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Seek Bomb Shelter

Director Rod Lurie's nuclear debate blows up in his face

Rod Lurie's Deterrence is a bush-league foreign policy debate disguised as a movie. There may come a day when Paramount Classics ships every print of this inert and tedious piece of business off to selected political science and social philosophy classes and tries to forget about the whole episode. But for now the company is asking otherwise reasonable consumers to plunk bucks down for a dose of the same stuff they can get for nothing on C-SPAN, or in an argument with a drunk at the corner bar.

For those who, forewarned, still choose to eat their brussels sprouts, here goes. The year is 2008. On the night of a crucial presidential primary, the nation's chief executive, Walter Emerson, in the person of a pint-size Kevin Pollak, gets stranded in a roadside diner near the fictional mountain town of Aztec, Colorado. Now exactly what the president, his chief of staff (Timothy Hutton), his national security adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and three or four gun-packing Secret Service agents are doing on a two-lane country road in the middle of a blizzard is never made entirely clear. If you must, write that one off to poetic license. But not this: When the son of America's old pal Saddam Hussein decides to overrun U.N. troops in Kuwait, President Emerson promptly threatens to nuke Baghdad. That, apparently, is because most of his forces are already massed at, and his conventional weapons are committed to, another trouble spot -- the border between the two Koreas. It's a big bad world out there.

Little matter that the president is sipping oily coffee in a Naugahyde booth next to the pie rack. Or that he has been in office, unelected, for just four months, because his predecessor died. He's a hothead in charge, and if he decides he wants to blow a major Middle Eastern city off the map, that's his business. Of course, he's going to get arguments from members of his entourage, from his wife (via long distance), even from the counterman spooning up the chili con carne right there in Morty's Diner.

Snowed under: Trapped in a Colorado diner during a blizzard while Iraqis attack Kuwait, the president's chief of staff (Timothy Hutton, left) wants to know who's paying for the chili burgers.
Paramount Classics
Snowed under: Trapped in a Colorado diner during a blizzard while Iraqis attack Kuwait, the president's chief of staff (Timothy Hutton, left) wants to know who's paying for the chili burgers.

Only a guess, but Deterrence probably means to recall those tense nuclear brinkmanship movies of the cold-war era -- Fail Safe, Seven Days in May and The Bedford Incident -- movies in which political forces ran amok and the fate of the world hung in the balance. Unfortunately, writer/director Lurie, a West Point grad who put in some years as a movie reviewer in Los Angeles, doesn't produce an ounce of the old high drama. He's also a stranger to the dark comic sting that made Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove the best picture of the genre.

In the absence of much skill, Lurie lets his characters talk. And talk some more. And then talk some more. Forget intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. The most immediate threat to your personal safety while sitting through Deterrence is the speech that won't quit. It's clear that Lurie means to be politically provocative, that he means to put us in the middle of a moral wrangle over a president's questionable threat to use American nuclear might against a rogue dictator and 12 million of his citizens. But because his movie has all the emotional power of a research paper, it's not easy to care what happens in the end. Except that, in the end, we can finally go home and do something interesting, like scoop the hairs out of the drain.

The first page of the press notes for Deterrence promises Lurie's fellow movie reviewers that the picture is "a political thriller with many plot twists and surprises" and asks that the beleaguered scribblers who've sat through the thing "not reveal the end of this film to your readers." Well, now. Okay. Except that any reviewer in his right mind will probably feel duty-bound to report that the "many plot twists and surprises" are the kinds of things a nine-year-old could have written. For one, the president is not only a second-rater who hasn't inspired much confidence in the American people, he's also Jewish, which apparently calls into question his views of the Arab world. For another, the fact that Emerson and company are stuck in a snowbound diner demands that certain dramatic conventions be fulfilled -- like a diner employee producing a map of the world from the back room and the owner of the place opening fire with a shotgun.

There's also some preposterous nonsense about the quality of the Iraqis' nuclear weapons that seems to have come straight out of a comic book, and a ludicrous bit involving the president and a pool-shooting redneck (Sean Astin), who tells the commander in chief: "We're with you! Crispy-critter the motherfucker!" Thus does the major moral issue of our time, to nuke or not to nuke, come down to the boozy opinion of a half-wit named Ralph. On a somewhat smaller moral issue: Why is it that after consuming lots of chili burgers and soft drinks, slices of pie and pots of coffee, no one in the presidential party offers to pay the bill? Does Emerson, along with the rest of his faults, assume that dinner's on the house?

 
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