‘An Acceptable Loss’ Is The Rare Female-Led Political Thriller That Accurately Reflects The World We Live In
How often do you watch a movie and feel like its cast truly represents the people around you? Not only are most movies led by men, but even uneven representation in supporting characters and background actors make these fictional worlds seem male-dominated. But watching An Acceptable Loss, a new political thriller that's in theaters and on demand Jan. 18 and in which Jamie Lee Curtis plays the President of the United States, it finally felt like I was watching a movie that accurately reflected the faces of America. The movie is led by two women, but even the supporting cast truly emits an essence of parity; a feeling that the film actually exists in a world where 50 percent of the population is female.
In An Acceptable Loss, Tika Sumpter stars as Elizabeth "Libby" Lamm, a former top national security adviser who aims to go public with explosive information exposing the lies behind a recent U.S. attack against a foreign country. Curtis plays Rachel Burke, the now President who was the Vice President at the time of the history-making attack. It was Lamm's intelligence that led to the decision, which in turn led to Burke's election as President, and Lamm has had to live with the intense guilt and accompanying paranoia as a result. But with the help of a young grad student (Ben Tavassoli) she sets out to make things right before Burke and the shady government conspirators can stop her.
Back in 2013, Geena Davis came up with a remarkably simple system to battle gender inequality in movies. In a piece published by The Hollywood Reporter, Davis presented a two-step solution. Step one is to, "Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names," she says. Step two is, when describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowd gathers, which is half female." These may sound like easy steps, but they aren't always put into practice.
There aren't many political thrillers featuring one woman, let alone two in major roles. Perhaps Sicario fits the bill since it stars a woman, though she was seemingly written out of her own sequel, with Emily Blunt's lead character not included in the followup film. Julia Roberts' The Pelican Brief, Nicole Kidman's The Interpreter, and Natalie Portman's V for Vendetta all come with male counterparts. I can't recall another government-set suspense drama giving over its screen time to two female leads in the way that An Acceptable Loss does. And V for Vendetta, being based on a graphic novel and set in an alternate future, it has a quality of fantasy about it anyway.
An Acceptable Loss is firmly set in the here and now, and feels almost frighteningly possible. It seems to have been inspired by people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other whistleblowers who expose their safety to inform the public, while being called traitors as a result. The tension is gripping, but the film's slow burn allows for the women's relationship to unfold in complex ways.
Curtis plays a corrupt politician that would do anything for power, while Sumpter's Libby somewhat honorably believes that fatalities may be an acceptable result of tough decisions made to protect the country. But the way that Rachel Burke uses her status as a role model to manipulate Libby's actions feels like a betrayal every woman has experienced, though not to such a detrimental extent. And the film's extremely of-the-moment political landscape shows us just how much having a female president wouldn't necessarily fix all of our nation's problems.
That Libby is played by a black woman thankfully adds an element of intersectionality to its feminism. Libby's cohort, Martin Salhi (Tavassoli) is Middle Eastern, and Martin's roommate a member of the LGBTQ community. But the movie's inclusivity feels more matter of fact than that tokenism.
But it's not just in its leads that An Acceptable Loss offers a more diverse look at the world. The smaller roles scattered throughout the film could be a lesson plan in representative casting. From the college professors that Libby speaks with on a daily basis, to the students in her class, to the owner of an antique shop, the background faces and voices of the film are astoundingly female. It feels as if writer-director Joe Chappelle truly took Davis' words to heart, flipped some names, and gathered the women.
In that way, An Acceptable Loss offers up a more accurate depiction of our political landscape than many other male-led political thrillers. According to the U.S. Census, the female population of the country teeters just over the male at 50.8 percent. Our freshly sworn in House of Representatives and Senate includes 127 women, the most ever in the nation's legislative branch. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard are exploring 2020 presidential runs.
The world is changing, but largely, movies have remained the same. By accurately reflecting women running, governing, and living in this country, An Acceptable Loss may just be the most realistic political thriller yet.