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'Deterrence': A Fascinating Blast

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000


    'Deterrence' Kevin Pollack as President Emerson in "Deterrence." (Paramount Classics)
A nuclear war movie is, almost by definition, a grabber.

It's hard not to become caught up in the possibility of the entire human race turning into radioactive charcoal. Secondly, these movies – from "Seven Days in May" to "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" – are virtually always structured by a nail-biting, minute-to-minute timeline.

The end of the world is ticking away. So you watch the game of global chicken with bated breath: Is the president bluffing or will he go through with those airborne missiles of death? Is the inscrutable, defiant enemy going to fold or stand firm?

"Deterrence," starring Kevin Pollak, is a surprisingly gripping experience for a movie of such modest means. Writer-director Rod Lurie has created a well-mounted sequence of tension, which transcends the need for glossy production and special effects. This thing starts small but grows on you, moment by moment.

Thanks to a blizzard, President Walter Emerson (Pollak) finds himself stuck in a Colorado diner with his Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton), National Security Adviser Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), his security detail, a video cameraman and a scattering of staff and patrons.

The year is 2008. President Emerson, a handpicked vice president who became commander in chief when the president died, is in the middle of the presidential primaries. He is celebrating victory in Colorado when the IBS network reports breaking news. Saddam Hussein's successor in Iraq has invaded the Emirate of Kuwait, slaughtering a U.N. force under American leadership on the way. But the majority of U.S. forces are in position for a breaking crisis in North Korea. An unelected president battling for his party's leadership is facing a two-front war. He must react immediately and decisively.

At the risk of spoiling things, let's say the president strongly considers all the possibilities: Let Hussein's successor take over Kuwait or take military action? Conventional or nuclear? The road to the president's final decision is a tortuous (torturous) one. It is the dramatic meat of the movie.

Emerson hears from every conceivable corner: advisers Thompson and Redford, who are anything but in agreement, his Cabinet, and the Iraqi U.N. ambassador, to name a few. He also gets a mouthful from the humble taxpayers sitting in Morty's Roadside Diner, including proprietor Harvey (Bajda Djola), a Canadian waitress (Clotilde Courau), two wealthy New Yorkers (Kathryn Morris and Michael Mantell) and a redneck regular (Sean Astin), who hates every foreign nation in existence.

Using the IBS cameraman as a hookup, Emerson sits down on a rickety vinyl chair to inform the nation of his decision.

The most enjoyable thing about this movie is the modulation of information. Lurie gives us strategic revelations – from the president's religious beliefs to the movie's ultimate punch line – that completely redefine things – and just when you thought you had it all figured. The atmosphere is just right. With its black-and-white opening sequence, followed by color the moment we first encounter the president, Lurie evokes a classic B-movie atmosphere. And in President Emerson, Lurie has created a memorably inscrutable character. As the movie progresses, your interest from the external wartime situation moves inward – to Emerson's moral makeup. What is really going on inside that head? The fate of the world hinges on the question. And that's more than enough to keep you watching until the very end.

DETERRENCE (R, 103 minutes) – Contains emotionally intense material and obscenity.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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