An Acceptable Loss


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

An Acceptable Loss
"There's a story here, a good one, one built on three strong performances and some good supporting turns."

In an America not our own, some time before this film is set, a decision is made. The consequences are significant but it's some time before we find out what it was that happened. What we see, initially, are the ripples of a stone cast - and not, lest ye be judged, by one without sin.

There's a key element of this film, a directive 712, whose scale is enough that I reached for my bible to see if it was a reference. In Joshua 7:12 refers to the destruction of the accursed, in II Chronicles "a place of sacrifice", II Kings would serve as a locative spoiler, Ezekiel has it that "wrath is upon", but from Romans comes the seed of the conflict "so then the law is holy and the commandment is righteous and good".

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The author of that fateful directive now has doubts. She is Libby, first introduced as an American football game plays on a conference room table, someone who Rachel praises for her "amazing work". Libby is played by Tika Sumpter (recognisable either from plenty of US TV or the Ride Along franchise), a policy wonk of the War on Terror, a Herman Kahn for our times. Rachel is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Vice President, big name star in this oddly small film, and though the scenes between these two are few there is a tension not only between them but from what we learn. We know that something bad has happened between them. We suspect that something else bad will happen to Libby - though the cause is more likely to be from her old job than her new one.

We move to the film's present where Libby takes up a teaching role at a leafy campus. By my arithmetic it's 2023, a futurity hidden in detail by the apparatus of anonymous statecraft, a government SUV will ever be, and by her own precautions. No phone in her house, no cellphone, no computer, a mechanical safe, and, in longhand, on stacks of legal pads, a memoir. Reflections on a life that would seem imperilled, as a student has taken an interest in her - they mysteriously moody Martin (Ben Tavassoli, recognisable either from plenty of UK crime TV or Overlord).

Writer/director Joe Chappele has had a long television career, but started in film. He directed Jamie Lee in The Curse Of Michael Myers, and her role here is coincident with yet another Halloween sequel. He worked on The Wire, and Clarke Peters appears here in a significant role. There are plenty of actors with television backgrounds here, and even though this film is set in a counterfactual world I don't want to talk about what it might have been. There are clear antecedents in this mixture of conspiracy and conscience awakening in parallel. Parallax Views, Days Of The Condor, and in shady operations and distortions of truth perhaps even shades of Secret Soldiers, of Zero Dark Thirty. I was reminded of Flying Blind, of Tiger Raid, small casts and high-stakes in little stories against the big picture of the Global War On Terror. Almost all of those make better use of their canvas than An Acceptable Loss does.

It has good, even very good, moments. There's something endearingly bleak about the ways in which blame for an event comes to rest with the only black woman in the room. There are good performances from the cast, though one often has the sense that they and their story are playing to a different set of constraints. There were times when I felt the pacing was that of a show (if perhaps just a miniseries) that had time to stretch, to do a bit more to tantalise, to hit a few more targets in its sweep and make sure of them.

There are other oddities - lighting and look leave An Acceptable Loss less lush than other films with similar tones - say The Senator, The Apparition, but there may be something in the difference between the washed and 'gritty' pallor of this film and the near-Hollywood gloss of the last scion of Camelot and the indulgences associated with Papal plenty. Petra Korner's cinematography has been pushed to a particular aesthetic, one that seems bleached but unclean, sun-washed, unwashed. Perhaps, to borrow Biblical again, it's the blood of the lamb.

In checking something I happened across the trailer, and while it's hardly the worst it gives away in a flash an element that the film takes pains to conceal. That seems to be at the heart of my issues with the film, which is that it doesn't feel like one. There's a story here, a good one, one built on three strong performances and some good supporting turns. There's something interesting being said about guilt, for all the lack of glitter. There's definitely an argument of extremes, the ad absurdum of its reductio ably supplied by an inopportune sporting metaphor.

In the course of watching it I found myself reminded of various Scandi-noirs and their derivatives. Those talents can and do make their way to big screens, but there need to be changes - I adored A Hijacking, but it's a different beast than the TV show(s) made by much the same cast and crew, even if it can borrow the remove brought about by language barriers. There are times in the film that feel like the cliff-hangers of a modern serial and while I could try and dress and conceal this concern and massively reduce my word count by using the word 'episodic' I don't think that a fair description. While the film is happy to play with chronology (flashing back from its present to what would be our past, alluding to events that not only didn't happen but are versions of events that would not have been not going to happen in our own timeline) it clips between reflective moments like a stuck 'skip' button.

It's not that it's a patchy effort, nor has its editor run amok with a chopper. More that in pace, tone, hue even, it feels like parts flying in close formation rather than fitting together. Having mentioned a work based on a play it does a good job of avoiding staginess, even when it devolves to people talking in still spaces. Its world-building is credible, despite the odd weak bit of CG (Air Force One was never more Baudrillardian) and its politics are appropriately murky.

John 7:12 says "He is a good man, nay, but he deceiveth the people". That I looked up because of a suspicion of deeper forces, hidden meanings, but that temptation has more to do with what I perceived as a lack of motivation. However good the execution, there is a simplicity to some of the lines drawn. The arithmetic here is callous - a calculus so bloody it suggests Saturn's children were jelly babies - you may not have an opportunity to see An Acceptable Loss but should you do so there will be a cost. As its characters demonstrate, you can certainly do worse, but you can definitely hope for better.

Reviewed on: 17 Jan 2019
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An Acceptable Loss packshot
A former top national security advisor, haunted by having signed off on a controversial military action that cost thousands of innocent lives, sets out to tell the truth

Director: Joe Chappelle

Writer: Joe Chappelle

Starring: Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner

Year: 2019

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US


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