I’m writing this on June 19, 2019 – which is the day when, in the slightly alternate universe of An Acceptable Loss, US foreign policy implements an action against Homs in Syria which is designed to secure ‘total victory’ in the War on Terror but which also leads to suggestions that the architects of the stratagem should be prosecuted for war crimes. Some years later, Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter), former advisor to then-Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis), has left politics for education, but is clearly haunted by her actions and worried about repercussions, which range from demonstrators outside her classroom through people reticent about shaking her hand and drunk academics giving her a hard time to the likelihood of being stalked an killed. Libby lives in a shadowy, empty house with a lot of security and sleeps with a gun under her pillow. Among her students is Martin (Ben Tavassoli), who had family in Homs on that day, and sets about surveilling Libby – who is scribbling her memoirs longhand and keeping them in an old-fashioned safe.
Meanwhile, Rachel is President – a move that’s interesting but fudges any comparison with the real world. It’s likely to be a problem for the next few years that fictional analogues of real politicians won’t be able to compete with real-life office-holders who are one-half The Manchurian Candidate and one-half King Ralph … Curtis is well-cast and underplays, but can’t help but come across as an incarnation of that caricature ‘Killary’ deployed in the last presidential campaign to paint the woman who isn’t currently in the White House as a dangerous hawk … while Sumpter, who played Michelle Obama in Southside With You, is a sort-of spin on Condoleezza Rice, but no one ever mentions that she’s a black woman or raises any issues about whether being an atypical political insider has any bearing on how hawkish (or not) she was in the crucial meetings. We do get a lot of baggage, including a dodgy dossier, but most of the references are to Bush II-era politics, which means this well-intentioned, well-acted, sometimes suspenseful picture comes across as beside the point.
I now associate this brand of political essay paranoia with Rod Lurie (The Contender, Deterrence) rather than John Frankenheimer (Seven Days in May) or Robert Aldrich (Twilight’s Last Dreaming), since low-wattage, sombre drama rather than full-on gothic guignol is still deemed to be the proper way of treating stories like this … no matter that the real world has moved on to the point where Peter Watkins’ Privilege or Joe Dante’s The Second Civil War seem understated, and The Thick of It and Veep risk being trumped by real omnishambles and presidential tweets. Director-writer Joe Chappelle was a nearly-name in horror in the 90s, handling a messy Halloween sequel and Phantoms, but has been plugging away in quality TV (The Wire, Fringe) ever since – he manages a few unsettling, creepy bits and pieces, especially when the Prezz is giving her dirty tricks department ‘troublesome priest’ vibes about Libby. The build-up suggests a confrontation between guilt-ridden policy wonk and meticulous semi-terrorist, but that’s not how things go – and the second half of the film becomes a melange of every on-the-run-from-the-suits conspiracy movie ever made, down to the double-twist of an ending.