to the forefront. In more recent years, acts of mass violence may have depressed domestic turnout for films like “A Good Day to Die Hard,” released in 2013 after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

The longtime Hollywood observer and author Mark Harris (“Pictures at a Revolution”), who has seen “Miss Sloane,” said current events outrun its story in one scene. “There’s a kind of wishfulness to the movie in that it assumes there are still scandals that could potentially demolish someone,” Mr. Harris said. “There’s a climactic moment in the movie that is premised on the belief that people will be shocked by what’s right in front of them. After this last campaign, I’m not sure that’s true.”

Perhaps wish fulfillment isn’t the worst marketing strategy for the story of a woman trying to enact huge changes in Washington. “Hopefully, people will feel some catharsis,” Ms. Chastain said. “I see this movement happening now of women, minorities and other people who were surprised by the election’s outcome, and the film works very well for them. It’s like their fantasy world of D.C.”

Mr. Madden concurred. “The film is an act of imagination,” he said. “The idea that a piece of gun legislation actually gets onto the table is far away from anything we can conceive, sadly, for the foreseeable future, or even in the last eight years. So in that respect, it is a fantasy.”

An experienced female insider whose ethics are questioned, Miss Sloane bears a passing resemblance to Mrs. Clinton. While that wasn’t the intention, Ms. Chastain embraced, on behalf of her character, Mr. Trump’s description of Mrs. Clinton: “such a nasty woman.”

“That was originally meant as an insult, then women claimed it and said, ‘It’s O.K. to be ambitious, strong and ruffle feathers,’” Ms. Chastain said. “So Elizabeth is a nasty woman, because for me, a nasty woman is a powerful woman who is overprepared for a debate, knows what she’s doing, is ambitious and not afraid to step forward.”

Whatever its commercial reception, “I’m proud of the film,” Ms. Chastain said. “Elizabeth is a good representation of a woman who’s a perfectionist, really good at her job, and vicious — and you can still root for her in the end.”

The British-born Mr. Madden has other reasons for optimism. When he attended a screening of the film the night after the election, “I was quite astounded there was anybody in the cinema,” he said. “In my country, those of us who were not happy with the ‘Brexit’ vote wandered around like zombies for three weeks, trying to understand the landscape we found ourselves in. I somehow imagined that might be true here. But people came to the film, and interestingly, they found it a relief.”

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