Friday March 10, 2000

     The doomsday thriller gets an old lease on life in "Deterrence." First-time writer-di-rector Rod Lurie invokes the courtroom classic "12 Angry Men" as the inspiration for his one-set drama, but it's really a throwback to "The Petrified Forest," that 1936 chestnut in which gangster Humphrey Bogart holds a cafe's patrons hostage.
     Simultaneously quaint and au courant, "Deterrence" is a crackling exercise in international gamesmanship whose high-stakes political circus is perpetually subdued by the bozos tossing peanuts from the gallery.
     There are no gangsters in the snowbound Colorado diner in which President Walter Emerson wanders with an entourage of advisors and bodyguards, although there are many who would consider Emerson's responses to an exploding Mideast crisis to be of a grossly criminal bent.
     Set in 2008, "Deterrence" reconfigures several White House scenarios from the last 20 years to produce a very plausible political imbroglio. Former Vice President Emerson (Kevin Pollak) has inherited his chief executive post midterm from the recently deceased president and appears to be the clear favorite to be nominated in the current primaries.
     That he is also the first Jewish president does not become clear until an Iraqi leader invades Kuwait, heating up old tensions that had been simmering since the days of President Bush and Operation Desert Storm.
     Within minutes of a TV news bulletin, the diner turns into a mini-Pentagon and broadcast station from which Emerson must decide the fate of Baghdad: to bomb or not to bomb. Pulling his decision in varying directions are advisors Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton) and Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), as well as a chorus of locals who have camped out for the duration of the winter snow and have very strong opinions of their own.
     Despite its one-set locale, there are actually two dramas percolating in "Deterrence." A former film critic and investigative reporter, director-writer Lurie displays impressive political savvy with the ins and outs of split-second political decision-making. The spitfire exchanges between Emerson and his advisors have a nerve-tugging authenticity, raising some troubling questions about executive responsibility, America's stigmatizing of Arabs and the loaded perceptions that feed into a Jewish president making red-button decisions concerning the Mideast. Lurie leaves his own position somewhat ambiguous, although a devastating phone exchange between Emerson and a French minister leaves a slyly Francophobic aftertaste.
     All good stuff. But Lurie undermines his high-wire act with the melodramatic carryings-on of the diner patrons: an obnoxious redneck, a visiting New York couple, a French Canadian waitress and the diner's disapproving owner. Everyone acts out; everyone has a hissy fit. The supporting cast is wildly uneven. The leads, thankfully, send sparks flying. Hutton is marvelously alert as Emerson's right-hand man, while Pollak grows more presidential--and more disturbing--with every passing scene.

Deterrence, 2000. R for language and violence. Paramount Classics and TF1 International present a Battleplan Production. Written and directed by Rod Lurie. Producer Marc Frydman, James Spies. Executive producers Maurice LeBlond, Steve Loglisci. Cinematographer Frank Perl. Editor Alan Roberts. Music Lawrence Nash Groupe. Production designer W. Brook Wheeler. Running time: 1 hours, 41 minutes. Kevin Pollak as President Walter Emerson. Timothy Hutton as Marshall Thompson. Sheryl Lee Ralph as Gayle Redford. Sean Astin as Ralph.

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