Deterrence

Deterrence

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The spirit of Ed Wood is alive and well in Deterrence, an astonishingly inept political thriller from first-time director Rod Lurie. In a perverse way, it’s tempting to recommend this movie simply because words probably can’t convey how bad it is – it has to be seen to be believed.

Set in the year 2008, Deterrence wants to be an updated version of Fail-Safe, the old Henry Fonda movie about a man-of-the-people President who’s forced by circumstances into nuking New York City. On the day of an important presidential primary, President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) and some of his key aides are stranded by a blizzard in a roadside diner in Aztec, Colorado. As they take in the primary returns, news comes through that Saddam Hussein’s son and successor, Uday, has invaded Kuwait. The confrontation escalates until Emerson, to the consternation of everyone around him, goes on a live satellite feed and threatens to nuke Baghdad if Iraq doesn’t begin withdrawing its troops in less than two hours. Uday in turn promises to launch his secret nuclear arsenal against Allied capitals if the U.S. flight wing enters Iraqi air space. Emerson has a rough day all around. Not only must he deal with the threat of world annihilation, he must also cope with his P.R.-conscious Chief of Staff (Timothy Hutton), a bleeding heart national security advisor (Sheryl Lee Ralph), the numb-nuts diner cook, a redneck customer who’s smacking his lips over the imminent slaughter, and an obstreperous couple who insist on using their cell phone.

Neither Uday Hussein nor anyone else in the movie is any smarter than Rod Lurie. One of Emerson’s aides informs the President that Tel Aviv can be found in Israel, and Emerson himself believes that the hour-and-a-half warning he’s given the citizens of Baghdad will somehow ameliorate the death-toll of the coming fireball. When the advance members of the presidential entourage first invade the diner, the burliest one of them flashes his badge and introduces himself with Joe Friday-like solemnity: "I’m Special Agent Dexter." "Would you like a booth?" the waitress responds. At one mystifying point, Emerson informs the waitress with all seriousness that Presidents are required to become atheists when they take the oath of office. And when Emerson makes the inevitable phone call to his wife to solicit her emotional support, she declines in a husky whisper by telling him, "I’m not your Eva Braun."

Like Ed Wood’s movies, Deterrence keeps its viewers swinging on a pendulum between fatigue and incredulity. You look forward to those moments when the camera pans to an empty wall in the middle of a speech, or when a shot goes inexplicably out of focus – at least they keep you awake. When one of the characters asks the waitress if she’s from France, you have no idea why they’re asking. "It’s your accent," they tell her, and you suddenly realize that her accent is the worst one you’ve ever heard in a feature film. Lurie can’t even do the high-tech stuff any better than Wood. Much ado is made about the opening of the "football," the briefcase that contains the nuclear codes, but its contents – a PC keyboard and a pair of field glasses – look like they came from Radio Shack.

A West Point graduate, Lurie has said that the genesis of Deterrence came from his watching current events unfold simultaneously in Iraq and Yugoslavia. "What would happen if we had to move troops to both locations, could we effectively do it?" he wondered. (West Point has apparently dropped all mention of World War II from its curriculum.) After leaving the Army, Lurie became a film critic for a Los Angeles radio station, and now he’s hit the big time. In the most amazing wrinkle in what is already a remarkable career, his next film will feature Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges.

Only in Hollywood is ineptitude and crassness rewarded so richly. And make no mistake: Deterrence is as crass as they come. It’s bad enough that Lurie implies that the razing of Baghdad would be justified so long as it served as an object-lesson to Red China. But when Deterrence uses images of the hideously burned victims of Hiroshima to make its points, and ends with a close-up of real Iraqi soldiers who have been cremated at their posts, the movie itself becomes a crime against humanity.

– Tom Block

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