Here we have one of those political conspiracy thrillers in which everybody is really smart but occasional someone has to do something really dumb in order for the wheels of the plot to keep turning — and we just go with it because it’s the movie equivalent of a beach read, and the performances are so dang entertaining.
“An Acceptable Loss” is a B-movie with some A-level acting, particularly by Tika Sumpter (who played the young Michelle Obama in “Southside with You”) as a controversial former national security adviser and Jamie Lee Curtis as the take-no-prisoners vice president of the United States, whose thirst for war is so all-consuming she makes Dick Cheney look like Mister Rogers.
(A generation ago, these roles would almost certainly gone to men. Hollywood still doesn’t have a gender-equal playing field, but strides are being made.)
Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s sometimes outlandish and occasionally ludicrous suspense thriller was filmed in the Chicago area, with Northwestern University standing in for an unnamed, prestigious college where Sumpter’s Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm has taken a position teaching a class about the tactics of war.
Libby’s first day on campus is a tumultuous one. Armed guards accompany her past a group of protesters outraged by the university hiring Libby, who four years prior was the architect of a U.S. military strike in Syria that took out more than a half-dozen high-profile terrorists — but also wiped out of thousands of innocent civilians.
Many of Libby’s new colleagues also are horrified by her mere presence on campus. At a cocktail party for faculty and graduate students, one professor gets soused and confronts her, demanding she say out loud the exact number of civilians who were wiped out by the U.S. strike she reportedly mapped out.
Sumpter delivers a finely calibrated performance as Libby, who always seems to have it together in public but goes home and cries in the shower and keeps a loaded gun in her bed for protection.
In flashbacks, we see how much Vice President Burke depended on Libby’s expertise and support to help her sell the president and his military leaders on the urgency of executing a nuclear strike that would effectively wipe out America’s terrorist enemies — admittedly at a horrific cost.
Jamie Lee Curtis is a force as the frighteningly focused VP, who, unlike Libby, never had any second thoughts about the mission and four years later is convinced more than ever it was the right thing to do.
Thing is, there’s a rumor floating around Libby is writing a tell-all memoir claiming the strike was authorized due to faulty intel, and that certain insiders in the White House knew the information presented to the president was filled with lies.
You’re not being paranoid about the government being out to get out when the government is actually out to get you.
Ben Tavassoli turns in excellent work as Martin, a student of Libby’s who is obsessed with her — and not because he’s a fan of her work. Martin’s storyline takes some interesting and unexpected turns, even as the plot barely makes it through some are-you-kidding-me levels in the final act.
Throughout, Tika Sumpter demonstrates the screen presence of a true star, and Jamie Lee Curtis creates a monster so terrifying she’d have Michael Myers turning tail and running away.
‘An Acceptable Loss’
IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Joe Chappelle. Rated R (for language and brief sexuality). Running time: 102 minutes. Opens Friday at the Wilmette Theatre.