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IN SHORT: Great writing and acting almost sabotaged by poor direction. [Rated R, 103 minutes]
There may be a lot of argument about the politics (perceived or implied) of Rod Lurie's Deterrence, that's how well written and acted this nuclear thriller is. Problem is that Lurie has also chosen to direct his script, and he's much less adept at that chore. We'll present the positive, first.
Set in Colorado, early in the election year of 2008, Deterrence is a one set piece in which all the characters remain, hemmed in by an unexpected blizzard. There's a vacationing couple (Kathryn Morris and Michael Mantell), whiling away the hours at Morty's Roadside Diner over a game of chess. There's a local guy named Ralph (Sean Astin), eating a burger and playing pool. Katie the waitress (Clotilde Courau) is a French-Canadian import and Harvey (Bajda Djola) is flipping burgers, as the owner of the joint. The snow continues to fall as the diner fills with an entourage of suits and ties who can't make it to the local airport.
That entourage includes the President of the United States, Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak), his Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton) and National Security Advisor Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph). In Colorado to campaign, the President has left it to his men in DC to monitor a possible military hotspot in the Far East. While the prez sits down to a chili-burger, Iraq invades Kuwait and massacres an American military peacekeeping force.
The options are few. Most of our military units are in the Far East. The one aircraft carrier in the area can launch missiles that can't be recalled if Iraq doesn't back down to Presidential demands, broadcast to the world via an IBS (think CNN) camera uplink that had been covering the campaign. The only option Emerson offers to Uday Hussein, son of Sadaam, is retreat or see the city of Baghdad nuked off the face of the earth. The Iraqis, in turn, offer to turn the Western World into toast, with their own, and unknown to us, collection of nukes. That's all I'll tell you about Deterrence's greatest strength; a twisting, turning story that puts two nuclear powers nose to nose on a course towards what we used to call M.D.A., "mutual assured destruction."
While all the reg'lar folks sound off about the President's threat, Lurie has tossed in a couple more layers of background intrigue into the mix. President Emerson like Gerald Ford back in the Seventies, wasn't elected to office and thus cannot be sure that he has a mandate from the people to take the route he has chosen, a route his top aides are strongly opposed to. As the minutes to deadline wear down, so do the tempers of everyone in the diner. Great performances by Pollak, Hutton and Ralph in particular kept our attention fixed on the screen at all times -- when they are on the screen.
To get there you have to suffer through a hackneyed mess of opening credits and a pointless mix of artsy black and white and color video images that begin this flick. It's Lurie's lack of training as a director that is this flick's biggest drawback, and his training is that of a respected LA based film critic and writer. Assuming that he sat through the hundreds of flicks the rest of us do, there is almost no excuse for making the mistakes that he does (and here I'll shift into film student mode, 'cuz that's the only way to make it clear).
From year one of film school, (you) are taught three things: Do Not move the camera unless you're making a point. Do Not fast cut a sequence if the edits don't enhance the story telling value. Do Not pad your film with local color above and beyond what is necessary to set up the story (most of that is in the title sequence. You are advised to go out for popcorn once the film starts).
One set shoots are difficult enough for an experienced director, but Lurie shoots everything in close up. It'll look fine on TV. It's oppressive viewing on the big screen. Deterrence might have been a fine successor to Fail Safe. It is not.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Deterrence, he would have paid...
Pay per view level. If your tastes run to the arthouse, feel free to drop the dollar.
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