“An Acceptable Loss” is an American political thriller that indicates in every frame its intention to take the subject of war seriously. The director Joe Chappelle has heavily filtered the movie’s images — draining the color from his characters’ faces, polishing their features into dull smoothness, dimming even the daylight. And unfortunately, the plot is as lackluster ideologically as the picture is visually.
The story follows Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a professor who was once the top security adviser to a steely United States vice president, Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis). Now, after retreating from politics, Libby is hounded by antiwar protests and demands for her trial as a war criminal. At first, the film plays coy with the events that made her a pariah. But the phrase that was central to her foreign policy — “total war” — suggests her history. Despite her diplomatic manner, Libby was the architect of an unprovoked nuclear attack carried out by the United States.
Libby is wracked with guilt and anxiety. Every night, before she falls asleep with a gun under her pillow, she records her memories of the meetings where she supported Burke’s plan to drop a nuclear bomb on Homs, Syria. Libby plans to publish a memoir exposing the moral and tactical failures of those still in power. But she knows from experience that if she shows any resistance to the administration, she risks becoming a target.
The relevance of “An Acceptable Loss” to the current global political climate is immediate and obvious. Characters debate the nature of evil, ponder American exceptionalism and question the moral difference between dealing mass death in an instant and delivering destruction piecemeal.
But these questions are undermined by the filmmakers’ reliance on generic thriller plot points and intrigues. Every time the repentant Libby raises a topic worth philosophical consideration, it’s time for her to run, hide or dodge the violent and vindictive government. “An Acceptable Loss” errs in its insistence that political conspiracies demand larger-than-life action. In the real world — the one in which politicians don’t need color filters to seem ominous and whistle-blowers are merely discredited or imprisoned — conspiracies are common. For a political thriller to come up with a scheme that feels genuinely rousing, “An Acceptable Loss” would need the two qualities it most severely lacks: style and substance.