The stakes in Joe Chappelle’s political thriller An Acceptable Loss couldn’t be higher. The main characters are a former national security advisor and a U.S. president, both of whom were responsible for a decision involving a retaliatory strike against a terrorist organization that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Unfortunately, its timely relevance and weightiness of its themes do little to lift the pic into a gripping cinematic experience. This talky, ham-fisted effort proves particularly disappointing because it should have been much better than it is.
The story revolves around Dr. Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (an unconvincing Tika Sumpter), who has left government service to teach at a Chicago university. Libby remains a controversial figure because of her involvement in a military action enthusiastically endorsed by Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), the then-vice president who has since become POTUS. The mission was supposed to lead to, as Burke puts it, “Total victory,” but it clearly didn’t work as intended.
Doesn’t make the case.
Libby has since been deeply emotionally conflicted about her involvement and now plans to write a book about it. Needless to say, the idea doesn’t thrill her former boss, or Burke’s ruthless chief of staff (Jeff Hephner), who also happens to be Libby’s former lover. He pays Libby a visit and ominously warns her, “You’re either with us or against us.”
Meanwhile, she takes every measure to control her privacy. “How do you communicate with the world?” an incredulous colleague asks when Libby says that she doesn’t have a cellphone or use email. “Slowly,” Libby replies. She’s also clearly focused on her security, keeping a loaded gun within reach even while taking a bath in her home.
Libby has good reason to be vigilant, since she’s the object of focus not only by government forces but also one of her students, Martin (Ben Tavassoli, Overlord), who has a very personal reason for being fixated on her. Displaying the sort of impressive technological skills more befitting a CIA agent than a university student, Martin begins stalking Libby, at one point even breaking into her home and setting up elaborate electronic surveillance.
An Acceptable Loss seems to be aiming for the sort of paranoid conspiracy thriller tension seen in such films as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But writer-director Chappelle, whose credits include extensive work on such television series as Chicago Fire, Fringe and CSI: Miami, lacks the cinematic chops to pull it off. Nor is he able to make the lengthy moralistic arguments between the principal characters engrossing, despite Curtis’ impressive performance as the steely politico who makes Dick Cheney seem like a shrinking violet.
“Doesn’t it bother you that the idea of American exceptionalism is an anachronism?” Burke asks Libby during one of their debates, clearly intending the question to be rhetorical.
Curtis’ character is the most arresting element in the film, which gets bogged down in unproductive subplots involving Martin’s increasingly suspicious roommate (Alex Weisman) and Libby’s tense relationship with her newspaper editor father (Clarke Peters).
More closely resembling such TV fare as Designated Survivor and Scandal than the serious films which clearly inspired it, An Acceptable Loss further stumbles with its unconvincing, would-be shocking ending.
Production company: CorradoMooncoin
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters
Director-screenwriter: Joe Chappelle
Producer: Colleen Griffen
Executive producer: Laura Lewis, Candy Straight
Director of photography: Petra Korner
Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy
Editor: Joe Rabig
Costume designer: Susan Kaufmann
Casting: Barbara J. McCarthy