For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Political Thrillers, here’s a review of Deterrence (1998) by Richard of Kirkham Movie A Day
Thanks again to Tony of Coog’s Reviews for choosing this month’s genre.
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Try to think out of the box! Great choice Satu!
Let’s see what Richard thought of this movie:
Rod Lurie was the film critic for Los Angeles Magazine in the early 1990s. He also hosted a popular weekend radio show about movies on Saturday mornings. From early 1995 to about 2000, I spent my Saturday Mornings doing yard work and listening to Lurie, guests and Southern California callers talk about recent films. I even called into the show a couple of times myself. He was generally upbeat and not very pretentious in the review process, but he also made it clear that he had plans to make his own films as a writer and director. He was all set to do a film titled “Pork Chop”, to star Eric Roberts when the actor pulled out at the last minute and the low budget production collapsed. Lurie was livid on his program and although he had often smoozed up to Hollywood types, he was threatening legal action. This is a guy who had used the radio program as a Academy Award promotional platform so effectively, that three years in a row he was mentioned in the thank yous by filmmakers when they won their awards. Determined to get a film made, he came up with this idea in a short amount of time and wrote the script quickly to secure financing from some of the contacts he had made.
Deterrence is a pre-9/11 political thriller centered around an accidental President, faced with a crisis in the middle east. In order to reduce costs, film in a very short window, and take advantage of some friendships he had made along the way, the script holds all the action to a single location. So in the middle of campaigning for his unnamed parties nomination, the accidental President played by Kevin Pollack, gets temporarily stranded in a diner in the wilds of Colorado during a blizzard.
It is a primary voting day in the state, and the few people who are out at the diner are watching a little bit of television coverage of the election and the storm when the Presidential Motorcade rolls up and the Secret Service takes over the room. This is one of the first places where you have to suspend your disbelief, because the retinue consists of only a couple of agents. There are a half dozen other staff traveling with the President, including his National Security Advisor and his Chief of Staff. Lurking in the background and becoming a key part of the plot at one point is an Air Force Captain, carrying the “football” the suitcase that controls the nuclear triggers.
Lurie is a political junkie, he loved films about politics and his father is internationally known political cartoonist Ranan Lurie. We don’t quite get a full background on how Walter Emerson became an unelected President and the first Jew to serve as President, but it is not too far from the Gerald Ford scenario. He was chosen to replace a vice president involved in a scandal and then the President died from a terminal illness. Kevin Pollack is not a tall man, so part of the suspension of disbelief will also have to include the idea that a short jewish man who smokes cigars is not only President but is being supported by the voters in most states to be elected in his own right. This film, which was released in 2000, has a brief shot of a TV monitor showing election results from around the country on this Super Tuesday. Take a look at this.
So while world events don’t come close to reflecting what happens in this film, Lurie seemed able to look a little ways into the future on the political front.
Political issues do move to the background as the story develops, Uday Hussein, who everyone in the U.S would know three years later as the psychotic son of Saddam, is now the President of Iraq and has sent his forces into Kuwait nearly a decade after they were repelled from there in the first Gulf War. It appears that U.S. forces are spread thin and Hussein is taking advantage of a U.S. China standoff taking place in Asia. It would be several weeks before conventional forces could begin an attack to remove Iraq from the country. President Emerson begins to contemplate his options in this location far from D.C.
To accommodate the premise of the film, the events taking place are fed to us through TV news coverage rather than a communications set up through the Pentagon. Lurie as director does all he can to make the situation viable, but it is another place where our tolerance for the story telling devices has to be tested. That as his budget was less than a million dollars and the shooting schedule basically 20 days, I think Lurie does a good job getting production value out of his resources. For instance, in a bid to make the film more serious, the opening ten minutes, which includes historical clips of other presidents discussing war, is shown in black and white. We are introduced to the customers and employees of the diner in black and white segments. Yes that is Sean Astin playing a local who has a big mouth and some unpleasant opinions. I’m sure he would be described by many as a Trump Voter, but in this election he seems willing to support Emerson. When the President himself finally enters the diner, magically, much like Dorothy opening the door of her house in Oz, the film moves to color.
Kevin Pollack is a comedian and a gifted impressionist, so it is not hard for him to sell himself as an avuncular everyman, even though we know the President is not that. Before the reveal of the crisis, he presses the flesh with the locals and makes a generally favorable impression.
It is when the crisis arises and the political, military and personal get mixed together, that everyone will end up re-evaluating their impression of the President. That will include his most trusted aides played by Timothy Hutton and Sheryl Lee Ralph. The plot requires that the President consider the use of a Nuclear Weapon as a deterrent to the Iraqi invasion, since conventional forces are insufficient at the moment.
The story takes some turns that seem a little capricious. Although they allow the outcome to be a lot less bleak than it would be otherwise. Lurie visualizes this first as a chess match between the Iraqi Ambassadors and the U.S. President. He has stacked the board with a number of interesting options but if victory is the only key, and the victory has to be measured by the perceptions of the world concerning U.S. use of power, it will be a pyrrhic victory at best. As a first time filmmaker he does go a little overboard on the symbolism at times. The idea that a married couple carries their chessboard with them to a diner to play with while they are trapped by a snowstorm is just a little too much.
As if he did not have a big enough argument against dropping a nuke on Baghdad, Lurie decides to transplant approval for the idea into the mouth of a character that suddenly becomes a racist stand in for supporters of the President’s policy. It is not just jingoism that is linked to disapproval of the idea, it is racism that is espoused in the most obvious, non-sequitur in the film. Sean Astin as a local with a big mouth says things that are completely unrelated to the events taking place, but seem to be contradictory to his behavior earlier in the film, and then it is contradicted later in the movie as well. Well there is a slightly comedic payoff with President Emerson’s response, it does not justify the insertion of material that feels completely out of left field .
The presence of several advisors to the President and several locals, allows for small bits of debate to take place throughout the film. Sheryl Lee Ralph as the National Security Advisor is clearly uncomfortable with the choice the President is making. She has a side conference with the counterman in the diner, where he paraphrases the position that Lurie is trying to make, The President is insane for this choice. Whereas the advocate of the policy is a racist yokel, the opponent among the locals is a martyr who murders a innocent man in the only moment of action in the film. He is subsequently gunned down, and it is just slightly noticeable that the gunfire is largely shot so than no effects work would be required. I don’t want to draw too many parallels to today’s political climate, but this guy would be cheered by the so called “Resistance” for the action that he takes. The intellectual game of “Would you Rather” is abandoned for a more cinematic piece of gunplay. I can understand why it is included so that the movie does not feel as stilted, and there is a similar element to this in “Dr. Strangelove”, but it betrays the goal that Lurie has.
The director has said that he wants the story to be a kind of Rorschach test for the audience. He sees Emerson as a villain who suffers no consequences. I assume that Lurie would believe that anyone who sees Emerson as a man of principle who makes a devastating choice out of a desire to preserve the peace of the world is by default evil. He has clearly bought into a postmodernist interpretation of history that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary and that Harry Truman is a war criminal. I doubt that the interpretation he arrived at was a result of his time at West Point, and rather it is likely informed by revisionist history that he may have encountered. The straw men that he uses to try to make his point are a little too obvious.
Regardless of themes, and overarching goals, the film works largely because Lurie makes clever choices under the financial constraints he is bound by. The other reason it works is because of the performance by Kevin Pollak. He has to be convincing when speaking to a monitor, a speakerphone or just on a handset. He carries off the determination well in those moments. The only places where he is average are in the by play between himself and Ralph and Hutton. Those scenes are underwritten from his character’s perspective. In all the other relationships in the film, including the reluctant admiral that he has on the phone, Pollack conveys power and humility. The circumstances in the world are vastly different today than prior to 9/11. The powers that threaten the peace of the world continue to bounce from East to Middle East, but the motivations are substantially different.
Deterrence is an interesting experiment, a largely successful first film on a miniscule budget, but it has a few holes and a big chip on it’s shoulders.
Kirkham A Movie A Day