Tuesday, 2 July 2019

AN ACCEPTABLE LOSS: A Slow Burn Political Thriller

An Acceptable Loss opens with Elizabeth 'Libby' Lamm arriving for her first day teaching at a prestigious Chicago university, being met by demonstrators whose placards talk about death and genocide. Lamm is former security advisor at the highest levels of the government, and through flashbacks we see her involved in a major decision about Middle East policy, arguing with her boss, Rachel Burke, a senior politician, to whom she is counseling caution. Lamm is now living alone in a large house, has no computer, no email, no phone. Each night she works by the light of one lamp, writing in longhand on yellow legal pads. Although she has been brought in by the head of the department, many of her colleagues and staff are stand-offish. She is also being stalked by a student, Martin, who seems increasing obsessed with her.

From this beginning, writer/director Joe Chappelle has structured a timely political thriller, whose presentation, a slow drip of flashbacks and minimal exposition, builds up to some surprising conclusions. It's an intelligently shot film: with a contrast between the warm colours of the campus, the empty shadows of Lamm's life, and the darker, harder colder colours (much of it in washed out balck and white) of her history in power. But its the structure of the movie that is the challenge, because information is deliberately withheld, even relatively simple facts, so that you spend time wondering exactly what position Burke held, and holds. It is revealed, as is the history of Lamm's involvement with events that have sparked the protests and reactions, but it does come slowly. It's also got elements of science fiction film, an alternate history story, in which little references to events that remain unexplained take on signficance, and it's interesting to consider those flashback sections, and their style, in reference to sf film, which makes a certain amount of sense given Chappelle's background in sf and horror (including the TV series The Fringe--he also directed episodes of The Wire).

Once things start to be revealed, the pace picks up, and as you might expect the story turns into a thriller of sorts, with protagonists on the run, the government closing in on them, and an ending full of twists. It works exceptionally well: the payoff final 15 minutes put what has come before into context, and if we have been concentrated too much on Lamm's seclusion and loneliness, the personal story now makes chilling sense. The ending contains a couple of surprises, though one is telegraphed, and the final one is almost a cliché of conspiracy thrillers. But it leaves you contemplating the slow-build up that preceded it, and rather than exciting, you realise you have just seen a thoughtful film.

Of course the movie is built around Libby, and Tika Sumpter's playing is almost strong enough to carry it off. She seems to have internalised the character's withdrawal, and perhaps overplays her underplaying, if that makes sense, but especially in the scenes with her father (Clarke Peters) a newspaper editor whose career appears to have been stymied by her actions, she shines. Ben Tavassoli as her stalker is full of smouldering intensity, without any moderating control, which makes an almost comical contrast with his 'sensitive' gay roommate Jordan (Alex Weisman). There's also a nice little cameo scene-stealing by David Eigenberg as a drunken professor who calls out Lamm at a cocktail party.

But the real star is Jamie Lee Curtis as Burke. And at this point a few small spoilers will introduce themselves into the review, so stop if that would bother you.

We don't know Burke's position in the flashbacks—but it turns out to be Vice President, to a President (Rex Linn) who was a college football coach, who for example has no idea where Homs is when they are discussing Syria. She is obviously the adult in that room. Before we learn she's the VP, I was measuring how close to Hillary Clinton her performance was, perhaps she is indeed Secretary of State, but of course the administration, prima face, is Republican. Nevertheless, I think Curtis gets a good bit of the Clintonian dichotomy of care and ruthlessness which made her such a divisive candidate. But the presence of the good ol' boy president means we could think of Lamm as a Condoleeza Rice characater, or indeed, in the way her intelligence is, in the end, used, and the way in which she lets herself be compromised, also a Colin Powell. It might be a mistake to read too many direct parallels into the story, but even the suggestion is enough to make it resonate with the present day.

In the movie's real time, Burke is now the President, and the Clinton paradigm is even more telling, and here we see her Chief of Staff, Adrian, who was once Lamm's lover and now has risen with his boss, as a key. He's played with the kind of menace that defines such characters and Jeff Hephner does a good job with it. In one of the film's last twists, it mixes character with conspiracy, personal and political chillingly well.

An Acceptable Loss, like its title, is ambiguous (its original title, The Pages, was much less effective) and refers to many losses. Although many will find the opening sections too slow, or the final act too short, or not chasey enough, in the end those ambiguities stay with the viewer long after the film finishes, and to be thinking about them means it has been successful.

An Acceptable Loss is available on Digital Download from 15 July

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.cimetime.co.uk)

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