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As D.C. contrast, ‘Acceptable Loss’ director sets political thriller in Chicago

Joe Chappelle works with Tika Sumpter on the set of "An Acceptable Loss." | IFC Films

Joe Chappelle’s film “An Acceptable Loss,” shot in and around Chicago, could double as a tourism video. It depicts the calm of the lakefront trail, the bustle of Union Station and what he calls the “Ivy League feel” of the Northwestern University campus.

“Norman Mailer said Chicago is ‘the great American city,’ and I totally agree with that,” says Chappelle, who currently resides in Evanston. “It has a heart.”

In “Loss,” written and directed by Chappelle, the city serves as contrast to Washington, D.C.—a respite from political pageantry, government buildings, cutthroat elected officials and, in this particular case, a seismic attack on the Middle East carried out by the U.S. military.

The film largely takes place after the attack and follows Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former government security advisor who was instrumental in coordinating the assault. She has relocated to Chicago, where she has accepted a guest lecture position at a nearby university. (Chappelle doesn’t call it Northwestern.) It does not go well. She is met with animosity among professors, many of whom view her previous actions as crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, a grad student named Martin (Ben Tavassoli) begins stalking her, going so far as to install cameras inside her house. The former vice president, Rachel (Jamie Lee Curtis), also stalks Libby, but from afar, sending her chief of staff to check on Libby and attempt to woo her back into the political fold.

Chappelle says he drew inspiration from two Errol Morris documentaries: “The Fog of War” (2003) and “The Unknown Known” (2013). The former focuses on Robert McNamara, who as secretary of defense intensified U.S. efforts in the Vietnam War. The other features Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the most recent war in Iraq.

“I was struck by the different tones of the two men,” Chappelle says. “McNamara comes across as clearly haunted by the decisions he made fighting that war. Contrast with Rumsfeld, who is virtually unrepentant.”


Roeper reviews ‘An Acceptable Loss’: Star power of Curtis, Sumpter prevails

Libby falls somewhere in the middle. She stands her ground when, at a party, she is verbally assaulted by a professor who takes issue with her actions and the resulting death toll. On the other hand, she demonstrates fear by refusing to secure a phone number or an email address — a plot point that requires significant suspension of disbelief.

“[Sumpter] brought a gravitas and dignity that was essential in playing the character,” Chappelle says. “[Curtis] committed to the role wholeheartedly and imbued Rachel with a steely determination. Rachel realizes the right choices are often the tough choices and she is unafraid to make the tough choice in the defense of her country. And she is unrepentant. [Curtis’] performance is fearless.”

Chappelle, whose TV credits include “The Wire” and “Chicago Fire,” grew up in New Jersey but moved to Evanston in 1982 to attend Northwestern. It was there he met his future wife Colleen Griffin, who serves as a producer on “Loss,” and the two fell in love with the city and its potential for industry work.

“We have always wanted to help build a film community in Chicago,” he says. “There are so many looks you can get in the area; you have downtown, you have suburban, you have the lakefront.”