Superficially, Miss Sloane is a portrayal of the misadventures of a D.C. lobbyist, but you’d do better to more or less not pay attention to the “plot.” The events that surround Miss Sloane as she takes on a losing cause, mandatory gun purchase background checks, and is destroyed in the process, are merely a foil for the exploration of who she is as a person. And what she is, namely, a sociopath. However, the development of her character over the course of the film poses a number of fascinating questions about such persons, or at least about the particular type of sociopath Miss Sloane is shown to be.
Elizabeth Sloane demonstrates many of the hallmark behaviors of sociopathy. It’s obvious from the first scene that Sloane is cold and calculating; someone who prizes winning or success above all else. When we see her expose a young, unwitting subordinate as a victim of gun violence on national television, though, we also know that she lacks empathy and won’t hesitate to exploit other human beings to further her own interests. She mingles, laughs, smiles, and, by inference, is beguiling, at a fundraiser, demonstrating “superficial charm.” She pays for sex, has a bit of a drug problem, and evidently does not suffer moral qualms when engaging in illegal surveillance of politicians and using the gathered material to blackmail them. These are all antisocial behaviors.
But when Sloane, in one of her few displays of emotion, tearfully tells a male escort she’s hired, during a tense exchange, that she “learned to lie at a young age, which is why I excel at it – not because I wanted to, but because I had to,” there is a debate opened about whether sociopathy can be learned, or developed. And so here’s our first fascinating question of the movie:
Are sociopaths born that way? Or do circumstances create them?
If Miss Sloane suggests an answer to this question, it’s that they are created. It’s not hard to imagine Elizabeth had to lie as a child to hide some kind of abuse from the larger world. If that were the case, she would’ve been traumatized and likely suffered stunted emotional development along some lines, further explaining her maturation into sociopathy. At the film’s conclusion, we witness Elizabeth in prison, during a visit from her attorney, finally demonstrate some concern for her fellow man when she tells him in what seems a genuine, if somewhat forced manner, “you look good too, by the way.” We see here she may be unlearning her sociopathy, which suggests, of course, that it was learned in the first place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t sociopaths who are born that way, or even that Miss Sloane wasn’t at least genetically predisposed toward ending up one. It does provoke the idea, though, that not all sociopaths are born that way, and that some may even be fixable, or made to function feasibly in society, if nothing else.
The movie’s climactic scene, in terms of plot mechanics, is a congressional hearing ostensibly investigating Miss Sloane’s alleged ethical and legal transgressions while working as a lobbyist. In an earlier scene, she was unable to contain a sarcastic outburst in response to a senator’s question and thus revokes her fifth amendment rights. The hearing then becomes, for all intents and purposes, a tribunal sitting in judgment of her life; of Elizabeth Sloane as a person. Her drug use, solicitation of prostitution, and myriad violations of senate ethics rules are all dragged into sunlight. She pointedly denies conducting surveillance in the course of her work. Her chief inquisitor, one Senator Sperling, delivers a guilty verdict and she’s scheduled to appear the following day before the same panel to be formally referred for discipline and prosecution.
Sloane’s name is ruined. Her career is obviously finished. The man on the street no doubt views her with contempt and maybe even disgust. Because of this utter ad hominem destruction, the gun control bill for which Miss Sloane had been advocating is pronounced “comatose” by a forlorn coworker.
As Senator Sperling is about to deliver the coups de grace, though, Elizabeth takes advantage of her right to make a statement in this forum. She excoriates lawmakers categorically for their general scumminess and then delivers a stunning revelation to the gathered press and attendees by directing them to a website hosting video of Sperling agreeing to conduct the hearing into Sloane’s career under threat of political “annihilation” by the head of the lobbying firm she’d been competing against, and from which she had resigned to go to the other side, on the gun control bill. She also reveals that she had, in fact, seen all of this coming. She’d left her protege in place when she left her firm, instructed her to provide them with the hard evidence they needed to instigate the hearing, and directed all of this only so she could then show that the hearing served mainly to kill the gun control bill.
By revealing herself to have illegally surveilled a sitting U.S. senator and thus patently perjuring herself before congress, Sloane gives the government no choice but to lock her up. We’re told her perjury is a felony and punishable by five years served in a federal prison, which is where we conclude our journey with Elizabeth. It’s key to note that it’s also made clear during this visit that her admittedly extreme gambit to get the gun control bill passed has worked- the legislation became law, closing the “gun show loophole.”
So, as Miss Sloane told us in the beginning, she will do anything to win. She will even sacrifice herself – her career and her reputation most especially, which were all she had to begin with, since her total dedication to them precluded anything else which might’ve been part of a “normal life.”
Elizabeth’s’ attorney, during their prison visit, asks her if it was worth career suicide to get the bill through. “When you consider the alternative was suicide by career,” she replies. So, yes, she gave herself away for her cause, but was it only to win for winning’s sake? And did she think she wasn’t really giving that much away when she looked at what her life had become? In other words, for our second fascinating question:
Do we forgo the redemption of self-sacrifice when we do it for selfish ends?
Elizabeth did truly believe in the moral and social value of the bill for which she was lobbying, and she planned to win by destroying herself from day one, so we’re left to wonder which of these were her true motivations. Or more accurately, what was the mix of these motivations? And does it matter? If so, why?
Jessica Chastain is brilliant in Miss Sloane. If you’re not sure what kind of person you’re seeing on screen at first, you might think the character is “flat” or unexpressive. Once you realize you’re watching a learned sociopath in action, though, you might agree that Chastain’s performance hits just the right note of ice-clad humanity. Her sociopathy is real, but it’s not genuine. In the final moments of the movie, Sloane walks out of prison and, on the sidewalk stepping into a new, completely foreign life, and, indeed, a new personhood, Chastain says volumes without a word, as nothing more than her facial expression screams the vulnerability Sloane is feeling now, and which she likely hasn’t known since her disturbed childhood.
You can see Miss Sloane as a “political thriller” if you wish. If you enjoy it that way, good for you. It’s probably also possible to see it as a “cause movie.” It makes, after all, a fairly strong case for increased firearm purchase background checks and shows us that perhaps the reason we don’t already have them has less to do with whether we want them than with the other-than-benevolent machinations of interest groups and politicians.
Miss Sloane is not “about” gun rights, though. It’s not about how lobbying really works or political corruption either. It’s about a person. Who is she really? How did she come to be? Should she, can she, will she change? And It’s about making you ponder the motivations and value of self-sacrifice. As with all worthwhile art, it’s about making you reflect and making you think – a cognitive agonist.