About the only thing more enjoyable than a post-apocalyptic film is a movie about the lead up to the end of the world. "Deterrence" recalls "Fail Safe," "Dr. Strangelove," "By Dawn's Early Light," or a host of other "when nukes go wild" type films. Well, almost. Only one bomb goes off here, after which Armageddon is put off for a sunnier day. But the tension so intrinsic to this amazing genre is here in spades, that special, palpable tension so thick you could spackle the cracks in your ceiling with it. "Deterrence" is a nice nail biter with a solid cast, a claustrophobic atmosphere, and an effective cast to carry the whole thing off. It's too bad this movie is such an obscurity; I would like to state that "Deterrence" deserves more attention than it has currently received. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War we just do not see films like this anymore. Anyone who grew up during the days of mutually assured destruction policies and doomsday planes swooping over the roofs of their houses at fifteen-minute intervals will probably appreciate the implications of this movie more than those youngsters born after Ronald Reagan was president.
It is the future (2008, to be exact) when President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollack) stops over at a little diner in Colorado during a snowstorm. Conditions are so bad outside that the man cannot even get a helicopter in to transport him out of the area. Emerson is pounding the pavement around the country in order to secure his party's nomination for a run at the White House. He is president, but only because he assumed the office after his predecessor suddenly died. The political battle is close, and it will soon get much closer when an international tragedy of epic dimensions erupts in the Middle East. While Emerson schmoozes with a few of the people trapped in the diner, his aides make the shocking announcement that Saddam Hussein's son, now the leader of Iraq, has launched a surprise attack on Kuwait and wiped out a contingent of U.S. Marines stationed there. Even worse, Iraq claims to possess nuclear weapons and threatens to unleash a holocaust of unprecedented proportions if Emerson attempts to dislodge the Iraqi army now ravaging Kuwait. The president is in a quandary; he must consider his response in terms of the upcoming election, but he must also deal decisively with the Iraqi situation with only a few laptop computers and a satellite phone at his disposal. Serving as the leader of the free world can really drag.
Incredibly, President Emerson uses a news crew following his campaign to make a live newscast to the nation where he threatens to drop an atomic device on Baghdad within a few hours if the Iraqi leadership fails to withdraw its troops. The prez doesn't stonewall, doesn't beg for more time to consider his options, doesn't check polls before making a decision; he steps right up to the camera, delivers his ultimatum, and begins to monitor the situation. What leadership! What chutzpah! Well, that is the problem. Emerson's Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton) occasionally drifts into the foreground to question the motivations of such a brazen decree. He points out that nuking Baghdad is equivalent to dropping a bomb on the birthplace of the human race. Thompson also wonders about the potential fallout sure to batter the gates when Emerson, a Jew, attacks an Arab nation with such a devastating device. Further complicating matters are a series of increasingly irate phone calls between the president and the Iraqi ambassador, communications that take on downright sinister implications when the Iraqi's claim to possess a bundle of nuclear weapons located on ships around the world. They will launch these bombs at American targets, says the ambassador, unless Emerson accepts the invasion. Predictably, one of these targets is Washington, D.C. where the president's family waits for his return.
If you cannot tell, I liked "Deterrence." I started out with doubts as I loaded the DVD in the machine, however. I worried about Kevin Pollack turning in a competent performance as the president, a worry completely unfounded as the first few minutes of the movie unfolded. What really gave me a positive feel for the guy was how he worked the locals at the diner. Anyone who has seen a politician in action will instantly recognize Emerson's breezy familiarity with people he met mere seconds ago. I thought these initial scenes really helped set up the idea of Pollack playing the president. Who knew a comedian who does such a killer impression of William Shatner's Captain Kirk could pull off a role requiring him to resolve more moral dilemmas than Plato? For the most part, the supporting cast does an adequate job backing up Pollack's essentially one-man show. What didn't work as well was the cast of locals in the diner. For a large part of the movie they simply fade into the woodwork until one of the shocking twists at the conclusion requires their presence.
Anyone who says they saw the twist conclusion coming from miles away is not telling the truth. Although this denouement is arguably too pat, it did instantly change the entire scope of the film. There is that great moment when you learn why the president does what he does and you quickly scan your memory of the preceding scenes in order to see what clues the director gave you in advance. They are there, but you won't see them until the very end. As for the DVD version of "Deterrence," there is a commentary track from the director but that's about it. No matter, though, since "Deterrence" is a great thriller and a grand continuation of a genre that could have disappeared with the Berlin Wall. Enjoy.