The film starts with Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) delivering a monologue directly to camera, telling us “Lobbying is about foresight and anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition, and plays her trump card just after they play theirs.” It is revealed she is reciting a mantra to her lawyer. He advises her to answer as instructed. She responds with what he has told her to memorize “Upon the advice of counsel, I must respectfully decline to answer your question, based on my rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” He continues asking questions to prompt her; she repeats the same thing over and over. She jokes about trying variations and he tells her it’s serious and they want her behind bars.
The media is covering the hearing, saying that Elizabeth is a lobbyist being charged with bribery and corruption. In court, she states her name and then pleads the fifth to every question asked. We flashback to SEVEN MONTHS EARLIER. Elizabeth is chatting with her friend Jane (Alison Pill) who is ready to quit her job at the law firm they are lobbyists for so she can enroll in post-grad. They walk to the bathroom and Elizabeth talks about the palm oil tax that is being taxed by the Federal Government, depleting the funds for Kenyans. She suggests the senator proposing the bill goes on an all-expenses-paid field trip to one of the plantations in Kenya and then showered with gifts; when he returns, his bill will die.
In the strategy room, Elizabeth holds a meeting with other lobbyists. She asks a young junior lobbyist if sales tax applies to chocolate-covered cakes or chocolate-covered biscuits and he says he doesn’t know. We get a taste of Elizabeth in action as she schemes to build support for their cause. She is called upstairs to have a meeting with some older men including George Dupont (Sam Waterson), who works at the firm, as well as the president of the Gun Lobby. They are concerned about the Heaton-Harris Amendment which would require background checks for those trying to purchase firearms. The Gun Lobby president wants Elizabeth to be the face on a bill against background checks since she is a great lobbyist and also a woman so she will appeal to the masses. She laughs hysterically at this and then tells him she believes in the other side of the bill that background checks keep guns from going into the wrong hands and the Gun Lobby should support them because it would help distinguish responsible gun owners.
Later, George and another lobbyist argue about Elizabeth in his office while she waits outside. She enters and tells them she has overheard their conversation as she can read lips and they have glass walls. She points out that when she was hired, she said she would only fight for causes she believed in. George accuses her of being biased because she was a victim of gun violence but she says she simply formed an opinion on the issue. He points out she reps Kenyans and Elizabeth says she does so to stop the government from looting one of their sources of incomes. She adds that her reputation is the reason the Gun Lobby even came to the firm for support because she has a reputation for winning.
Elizabeth talks to her doctor about pills she takes to help her sleep. Simultaneously, we see her pop a pill at a fundraiser event in D.C. When she leaves, a man follows behind and asks to talk to her. Guessing he’s from the Post, she agrees they can chat while she walks to her car. He asks if it’s true that she refused to work with the Gun Lobby. He tells her he’s impressed that she only works for clients whom she believes in. He points out that dildos are illegal In Texas but you can get a shotgun within five minutes and asks if she knows anything about the Gun Lobby’s opponents, Peterson Wyatt. She says they’re a small law firm and the president is probably a wuss. He then reveals that he’s Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), the president of Peterson Wyatt. He wants her to lead a fight to pass a bill. He writes down a quote “A conviction-lobbyist never cheats. She exposes cheaters.” On the other side, he writes down the amount that Peterson Wyatt would be able to pay her. She takes the piece of paper and he asks where her car is. She admits that she doesn’t actually have a car and just wanted to see what he wanted.
Back at the office, Elizabeth teases one of her colleagues about eating chocolate cake for breakfast. He tells her it’s a muffin. She tells him both muffins and cakes have eggs, flour, sugar, cocoa powder, milk, chocolate. That by rebranding cake as muffins, they can claim they’re not cake and that answers the questions about taxing chocolate biscuits that she proposed of her young colleague. He asks why he proposed the question of her if she already knew the answer; She tells him she is educating him in case he isn’t coming with her and then announces that she’s decided to leave the firm and will start up as a consultant for Peterson Wyatt. As part of her deal, she negotiated for all of them to come with her with no change to their compensation. One colleague, Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), says the Gun Lobby just recently agreed to hire them to fight against the bill and he refuses to join her. But one by one, everyone does except her best friend, Jane, who now says she is thankful to be at one of the best firms in the city and she is staying. She adds that she won’t miss all the late night calls Elizabeth requires of her hinting at her insomnia.
In present day, Elizabeth is in court, being questioned about the Kenyans bribing a senator but she continues to invoke her fifth amendment. But when the congressman (John Lithgow) asks her about the medication she takes to treat her insomnia, Elizabeth gets flustered. Finally she blurts out that she’s not a drug addict and that her medication is no different than a double espresso and corrects him that Kenya is a republic on the continent of Africa and not an African republic. He has tricked her into breaking so she can no longer invoke the fifth amendment. Outside, Elizabeth’s lawyer is livid and says she could get five years minimum. Now if she stays quiet, she’ll be sent to jail for contempt of Congress.
We go back to six months earlier. Elizabeth goes into a hotel room where a man (Jake Lacy) is sprawled on the bed. She asks where Mark is. He says Mark’s moved on and he’s Forde. It becomes clear he is an escort that Elizabeth has hired. They size each other up and then she begins to undress.
At Peterson Wyatt, all the new lobbyists settle in with the old ones, right after learning that the palm oil tax Elizabeth fought against was dropped. Elizabeth meets Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who is the firm’s authority on gun control. They realize that they need exactly 60 senators to vote for the bill and not a single less 59 won’t do. While they have some senators locked in, the other side only needs seven and there are 22 senators in play. They need to appeal to the voters because the Gun Lobby has much more money than them.
The group gets a man who lost his daughter in a mass shooting to go on TV and discuss his push for background checks. This irritates the lobbyists fighting for the Gun Lobby. Jane is now working with the men, giving them her thoughts on the situation.
Elizabeth makes a phone call, asking someone in the media to make sure they capture an event. She is sending one of her colleagues, Clara, to a fundraiser and she will ask a question about where a congressman stands on the amendment. Arbitrarily, Elizabeth reveals she’s reading a book on pulmonary pathophysiology and asks a junior about a doctor he was told to research. A colleague tells Elizabeth the opposite side is going opt take the angle that their bill is the first step towards a national register of firearms. She counters that the bill will simply delay acquiring a gun by two weeks but Americans will wait six months for an MRI. She tells them to use sound bites and points out that anyone desperate to get a gun immediately shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near one.
At the fundraiser, the congressman takes questions from the audience. Clara was planted to be called on but he skips her. From outside the ballroom, Elizabeth talks to Clara through a cell phone and points out that Jane and others from the rival firm are there and when they vetted Clara, they would have found out she worked with Peterson Wyatt, using her as a decoy. The last question is asked by a doctor claiming to work for the Pulmonary Associates of America. He asks how the congressman plans to vote on the Heaton-Harris Amendment. Elizabeth admits that he’s actually an actor they hired and when they vetted him, it linked to a doctor with that name and they assumed the actor is him. Because they thought Clara was their representative, they didn’t research him too thoroughly. On stage, the congressman feels pressured to say he will support the amendment and it’s all caught on camera so that he can’t change his mind later.
Elizabeth goes to the hotel room again and Forde and her chat with each other. He is curious why she uses escorts. Elizabeth says she never has time to date and if she wasn’t able to squeeze it in her 20s, she’s not going to do so now.
Back at the office, Clara is upset that she was used as a decoy. She checked with Finance and found that the actor hired as the doctor was paid out of Elizabeth’s pocket to keep them from detecting him. Clara suggests Elizabeth is afraid to trust her because someone on their staff might be a rat.
The group contests its anti-gun campaign. Elizabeth is seen traveling around the country, meeting with many women on the issue. The group knows one senator will bring seven people with him if they can get his vote. They ask at a rally if senator supports the Heaton-Harris Amendment at a rally and he says they’ve got his vote. We then see that senator playing billiards with George Dupont, who tells him they’re going to back a powerful man to run for office. The man thinks they’re threatening his political career and is not worried because he knows he can beat the man. He is then told that man will be running against his son, who is just beginning his political career unless he votes against the Heaton-Harris Amendment.
Back in D.C., Elizabeth and her group now have a lot of supporters and only a handful left to go before they get enough to pass the amendment. Elizabeth suggests they will focus on swinging Florida but the others protest it’s very gun-friendly and will never change. They also learn of the senator who has done a 180 (after the Gun Lobby threatened to put a strong candidate against his son) which loses them eight senators, all transferring to the other side. Elizabeth suggests making him feel the weight of his policy change.
Elizabeth goes to a television network and watches as Connors, the lobbyist who refused to join her company move, preps for a debate on the amendment. He asks why she isn’t participating and suggests the two of them debate in the future. She agrees.
Back in the strategy room, everyone discusses going to Florida. Elizabeth points out they’re not really going to Florida and tells them to turn to tab 12 in their notebooks. One of the women, Cynthia, doesn’t have anything there but everyone else has a picture of Cynthia meeting with Connors in the park, giving him info on what their strategy is. Elizabeth explains that Florida was false information to see who would spill it. Security is called and Cynthia is escorted out of the building while her files and hard drives secured. Cynthia protests she was offered a partnership track. Elizabeth admits Florida was a ruse; they are going to focus on Colorado while the Gun Lobby is focused on Florida, which was never in danger of changing sides.
The lobbyists go to the bar and Clara asks how she did it. When the others explain Cynthia wanted to further her career, she pointed out that she was asking about Elizabeth. Simultaneously, Elizabeth chats with Esme when she runs into her hailing a cab. Elizabeth suggests they share one and explains that she doesn’t drive because she never got her driver’s license. Elizabeth takes her to her favorite Korean BBQ spot, a sort of hole in the wall but with great food. The two chat about why the amendment. Elizabeth mentions she looked at Esme’s résumé and noticed a huge gap of time unaccounted for. She asks if she would talk about her background if it helped the issue. Esme says, yes.
The next day, Clara asks Elizabeth how she knew the woman was involved in leaking information. It becomes clear that Elizabeth didn’t know; she simply had every single one of them followed and watched to make sure no one was a mole.
Elizabeth meets some men in a mobile surveillance unit. They can do 24-hour surveillance using a cockroach which has been retro-fitted with electrodes to record things, to use against the senator who flip-flopped. Rodolfo, the president of Peterson Wyatt, has followed Elizabeth and he convinces her not to go through with what would be blackmailing of a member of Congress. She agrees.
At a fundraiser, Elizabeth runs into Forde but she pretends she doesn’t know him. One of the lobbyists at Elizabeth’s old firm witnesses the exchange.
An inflatable rat is driven around town, attacking the senator who turned on the amendment, until he buckles and returns his support to the amendment. The country gets behind the movement and the rat gets its own Twitter feed. The congressman is advised to change his position on Heaton-Harris before it ruins his career. The group now has 18 votes locked with 16 to go.
Elizabeth is getting her makeup on, preparing for a televised debate with Connors. She asks that Esme get touched up, too, since it’s a small studio and the camera might pick her up. The debate begins and it’s intense with Elizabeth using sound bites that were prepared in advance (we know because the other lobbyists are watching, throwing out talking points before she repeats them). She points that Americans require driver’s licenses for drivers and it’s illegal to operate a care without going through rigorous tests and those tests don’t infringe on the freedom for people to drive cars. In Japan, chefs train for seven years before they can serve poisonous blowfish to customers. Connors talks about the Second Amendment and Elizabeth counters that it was signed at a time when life expectancy was 38 and very few people lived in America it’s not representative of the country as it exists today. She adds nothing is unimpeachable, not even the Constitution and people hide behind it like people do with the Bible and gay rights. She adds, “It shouldn’t matter what it says in the Bible, Constitution, or your horoscope,” which wasn’t rehearsed and it throws her team aback. Elizabeth adds there are many people affected by violence and background checks will be done for them. She personally knows someone who had to hide in a locker room while a shooter shot up her school in 1998 her name is Esme Manucharian and she’s there with her today. The camera films Esme who runs away, frightened.
Back at the office, Rodolfo asks Elizabeth if she ever sleeps since she’s always out, working. He is astonished that she set Esme up. Elizabeth has known about her story all along since she researched the staff before she met them. She tells Rodolfo that she’s been traveling around the country targeting women they make up more than half the population, are typically for background checks for gun users, and the white men of the Gun Lobby ignore them. She has raised about 15 million in a PAC set up for their cause. Now they can combat the Gun Lobby.
Esme becomes the face of their movement and gets a lot of media coverage. This helps shift America’s support for background checks. She doesn’t hold it against Elizabeth though because she knew, from when she first met her, that Elizabeth was going to use her experience as a high school student for the cause. Meanwhile, Connors and his team begin to worry and know they have to make a big move to get momentum to swing back to their side.
In the usual hotel room, Elizabeth meets with Forde. He has looked her up and knows she’s a lobbyist. He asks why she pretended not to know him at the gala. She says, in public, they are strangers. Forde compliments her ability to change into another person like she did when he approached her. They talk about his background and why he works as an escort. Elizabeth suggests spending the night ordering room service and talking. They bond, as friends. She tells him it’s the closest she’s ever been to being on a date because she was too busy with business and her professional life. He refuses to take the money because he says it was just dinner with a friend but she demands he takes it anyway.
Esme calls Elizabeth while she dines at the Korean BBQ place they first went to dinner at. Distracted, she bumps into a man and walks away without a pencil. When Esme goes outside, a man follows her. He is a gun owner upset that she is the face of the amendment which would require background checks for gun owners and points a gun at her, preparing to shoot her. But he is stopped by the man who has followed Esme to return her pencil.
The man who saved Esme now becomes the face for the Gun Lobby because he had a registered gun that he carried for protection. All the attention Esme had gotten now goes to him. When asked about the Heaton-Harris Amendment, he says he opposes it. Connors’ and his team paint D.C. with posters of his face; he’s also given awards and declared a hero. Elizabeth tries to spin this in that he’s someone who is a responsible gun owner and background checks would actually be in their best interest to disassociate them from those who are dangerous. But it doesn’t work. They start losing support, even from senators who had promised to vote for the amendment. The group is defeated and suggests regrouping in the morning. Alone, Elizabeth calls her old friend, Jane, but Jane replies by telling her she has the wrong number, not wanting to talk to Elizabeth while she works for the other side.
Jane points out to her team that the public is still in favor of gun control and voter pressure is strong. Without Elizabeth, their campaign has nothing so they have to remove her somehow. They want a congressional hearing to look into Elizabeth’s unorthodox lobbying practices because George knows a Congressman he can persuade. Everyone on the firm is asked to dig up some dirt on Elizabeth that they can use to launch the hearing. After many false leads, Jane finds out that Elizabeth violated the gift ban with the Kenyans and the palm oil tax.
George meets with Congressman Sperling in his car. George convinces him to lead an inquiry into Elizabeth’s affairs. Congressman knows that people will suspect he’s been strong-armed into doing this but George tells him they’re arranging an article on Elizabeth’s misdeeds which would justify the launch of the investigation. Congressman Sperling complains that it will costs millions of public money but George says the Gun Lobby will blitz him with negative finance and they’ll reduce him to nothing if he doesn’t cooperate.
At the office, Elizabeth’s secretary tells her beyond the hate mail and death threats, she found a letter from the a newspaper doing a feature on her, asking for an interview. Elizabeth realizes they didn’t reach out via phone because they don’t want Elizabeth to respond so they can claim she had no comment but instead, she wants to grant an interview, defending herself. During the interview, Elizabeth tells the reporter that the media is part of the problem because it generates hatred for individuals and chooses scandal over insight. She wants to know why the reporter is asking abstract questions which have nothing to do with the basis of the article. She finally leaves, pointing out the reporter doesn’t even care what she has to say she hasn’t even turned the Dictaphone on.
The article comes out and everyone at the office is upset at how it has attacked Elizabeth. She shrugs it off and says they can recycle the papers and turn them into pencils which will go to a reporter with some integrity. But a week later, more and more articles against Elizabeth turn up from past acquaintances. They’re 29 days until the vote and they’ve lost all ground and are afraid the bad press will lead to an indictment.
We’re back to present day while the indictment is going on. In the hearing room, Congressman Sperling asks about the Nutella Tax law (nickname for the palm oil tax). She insists it was paid for by the Kenyan government and but the congressman says it was paid for by a pooled account. He points out that others contributed to the account before the Kenyan government had it so it violates the gift ban. She accuses him of holding some special interest in dragging the process out as long as possible (hinting that he’s trying to slander her name so it keeps their amendment from getting passed). He then tells the court that he has one more witness Robert Forde (the escort). Elizabeth’s lawyer tries to fight this but Elizabeth tells him to let it play. Forde admits he is an escort. But when they ask if he’s ever met Elizabeth before, he responds that he did once, at a fundraising event and never as a client.
In the lawyer’s office, Rodolfo and Elizabeth discuss how Heaton-Harris is dead and the issue’s gone cold. Elizabeth wonders what it would take to revive it. She is told it will take an earthquake. Elizabeth says they should hope for one.
Back at the Congressional Hearing Room, Congressman Sperling asks if there’s anything Elizabeth wants to say. She says that she received an offer to take up a position advocating for gun control and gives a speech about how important it was for her to refuse the Gun Lobby and work on the Heaton-Harris campaign. She brings up a recent mass shooting and how she’s sacrificed her career and personal life for an issue she believed in. She then says there are dishonest politicians who stoop lower than the rest to get further than the rest.
In the public gallery, Jane leans over to George Dupont and says she’s like to discuss her future. He tells her it’s not the time. Elizabeth continues, reciting the quote we heard at the beginning of the film. “Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition, and plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them, and they don’t surprise you.” She says she anticipated what would happen if they had some momentum with Heaton-Harris. Jane approaches George again and tells him she’s resigning and doing post-grad work (as she always planned). Elizabeth tells her before she left the firm working with the Gun Lobby, she retained an operative of hers in their ranks. We flashback to see Jane was working in tandem with Elizabeth all along, which is why Jane gave them the info of Elizabeth signing the paperwork that led to her indictment. It is revealed that the surveillance team that Elizabeth met with had used the cybernetic cockroach to film George blackmailing Congressman Sperling we see the bug videotaping their meeting. In the present, Elizabeth tells everyone to type a DNS address into a browser and download the file named “Earthquake.” Everyone does and watches the video of Congressman Sperling being blackmailed by George
We flashback to Elizabeth looking through things in her home including the offer that was made to her one side of the note reads “A conviction-lobbyist never cheats. She exposes cheaters.” On the other side is the offer “Peterson Wyatt offers $0 for your services.” She had agreed to switch sides because she believed in the cause, even though she went from a salary to going unpaid.
The hearing is adjourned. Nonetheless, Elizabeth is sent to prison for the breach she committed by signing the contract. She is granted five years minimum, although suspected to be free in less than a year. Six months into her sentence, her lawyer visits the prison and tells her the Gun Lobby is the most hated lobby group now and the amendment passed. But he points out that now guns are sold on the black market and it resulted in career suicide for her. Elizabeth says this was her last hurrah.
The credits roll and then we see Elizabeth leaving the prison. George Dupont and Congressman Sperling are facing charges of conspiracy, corruption, and abuse of powers. The public now knows Elizabeth was the victim of a smear campaign and the amendment is passed into law.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is an aggressive lobbyist who leaves the firm she works at when they demand she fights an amendment which would make background checks mandatory for gun owners. Instead, she begins using her skill set to fight for the amendment.
As she begins to make momentum, her previous firm finds some evidence proving she bribed the Kenyan government to get a bill dropped and uses it to indict her, to taint her reputation, simultaneously taking down the amendment.
It is revealed that Elizabeth planted the evidence in her old firm with a friend who stayed behind so she could videotape her former boss blackmailing a congressman to launch the hearing, proving how corrupt he is. This taints his reputation and the amendment is passed while Elizabeth serves a light prison sentence for violating a gift ban.
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