[Screen It]

(2000) (Kevin Pollak, Timothy Hutton) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: Stuck in a diner during a snowstorm, the President of the U.S. reacts to an aggressive, foreign military move by threatening to retaliate with a nuclear bomb and must then not only deal with their reaction, but also his and others' second guessing of his strategy.
It's 2008 and Walter Emerson (KEVIN POLLAK), the incumbent President of the United States, is trying to make his way out of Colorado after that state's primary. Unfortunately, a raging snowstorm results in him and his entourage, including Chief of Staff Marshall "Marsh" Thompson (TIMOTHY HUTTON) and National Security Advisor Gayle Redford (SHERYL LEE RALPH), seeking shelter in a greasy spoon diner in Aztec, Colorado.

Having been appointed after the death of the former President, Emerson is faced with criticism about not being an elected leader, but his victory in the primary raises his and his team's spirits. As such, he's happy to "press the flesh" with the few people in the diner, including its owner, Harvey (BADJA DJOLA), and French Canadian waitress, Katie (CLOTILDE COURAU), as well as a local redneck, Ralph (SEAN ASTIN) and a married couple, Lizzie (KATHRYN MORRIS) and Taylor Woods (MICHAEL MANTELL) who are passing time there playing chess.

The happiness quickly ceases, however, when a TV broadcast indicates that Uday Hussein, the current Iraqi dictator and son of Saddam Hussein, has sent his troops pouring into Kuwait, prepared to overrun Saudi Arabia and use various weapons on Israel. While that growing international crisis is bad enough, the U.S. military's conventional forces are stuck in other international hotspots, and the fact that the Iraqi forces also killed several hundred Americans in an U.N. unit only makes matters worse.

Stranded at the diner, Emerson springs into action, contacting his many advisors over secured satellite relay phones. Then, making a bold move and utilizing the network camera crew that's been following his campaign trail, he goes on the air live, addressing everyone around the world. It's during this address that Emerson gives the Iraqi leader an ultimatum - withdraw the troops or face a nuclear strike on Baghdad.

With only ninety or so minutes to spare, Emerson orders the bomber to head for Iraq. From that point on, he must contend not only with that foreign country's reactions to this threat, but also his, his staff's and the similarly stuck civilians' second guessing of his strategy.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
If one didn't know any better and considering all of the recent attention paid to the respective presidential races, one would think that becoming the Chief Executive of the United States would be equivalent to winning some multimillion dollar jackpot. Yet, to anyone in the know, it's a mostly thankless and near nonstop job that clearly follows the old "you can't please everyone all of the time" motto.

As such, one can only hope that those running for the office are genuinely interested in both our country and the world in general, and aren't a bunch of egomaniacs only wishing to further serve their own purposes and ladder climbing. That part directly pertains to the role of the President as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, a delicate and precarious position at best.

That's because many of the past office holders and candidates either didn't serve in the military or weren't involved in any high level decision making there. Of course, none of that's meant to question any past, current or future President's ability to lead the country in times of war, particularly since some with such experience in the past didn't fair that well in office and vice-versa.

The point is, however, that not having a military background does become something of an understandable handicap when having to make strategic military decisions. After all, such choices can affect - for good or bad - the outcome of such conflicts as well as both military and civilian lives. Sure, there are plenty of knowledgeable advisors around, but the ultimate decision - at least as far as the "big" matters go - always lies with only one person.

That's part of the intriguing premise of former KABC Radio film critic turned filmmaker Rod Lurie's first film, "Deterrence." Something of a modern day update of "Failsafe" (the 1964 thriller starring Henry Fonda making similarly tough, nuclear strike related decisions), Lurie's film starts with a captivating "what if" premise regarding a President being confronted with a nuclear crisis partially initiated by none other than himself.

Exuding the look and feel of a one-set morality play, most of the "action" - save for news feeds and some historical footage that impart exposition, information and symbolism - takes place inside a hole in the wall diner. There, a variety of characters - some important in stature, others being of the run of the mill variety and who are all present to portray varying political, sociological and moral beliefs -- attempt to influence the President's decision about whether to carry out a threatened nuclear bombing of an Arab city.

It's a moderately effective extension of the old, mini angel and devil characters sitting on a character's opposing shoulders trying to influence a decision on some matter. While all of the opinions given during the film obviously impact the Chief's ultimate decision, the moments where Lurie has the President either elicit the opinions of the common folk or stop and listen to what they have to say - particularly considering the building tension and temporal qualities involved - usually feel a bit too contrived, when not preposterous, and rob the film of its building momentum.

The same holds true for many of the characters' reactions to the President's perceived and/or assumed inability to run the country. Notwithstanding the ability of such past Vice Presidents and unsuccessful candidates - not to mention the relentless and stereotypical jokes made by comedians at those office holders' expense - you aren't chosen for that position if you're a complete nincompoop.

Although some reactions and behavior are obviously present for comic relief, such moments will often have viewers wondering whether this new, but non-elected President is supposed to be more akin to Kevin Kline's character in "Dave" rather than a legitimate VP turned President. Had more allusions been made to the character's perceived "stupidity," ineptitude or bumbling idiocy from the onset, that would have been one thing. As the film stands, however, such moments get a bit tiring after a while and certainly lessen some of the film's more serious themes.

That aside, if one can buy into the next element, much of the rest of the film will be credible, but it's probable that many viewers will have a hard time accepting a President so hastily ordering a nuclear attack, especially when the U.S. is not immediately in danger. While one can appreciate Lurie's plot-related intentions regarding a novice President trying to make the best decision for world peace along with his political future, as well as the twist that's later thrown into the mix and the fact that the decision might be based on religious bias since the character is Jewish, that whole part of the film isn't particularly easy to swallow.

Where the film somewhat excels, though, and as long as its other problems don't prove too bothersome, is in building palatable suspense and a mostly nebulous sense about how things will culminate. Although a moderate surprise twist at the end won't be entirely predictable to all viewers, some, if not many will probably see it coming.

If that occurs, the tension - or at least one part of it - will certainly be diminished, but predicting the outcome in advance won't necessarily rob the film of its suspenseful "fun." While I would have preferred more suspense as the big, anticipated moment occurs near the end, there's probably enough there to satisfy many viewers.

Another problem some may have with the film is in the casting of comedian turned actor Kevin Pollak ("The Whole Nine Yards," "House Arrest") as the President. Whether Lurie cast him against type to make the presidential character even less credible to the audience isn't entirely clear, and while Pollak delivers a decent performance, the script-related problems hamper his efforts.

Timothy Hutton ("The General's Daughter," "Ordinary People") and Sheryl Lee Ralph ("The Distinguished Gentleman," TV's "Moesha") are present as the President's two leading advisors. While they're generally okay in their roles, they are hampered by less than adequate character development. Meanwhile, the likes of Sean Astin ("Courage Under Fire"), Clotilde Courau ("Elisa") and Badja Djola ("Rosewood") can't do much with their characters who are present merely to represent various different viewpoints regarding the President's decision.

Whether one sees this film as something akin to a philosophy class debate/exercise, a completely ludicrous picture, a riveting drama or perhaps even a guilty pleasure will greatly depend on how much one buys into writer/director Rod Lurie's not so subtle approach at telling his story. Although the freshman filmmaker doesn't have to worry about the tables being turned on him by having actors and other filmmakers now becoming his critics, some of his former colleagues may just have a field day with this picture.

Featuring a thematically strong, but eventually somewhat shaky and occasionally faulty premise, as well as a script featuring theoretically good, but less than satisfactorily executed elements, the film has it share of both decent and ridiculous moments. While reaction to this film will probably vary across the board, it does come off as enough of a guilty pleasure to forgive, at least to some extent, some of its more major problems. Somewhat entertaining but not as well crafted as it could have been, "Deterrence" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 24, 2000 / Posted March 17, 2000

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