Monday, January 21, 2019

Curtis Anchors 'An Acceptable Loss'

It’s hard to compete with the real-life drama coming out of Washington D.C. these days, but Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss attempts to do just that with this thought-provoking political thriller in which decisions made with the noblest of intentions still help pave the road to hell.   
Former top U.S. security adviser Elizabeth "Libby" Lamm (Tika Sumpter) is a woman haunted by just such a decision—one made during her tenure working for and at the bequest of then-Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis). As draftswoman of a plan that led to America dropping a nuclear bomb on a Syrian city that resulted in mass causalities numbering in the tens of thousands, Libby knows that parts of an influential report that led to the aerial strike against a suspected terrorist stronghold were falsified. And, although she initially fulfills her role as a dutiful soldier by helping Burke convince the American public of the legality of the administration’s actions, her conscience is getting the best of her as the full ramifications of her decision play out in the ensuing five-year period. Reduced to a moral and political pariah, Libby takes a teaching position at a Chicago university where her very presence is protested by students and some faculty alike despite the support she receives from the kindly Dr. Willa Sipe (THE VISIT’s Deanna Dunagan). In a scene-stealing cameo, SEX AND THE CITY’s David Eigenberg—here as an unnamed drunken colleague—confronts Libby at a faculty mixer, demanding to know how many innocents she helped murder. It’s no surprise then when a guilt-ridden Libby starts scribbling down a full account of what went down leading up to execution of the Burke Doctrine on yellow legal pads in anticipation of owning up and coming clean. The convenient fact that her father (the always-solid character actor Clarke Peters) is a prominent newspaper editor seems like the logical means to do so. 

But—like all good political thrillers—there are complications. Libby’s take the form of a sullen graduate student named Martin (Ben Tavassoli) who’s stalking her for reasons that are as apparent as his obvious national origin and her old boss, who’s now gearing up for a run to become a second term President. Thrown into the mix is Adrian (Jeff Hephner), Burke's ruthless chief of staff and Libby’s former lover, who makes it clear during his own surveillance activities that Libby is either with them or against them. Cue ominous music. 

Marketing tags are everything, and An Acceptable Loss—as political thriller—will come up short for some since two-thirds of the film is decidedly more political drama, a key distinction. In fact—although Chappelle (who also penned the script) ably ups the thriller quotient in the film’s third act with twists and turns that deliver a strong one-two punch—it’s what precedes the action-packed finale that provides both the film’s strongest asset and biggest missed opportunity: The relationship between Libby and Burke. Indeed, the best moments in the film come via flashbacks between Sumpter and Curtis’s characters—an escalation of the power dynamic between a woman in power who’s seeking more and a woman just beginning to ascend the ranks who sees the real possibilities ahead of her. At first, Burke makes a passionate, hardline case for what she wants to do to the reluctant Libby, attempting to justify the collateral damage by appealing to the younger woman’s sense of “for the greater good” and patriotism; later, we see Burke’s steely resolve as she manipulates Libby using guilt and fear to bring her around. These are magnificent scenes—especially for Curtis—in which the power dynamic between educated women in positions of authority and influence is explored.  Unfortunately for An Acceptable Loss, these scenes and that driving dynamic are relegated to these expository sidebars when they had, in fact, the potential to drive the entire film into interesting and far more dramatic territory.
Sumpter, although appealing as an actor, seems miscast here. At first I thought it was an age thing—that she might have been too young to be playing a seasoned political advisor—but the actress is actually approaching forty, just the right age for the character and her level of accomplishment. Tavassoli, as Martin, is engrossing despite not being given much to do through two-thirds of the film but skulk around Libby’s empty house and act creepy. When he is given something meaningful to do, he ably rises to the occasion. Curtis is the crown jewel of the ensemble and the best part of An Acceptable Loss, taking what could have been a one-note villain role and layering her character’s outward fierce determination and ambition with a tragic sense of misguided nobility and, later in the film, even a note of remorse. It’s interesting that while Christian Bale is garnering accolades for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in another film, Curtis may embody the former VP’s hawkish calculations and puppet-master political persona even better here.
Curtis has entered an interesting phase of her career where her maturity grounds her performances in a captivating gravitas, elevating her dramatic chops into the provinces of the Frances McDormands and Glenn Closes of the acting world. Her chilling portrayal of a politico hell-bent on seeing her vision through at all costs—her reasoning for changing U.S. policy regarding first-strike attacks alone should resonate against the backdrop of today’s geopolitics—is easily one of the best performances of her career. Yes, we know she’s a veteran scream queen and an accomplished comedienne; but let’s hope that the roles coming her way in her own third act take full advantage of this newly-engaged aptitude for drama.   

Watching An Acceptable Loss, one can easily lament Chappelle’s misdirection in opting for straight-forward political intrigue over a nuanced character study of two powerful women—one in a position of authority, the other in a position of influence—and how the subtleties of this power dynamic impact and affect the world around them, but Curtis’s first-rate performance should make that bitter pill easier to swallow. Come for Curtis, stay for Curtis, and be surprised by the third-act tricks Chappelle’s got up his sleeve.

1 comment:

Mark Edward Hall said...

Thanks for the review, Vince. I haven't yet seen the film, but your review certainly whets my appetite.