Miss Sloane (Madden, 2016) is a film about spiritual warfare. Not literally, but allegorically. It is the story of a big shot lobbyist who quits a top agency to join an impoverished firm and lead them in a hopeless battle against a formidable opponent. The action may be set in the backrooms and courtrooms of Washington D.C., but the plot would be at home on the fields and fronts of any sports drama or war epic. It’s that classic underdog story, where the persevering protagonist faces down a seemingly endless succession of challenges, moral quandaries, and intimate betrayals, all the while remaining true to the cause at great personal cost, before ultimately securing the victory. These are the David and Goliath stories—the Rockys, Bravehearts, and Ripleys—that galvanize us to walk by faith and run the race with fortitude to the very end.
Only, Miss Sloane is not truly an underdog story. As a masterful plot twist reveals just moments from the film’s close, Liz Sloane (played by Jessica Chastain) was never at a disadvantage throughout her battle, despite appearances to the contrary. Instead, she possesses such perfect foresight that the war was already won from the moment she committed herself to it. In other words, Miss Sloane is an allegory for spiritual warfare, but from God’s perspective and not that of the faithful foot soldier. (Spoilers ahead!)
The twist comes two hours into the film, just as Liz Sloane is on the verge of being found guilty by a congressional hearing of violating Senate ethics rules. The trumped up charges were instigated by a rival lobby firm and Sloane’s former employers, Cole, Kravitz & Waterman, in order to quash the momentum of her campaign to garner support for the Heaton-Harris Bill, a controversial gun reform initiative supported by her new firm, Peterson Wyatt.
By this point in the film, Sloane has shown herself to be a brilliant strategist. She knows just how to exploit all the legal loopholes and workarounds—as well as the human resources—available to her. She manipulates friend and foe alike, positioning them like chess pieces on her own personal game board. She is motivated by her convictions, but only insofar as her convictions rest solely in her own ability to win. She sacrifices everything for success, including her health and personal relationships, to the point that she is dependent on substance abuse and a male escort to keep at bay the consequences of what she later confesses to be her obsession with winning.
Liz Sloane carries out her plans flawlessly and is never caught off guard. When seeking to force a representative to publicly commit to supporting the bill, she places not one, but two agents in the audience (without her team’s knowledge), so that when the first is outmaneuvered by the opposition, the second carries the operation smoothly to success. When Sloane seems to have been baited into a public debate and riled by an opponent on live television, it turns out that she choreographed the entire spectacle in order to secure public sympathy by showcasing, “in the heat of the moment,” her colleague’s plight as a survivor of a high school shooting. When her team loses a cluster of votes thanks to a mole in their midst, Sloane reveals the loss to have been part of a deliberate ploy to expose the spy and distract the other side from a much more significant win she was secretly lining up. She set this trap into motion from her first day on the job. The list continues, but the pattern is the same: Liz Sloane’s preparations are complete, and her work is essentially done from the moment she crosses sides to take up the Heaton-Harris campaign.
Even so, when the final twist comes at the congressional hearing, it remains a surprise both for her team and the viewer (speaking for myself, at least!). It turns out that, just as with every aspect of the battle so far, Elizabeth Sloane orchestrated the hearing as well. She planted the evidence needed against her and triggered its “discovery” through Jane Molloy, an agent she retained in the enemy’s camp. She did it all so that she might catch Cole, Kravitz & Waterman in the act of colluding with a Member of Congress to attack her personally at the taxpayers’ expense.
The astounding thing about this revelation is not simply Sloane’s willing sacrifice of her career—which is equivalent to life itself for the work-obsessed lobbyist—but the fact that she put the entire plot in motion before the battle began, while she was still working for Cole, Kravitz & Waterman. She anticipated both the cost and the route to victory for the Heaton-Harris Bill before the clock even began to tick on it.
According to the writer of Hebrews, this is exactly what God did as well: “God’s works have all been completed from the foundation of the world” (3:4b). It may be easy enough to nod along to this verse and marvel at the wonder of a Creator whose foresight is even more spectacular than that of Miss Sloane, and who exists and acts from before and beyond time itself and so can very well do things that we cannot wrap our heads around. But it’s another matter to allow its implications to sink in deeply and shape how we view the spiritual battle unfolding around us everyday in this broken, hurting world. Because this verse claims that God did not scramble back to work when humanity fell and sin and death entered the world. Nor did he return to the drawing board and develop a “Plan B” that would take into consideration the rebellion and failures of humanity. God is not a reactive strategist, waiting to see what the enemy will do before cobbling together a countermeasure in time to limit the damage. He is proactive; his work is already done. His works of forming a world, filling it, and declaring it to be good have been complete since the very beginning, though they continue to be outworked today. This means that his plan of redemption was woven into the work of creation itself, before there was ever a need for it, just as were Miss Sloane’s multi-layered plans.
Miss Sloane’s team members were not aware of how exceptional a strategist she was and how complete her plans were. As a result, at times they despaired, panicked, felt ashamed of their failures, and even defected to the other side, believing the struggle to be a dead-end, career-wise. Even her closest ally, Rudolfo Schmidt, eventually rejects her, offended at her methods and unable to perceive what she was doing. To be fair, her actions were cold-hearted and indirectly put a colleague in danger. (She is an anti-heroine, after all!) Yet, there remains a parallel here with how we can often look at the battle before us and the world around us, and become overwhelmed by what we see, or even offended at God and how he seems to be failing to oppose evil and champion good. But just as Elizabeth Sloane did not act in response to her opponents, but rather acted to position them where they were most vulnerable to her plans and her team’s efforts, so too does God wage spiritual war from an altogether different perspective—from before the conflict began and where it is already won.
God has already fixed the victory into place. This means that the strategies and solutions against every formidable foe this world faces already exist—God has already conceived them and provided for them in his creation. Cures, inventions, systems, approaches, worldviews, breakthroughs, discoveries, and movements of his Spirit are all lined up and waiting to be released at the key moment. Maybe, as with King David and the temple of God, these heavenly thoughts and plans are even available now to be called down to earth ahead of time by children after God’s own heart.
Alongside the full extent of Miss Sloane’s brilliance and sacrifice, her revelation at the hearing also underlines the deliberateness of her every word and deed along the way. The late night telephone call to Jane after laughing off Rudolfo Schmidt’s invitation to lead the lobby for Heaton-Harris (during which she must have proposed the entire scheme, hearing and all); her immediate instigation of a trap to uncover the mole upon her arrival at Peterson Wyatt (since she had just left her own spy embedded in Cole, Kravitz & Waterman); and most of all, her favorite saying, that “lobbying is about foresight”—all of these details prove to have greater meaning than it first appears, and attest to her nature as a genius strategist. When it comes to the battle at hand, Liz Sloane wastes nothing; not even a single word is without profound significance.
This is particularly true of the opening soliloquy, as Sloane essentially lays bare the film’s device:
Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponents’ moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition, and plays their trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them, and they don’t surprise you.
As if this weren’t clear enough, the scene is shot in extreme close-up, with Sloane turning to face the camera in direct address. Yet, her words are easily forgotten and the “depths of purpose and layers of meaning” they harbor, left unnoticed (Psalm 92:5 TPT). When she drops her bombshell in the hearing, she prefaces it by reiterating these words, momentarily breaking the fourth wall once again to settle her gaze straight ahead at the camera, as if to watch the penny drop not only for the corrupt Senator seated before her, but for the film’s audience too.
The twist in Miss Sloane can only be anticipated if her every word and gesture is considered to be weighty and full of meaning. This is the inverse of how such perspective-shifting twists usually work in film, as with The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects. These films rely on the viewer having read too much meaning into the words and deeds of the character whose true nature is revealed. For instance, framing and editing encourage viewers to assume that Bruce Willis’s psychologist has been interacting with other characters, delaying our realization of his spectral state. Similar tactics are used to obfuscate Edward Norton’s psychological degeneration and ensure the audience accepts that Brad Pitt’s charismatic brawler is leading the fight club—and that he is actually real. The same goes for Kevin Spacey’s increasingly outlandish testimonials about Kaiser Söze, which nevertheless sustain their believability through clever narrative techniques that prolong the viewers’ suspension of disbelief. The recalibration that the twist triggers in these films involves back-tracking and stripping away the excess meaning that the viewer has intuited or been duped into committing to a character’s action and dialogue. The twist shows these characters to be illusory and in fact less than what they seemed.
No such deception plays out in Miss Sloane, where the true nature of the protagonist is on display from the outset. The twist only gives the viewer the eyes to see it, and ears to hear the significance of her words. So it is with the “plot” of spiritual warfare throughout human history. Like Miss Sloane, God begins his story with a monologue of such significance that it shapes and reveals all that is to come. In it, his favorite phrase is repeated time and again: “it is good.” These words, when searched for their “depths of purpose and layers of meaning,” are the key to understanding God’s perspective on spiritual warfare as a completed victory. They were spoken over every facet of creation, and because God’s word does not return to him empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11), these words still linger today, active and full of authority, shaping our world. God spoke at the foundation of all things—it is good, it is good, it is very good—and in so doing determined the unavoidable outcome of creation. We cannot overestimate how full of meaning are his every word and deed.
There is one last, critical implication of the twist in Miss Sloane. When Elizabeth Sloane unleashes the final piece in her strategy, a video file that documents the unscrupulous origins of the congressional hearing, she redefines the very nature of the conflict at hand. All this time, Sloane has been engaged in a much grander, more sinister battle than anyone around her realized, including the viewer. Rather than a political skirmish over gun reform, she is fighting to restore the democratic heart of the American political system from the ravages of corruption:
…our system is rotten. It doesn’t reward honest politicians who vote with their conscience. It rewards rats who are willing to sell out their country to keep their noses in the trough. Make no mistake. These rats are the real parasites on American democracy.
Sloane’s target was not so much passing the Heaton-Harris Bill or gun reform. Her target was instead exposing the system that made the fate of Heaton-Harris, and indeed any bill, a matter of finance and favors worked out in backrooms and over business lunches, rather than conviction expressed through the democratic electoral system. She was waging a different war all along.
In light of this, her political ambivalence—and that of the film itself—suddenly makes sense. Miss Sloane takes potshots at conservative Christians and liberals alike, and refuses to replicate the neat partisan stereotypes of Republicans versus Democrats, with members of both parties voting for and against the bill. The most honorable and dishonorable team members at Peterson Wyatt—Esme Manucharian and Cynthia Green, respectively—are both liberal “conviction lobbyists”, while the embodiment of all that is wrong with American politics, the corrupt Senator Ronald Michael Sperling (John Lithgow in his element), is never identified by his party affiliation. The film even undermines the value of reforms like the Heaton-Harris Bill, with one of Sloane’s team noting that if it passed, it would only mean that criminals would have to source their guns illegally, while Esme Manucharian acknowledges that it would not have prevented the school shooting she was witness to.
Miss Sloane presents a much deeper, more complex battle than at first it seems, where distinguishing the opposition is not straightforward, and striking at its core requires a boldness that is either foolhardy or incredibly visionary. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” explained Paul to the Ephesians (6:12), “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The true nature of the battle is not apparent to the naked eye and does not respect the tidy political distinctions we like to make. Instead, these distinctions can be a red herring, as they are in Miss Sloane.
In her pursuit of the biggest win of her career, Elizabeth Sloane takes on an impossible campaign. In order to succeed in that battle, she must fight a much bigger war. Ultimately, she cannot win this war, but she can and does expose the necessity for others to take up the cause—those with the authority she lacks.
The greatest authority of all is the Creator, and by his word spoken before time began, the biggest war conceivable has already been won. What then does that mean for us and the spiritual battles that remain? The clue may just be in the dumbfounded expression on Rudolfo Schmidt’s face, or the joy and exuberance on those of the other team members, when Elizabeth Sloane’s hearing is dismissed.