- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

TITLE: "Deterrence"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rod Lurie

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes


''Deterrence" is a surprisingly resourceful and provocative update on the traditional "what if?" doomsday thriller. It seems to be worthwhile entertainment as long as you ignore any "clarifying" statements by writer-director Rod Lurie.
I met Mr. Lurie several years ago at a press junket and found him to be a young man with a precocious and entertaining gift of gab. Some of his opinions, however, seemed precociously stupefying.
This set of impressions is more or less reinforced by watching "Deterrence." A first feature made with finesse on a slim budget and within a claustrophobic setting, the movie commands a considerable amount of respect for both ingenuity and incisiveness.
If you read what Mr. Lurie has to say about his polemical intentions, however, the picture grows far murkier than one could have guessed from the movie alone.
Mr. Lurie acknowledges "Fail-Safe" as a prototype. His version, however, is handicapped by confining scenes to a single setting. This limitation, nevertheless enhances the suspense and ensemble acting.
Mr. Lurie credits an even earlier Sidney Lumet movie, "Twelve Angry Men," with giving him the confidence to make the best of a tight budget and static location, cleverly transcended by telephone hookups to Washington and TV feeds that touch base with far-flung parts of the world during a countdown to catastrophe.
The lonely outpost in "Deterrence" is a diner in a snowbound Colorado hamlet called Aztec. It becomes the temporary refuge and then impromptu war room of a small presidential party stranded by a blizzard and suddenly confronted with the threat of nuclear blackmail.
A handful of customers, the proprietor and a waitress are in Morty's Roadside Diner when President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) arrives unexpectedly, taking shelter from a storm after winning a primary election, projected for the futuristic winter of 2008.
The president is accompanied by Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton), National Security Adviser Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a couple of Secret Service agents and the young Army officer entrusted with the case carrying the nuclear weapons codes.
A skeleton crew, in other words.
Fortunately, the phones and power are still intact at Morty's, allowing us to share the characters' sense of urgency when an apocryphal cable network, IBS, which bears a strong resemblance to CNN, reports an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The presidential party soon discovers that the ramifications of this shock, supposedly engineered by a son of the late Saddam Hussein, are exceptionally dire.
We're led to believe the president may have few remedies at hand because an inadequate military presence is stationed in the Gulf.
The new Iraqi ruler seems to have taken advantage of American preoccupation with crises in the Pacific, where a showdown between North and South Korea looms and the Chinese are snarling at Japan directly and the United States indirectly.
The Chinese sideshow may give the movie an additional bargaining chip with moviegoers.
Such a not-so-distant future in which the United States would find hand-wringing its only practical response to military crises is easy to envision. Mr. Lurie's scenario illustrates the wisdom of increasing the number of options at the president's disposal.
Mr. Lurie mischievously reduces the time available for consultation, diplomatic procrastination or hand-wringing. The Iraqi ultimatum is countered by one from the president, who vows to nuke Baghdad unless Iraqi war plans are canceled immediately.
The pretext is calculated to separate movie-going hawks and doves with a vengeance. Emerson is deliberately contrived to suggest a Jewish reincarnation of Harry Truman.
He always means business and proves confident in brinkmanship.
Mr. Lurie draws our attention to several games in the diner, but the one that matters is never specifically illustrated: poker. The happiest aspect of the setup for hawks is that Emerson has a few aces up his sleeve when dealing with belligerent rivals.
Mr. Pollak makes a winning impression as Emerson so much so that you wouldn't necessarily conclude that Mr. Lurie regards this character as the villain.
Yet he does, in part because Emerson resembles Truman, whose decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan during World War II is regarded by Mr. Lurie as an infamous act, motivated solely by the need to scare the Soviet Union.
That's an eccentric viewpoint for a West Point grad, but then, Mr. Lurie describes himself as more of a left-winger than initially meets the eye.
Mr. Lurie has an entertaining rapport with actors and can sustain suspense in tight quarters. Those kinds of filmmaking skills outrank muddled "big thoughts" every time.

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