In a December essay in the Washington Post, the journalist James Mann makes a provocative case that Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney anti-hagiography Vice misses the point of the ex-vice-president’s legacy: It wasn’t, writes Mann, a “soulless quest for power” (as portrayed by McKay and the actor Christian Bale) but “the advancement of fallacious beliefs that seriously damaged our nation: his unilateral approach to foreign policy, his preference for military force over diplomacy, his considerable overestimation of American strength and his desire to reshape the Middle East.” I’d respectfully argue that Vice touches on those aspects of his legacy at least fleetingly, but for a Cheney who conforms to Mann’s thesis, you should look to — of all people — Jamie Lee Curtis as Vice President Rachel Burke, the chief villain of Joe Chappelle’s so-so quasi-thriller, An Acceptable Loss.
I say “of all people” because Curtis — one of the original horror-movie “final girls” — has in the last year become an icon of empowerment, especially for women who have survived terrible traumas. But as Burke she embodies another sort of power: hair-trigger American militarism with a fat dose of Islamophobia. Curtis uses her profile (short haircut; sleek, monochromatic wardrobe) to create a stripped-down portrait of zealotry and white privilege. Burke is only an ideologue if you count American exceptionalism as an ideology, but that will do. Her aim is “total victory” against the “primeval bastards” who threaten U.S. hegemony. The movie’s title follows from Cheney’s “one percent doctrine,” which holds that even a minuscule threat to national security justifies all manner of civil-liberties violations and Mideast collateral damage.
The protagonist of An Acceptable Loss is the much less arresting character Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a national security adviser who seems loosely inspired by Condoleezza Rice. The film unfolds in two time periods, a flashback in which Libby is pressured by Burke to interpret ambiguous intel in a way that favors military action; and several years later, when she’s on her own and a pariah — a scapegoat for an unspecified (until the end) operation that most people found abhorrent. In the movie’s present tense, Libby arrives at an unnamed California university to teach what appears to be a morally neutral seminar in the tactics of war, but she’s all too aware of the moralism that follows her — aware enough to shun email or a cell phone. Many of those around her point and whisper. Others angrily confront her. A student, Martin (Ben Tavassoli), begins to stalk her, to the point of breaking into her well-fortified residence and setting up video cameras. Is he a pervert or does he have a political ax to grind?
The other melodramatic hook is a memoir that Libby has written about her time under Burke that no one in the executive branch wants published. What they’ll do to prevent publication will determine whether An Acceptable Loss will be a paranoid-conspiracy chase movie or an ethical-dilemma drama. Chappelle walks the line — wobbly. Although he cut his teeth with a Halloween sequel (not with Curtis), he moved on to The Wire, CSI: Miami, and Chicago Fire, and he seems too high-minded and earnest to commit to making a shapely thriller.
I will say that three quarters of the way through, An Acceptable Loss shifts into a higher gear and has one good, ironic touch: Libby uses her knowledge of low-tech military tactics to escape the government’s high-tech surveillance systems. What’s inescapable is that Sumpter looks way too young to be a foreign-policy genius and doesn’t rise much above glossy, soap-opera proficiency. The character is plainly stricken with guilt, but has she evolved? Is the nickname “Libby” meant to suggest a burgeoning inner lefty? (Libby Lamm could be translated as “liberal on the run.”) You can’t tell. In real life, Libby would likely be coddled by right-wing think tanks and find an exquisitely nuanced way to justify her actions, but Chappelle has supplied her character with the wheeziest of melodramatic devices: a father (Clarke Peters) who’s a big-deal newspaper editor and grounds her in the real world. Peters gives a good, credible performance, but this good parent/bad parent tug-of-war (Curtis’s Burke comes on as a surrogate mother) is too neat.
An Acceptable Loss has its moments, though. Tavassoli is a smart, wiry young actor — he brings tension even to scenes that are flabbily written. And Curtis is fascinating, at least until her final, preposterous scene. She often plays jumpy, with wide and nervous peripheral vision. It must have been fun to play a character without vocal or physical inflection, one whose certainty chills you to the bone.