‘An Acceptable Loss’: Pulpy Political Thriller Gnaws at One’s Real Life Suspicions

An Acceptable Loss” is a tense, pulpy narrative. It often stretches credulity with story points that in these paranoid times can be too easy to believe.

Tika Sumpter plays Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm, a former high-level national security adviser to the vice president of the United States (Jamie Lee Curtis). Having taken a visiting professorship at a small college, she is greeted with student protests for her role in a U.S. nuclear aggression, one that lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

Among those killed was the father of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a graduate student enrolled in Libby’s class. Showing unexpected skills, he bugs her home and stalks her on his computer. He breaks into her house where an armed Libby confronts him.

Libby suffers from second thoughts about her role in the atrocity. She has written a tell-all memoir that her old friends in government want erased. Government agents invade her home, sending both Libby and Martin on the run.

Disturbing political thrillers have been around since the Cold War fear of nuclear devastation permeated the national conversation. They went especially vicious and paranoid in post-Watergate 70s with movies like “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor.”

With “An Acceptable Loss,” it might be easy to question the story conceits that a unilateral use of a nuclear device in peacetime, especially one that murders over a hundred thousand innocent civilians, would actually lead to peace in the Middle East. Or that killing a half a dozen terrorist leaders would gut the resolve of radical Islam. It’s a little difficult to believe that a President of the United States would even make that decision on such short notice. Still one suspects that dozens of armchair strategists believe even now that this is precisely the strategy that is needed.

Political thrillers can live in their own logic, especially when there is just enough possible reality to make their story work.

As directed by Joe Chappelle, the movie itself is a well-told tale, taking its time to get the mood and emotions right before unleashing the dark government forces on Libby and the reluctant Martin. The musical score by Valgeir Sigurðsson works especially well with the editing by Joe Rabig. Together they bring their own atmospheric build to the proceedings and then once the story ramps up, they never let go.

Sumpter gives nuance to the story of an ambitious public servant now suffering from betrayal and guilt. She is capable of handling moments of painful vulnerability and ferocious resolve. Tavassoli acts quietly on the surface, while barely able to contain the rage inside of him.

Jeff Hephner brings a smiling evil to the role of Libby’s former lover and present day Chief of Staff. Jamie Lee Curtis tries to bring coherence to the war-mongering V.P. now president. She attempts to balance the hardcore defender of American exceptionalism with her own personal feelings towards the once loyal Libby.

One of the most poignant moments in this effective potboiler comes when Libby confronts Martin about why he broke into her house. He uses an analogy. “Let’s say I was Jewish,” he starts, “and my entire family was killed in the holocaust.” And then referring to one of the most infamous Nazi criminals, he says, “Then suppose I was in class one day and I look up and there, teaching the class, is Dr. Mengele.”

Martin is the face of the proposition that decisions have consequences. As an intense political thriller, “An Acceptable Loss” seeks to explore those consequences.

An Acceptable Loss” opens Jan. 18 in select theaters.