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'Miss Sloane': Jessica Chastain's amazing, but the movie's a mess

Liberals may have their hearts in the right place, but when it comes to making a difference, they're too wimpy, weepy, and mealymouthed to get the job done.

That's one of the messages that rings loud and clear in Miss Sloane, a disquieting and ultimately disappointing political thriller about the morally bankrupt –  but very well-appointed – world of Washington lobbyists, starring Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as a slick power-broker who has Capitol Hill in her thrall.

Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, a wildly successful and entirely soulless operator at a conservative lobbying firm. She leads a happy life swaying shabby congressmen to pass legislation on behalf of her shady and obscenely rich corporate clients.

Then one day, Elizabeth sticks it to her boss, George Dupont (Sam Waterston), by quitting his billion-dollar firm and switching sides to lobby for a Senate gun-control bill. She walks out after Dupont asks her to hitch her wagon to Sen. Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata), an offensive, old-guard conservative and chauvinist, who had hoped she'd help the gun lobby win the women's vote.

The very suggestion visibly disgusts Elizabeth, who rips into Sanford and mocks his ideas. We'll see her devastating skills as a debater throughout the film. Driven by a perverse obsession to subjugate her opponents, she pummels them with her razor-sharp intelligence.

But is she really disgusted by gun-rights advocates? Or is she peeved because she's being pushed around by her boss? We're never quite sure with Elizabeth, whose motives are complex and murky, if not contradictory.

As her right-hand man, Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), asks: Can a ruthless strategist afford to draw a moral line in the sand?

You see, in the world of Miss Sloane, it's OK to leave your soul on the coat rack when you come into the office. In fact, it's a job requirement.

Having burned her bridges, Elizabeth joins the boutique lobbying firm that's trying to get the new gun-control law passed. It's a modest bill that requires a waiting period and a background check for all gun purchases, but it has the gun lobby frothing at the mouth.

Rich beyond measure, Elizabeth's opponents are a group no one has ever beaten, as she reminds her new boss, the well-meaning, sweater-wearing liberal Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong, Kingsman: The Secret Service). But surely Elizabeth can.

Miss Sloane scores points for its clear presentation of the moral no-man's land where lobbyists do their work. Elizabeth knows full well that to get a bill passed, you have to be slimier, more devious, more mercenary than your opponent.

And so the stage is set for a showdown between Elizabeth and her old firm.

First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera launches Miss Sloane with a tantalizing, sharp-edged premise that recalls the great paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, savage indictments of political and corporate corruption such as The Parallax View, All the President's Men, and Network.

He adds a great big heaping dose of Hollywood hokum – there's a touch of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington here – plus lots of West Wing-style dialogue and schoolboy rhetoric about the necessity of sane gun laws.

I'd happily put up with these goofier elements if Miss Sloane delivered on its promise to satirize the rot eating away at our political process.

It does not.

Directed with admirable efficiency by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), who helmed Chastain's 2010 movie The Debt, Miss Sloane feels more like a heist picture than a political film.

With its rapid-fire dialogue, clever ripostes, and sleek look, it's like a film noir about a long con. But instead of robbing a giant Las Vegas casino, our master criminal and her elite gang are pulling a fast one on the U.S. Senate.

Chastain is on fire throughout the film, giving a force-of-nature performance that overpowers the rest of the cast,  including Alison Pill, John Lithgow, and Jake Lacy. The only performer who gets room to breathe is British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones), who is terrific as Esme Manucharian, a passionate gun-control advocate who is befriended, then exploited, by Elizabeth.

Miss Sloane succeeds as a character study of a troubled, complicated woman. As heist flicks go, it's not bad, either. There are plenty of surprise plot twists and reversals of fortune.

But as political satire, it's an incoherent mess.  Ideologically confused and confusing, Madden's film offers up a banal truism – money has a corrupting influence on politics – as if it were some great dramatic discovery and trots out a fairy-tale ending that both repudiates the political process and undermines the movie's own political convictions.