[Written for Film.com]
The concept is a little gem out of the B-movie sourcebook: In the year 2008, the president of the United States is waylaid in a small Colorado roadhouse by a massive snowstorm. At that exact moment, the new leader of Iraq—evidently no improvement over the previous leader of Iraq—launches an invasion force into an easily overrun Kuwait. The president, flanked by a couple of aides and a group of very frightened diners, must instantly make a decision on the greatest weapon in the strategic arsenal: nuclear attack.
Sounds like we’re off and running, right? To be sure, Deterrence does serve up some wonderfully chewy pulp during its generally engaging 101 minutes, along with a certain vagueness of point-of-view. Writer-director Rod Lurie, a former entertainment journalist (and West Point graduate), resolutely stays inside the diner, refusing even to cut away to the generals and heads of state on the other side of the satellite hook-ups; only the TV images give a window to the outside world. That’s a shrewd decision, and the claustrophobic atmosphere remains tight, even when the logic fails, or the diners are allowed their sometimes ludicrous two cents’ worth.
The president is played by Kevin Pollak—and the casting is part of the idea. President Walter Emerson is a Gerald Ford-like figure, not elected to the office (the chief executive who appointed him Vice President has died in mid-term), and anxious to prove his Presidential timber. He’s also Jewish, which raises questions about his ability to deal with a Middle East crisis with neutral consideration. Pollak, the short-statured standup comic, is a canny casting choice.
Whether he gives the performance Lurie intended may be another matter. In the press kit for this film, Lurie states that he considers Emerson a villain and essentially evil. Pollak, on the other hand, gives a warm, intelligent performance, as though he were campaigning hard for the viability of short, Jewish presidents. Pollak is acting in a lean thriller of the Howard Hawks variety, in which characters define themselves within the existential limits of their situation (his “every president is an atheist” speech takes us in that direction), but Lurie wants to drive the picture into cocktail-party issues. Even with the conceptual fuzziness, the back-and-forth is generally fun to watch; Emerson’s chief of staff (Timothy Hutton) and National Security Advisor (Sheryl Lee Ralph) keep flogging him with ethical and procedural questions.
All of this is rendered rather moot, however, by the fact that Deterrence hinges on a big, whopping cheat. Not revealed until the end, although sharp-eared observers may guess before then, this O. Henry twist simply doesn’t play square with the audience. Like its model, the 1964 thriller Fail-Safe, Deterrence does follow out its nuclear scenario to a conclusion most movies back away from. Unlike Fail-Safe, it gives itself a safety net.