Jamie Lee Curtis co-stars in An Acceptable Loss, which was written and directed by Joe Chappelle, who helmed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. One has to wonder if they compared notes on their respective Halloween experiences during the shoot, and it’s not hard to imagine that those conversations were more interesting than the movie that resulted.
Granted, any film that casts Curtis as the President of the United States can’t be all bad, and An Acceptable Loss has a few tantalizing ingredients. Unfortunately, they’re frittered away in favor of leaning too hard on the genre elements, with an evident lack of a sufficient budget.
Tika Sumpter stars as Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm, a former U.S. National Security advisor who arrives to teach at a college campus under what is supposed to be a storm of protest, but on screen takes the form of only a handful of protestors—the first sign that the filmmakers don’t have quite the means to achieve their ends. Libby has a dark cloud hovering over her from four years prior, a decision that isn’t fully explained at first but that cost many innocent lives. She has gone to great lengths to shield herself from unwanted contact—eschewing an online presence, a cell phone or even a land line—though she nonetheless acquires a stalker in the form of grad student Martin (Ben Tavassoli), who goes so far as to break into her house and set up hidden cameras to spy on her.
Since Martin is Middle Eastern, it’s not hard to start putting together the pieces of the backstory before it’s revealed to us about midway through. Up to that point, An Acceptable Loss whips up some mild intrigue but suffers from stilted, expository dialogue and a washed-out, unattractive look. Then we learn the full truth, which requires revelation here for further discussion of the movie: Under pressure from war-hawkish Rachel Burke (Curtis), who was Vice President at the time, Libby advised the President to bomb a Syrian city to wipe out terrorist leaders, based on what later turned out to be bogus intelligence. 150,000 civilians died there—among them Martin’s father, spurring his obsession with Libby.
Yet when he finally confronts her, and learns she plans to expose the truth about what happened, he immediately and rather implausibly jumps to her side, and they go on the run together from underlings of now-President Burke who want to silence her. This part of the story doesn’t live up to its potential either: You’d think that a former National Security advisor would have a few sophisticated evasion tricks up her sleeve, but instead Libby behaves like a typical citizen on the run, and both she and Martin and those pursuing them, led by nefarious chief of staff Adrian (Jeff Hephner), make some pretty unbelievable decisions during the film’s second half.
The real disappointment is that by foregrounding its underheated thriller conceits, An Acceptable Loss shortchanges what should have been the real meat of its story: The relationship between Libby and Burke, two women in the halls of power largely occupied by men. Sumpter and Curtis, both of whom attack their roles with conviction, could have been given a series of juicy scenes to play while the bombing scenario is developing and in its aftermath, but all we get are a few flashbacks, including one set in a White House chamber that resembles a repurposed college conference room. (There is a nice moment here when, after the President and his staff have watched remote footage of the strike and most of them have left the room, the President switches the screen to a football game.)
A few logic threads are left dangling as well. Burke states that the endgame of stopping terrorism was worth it, but how was that achieved if the ostensible targets weren’t actually there? And presuming that Burke didn’t ascend to the presidency via succession, that suggests the bombing was popular enough with the populace to get her voted in, but that’s never addressed either. The movie could have truly dug into the issues it raises but settles for using them as the distant backdrop for unconvincing woman-in-peril huggermugger, and that’s just unacceptable.