Flaws keep `Deterrence' in check

April 14, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A post-Trump, post-Buchanan political culture is the setting for "Deterrence," a political thriller set in 2008 in which an American president is bedeviled by some age-old conundrums.

Morality, international security and political expedience all come into play in this movie, and it's as heavily loaded with metaphors as it is with plot points. (A shot of a chess board during a discussion of military strategy is just one example.) As heavy-handed as he often is, first-time filmmaker Rod Lurie still manages to create the type of claustrophobic atmosphere that acts like a hothouse for high stakes and human emotion.

Kevin Pollak plays Walter Emerson, a former vice president who became president when his boss died a few months ago. "Deterrence" opens during the Colorado primary, during which the state has been hit by a blizzard.

Taking refuge in a lonely diner, Emerson, his chief of staff (Timothy Hutton) and his national security adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph) settle in to watch the returns and keep track of a developing military situation in North Korea. But when the news broadcast is interrupted with news that Iraqi chief Uday Hussein (son of Saddam) has invaded Kuwait, the diner turns into an improvised ground central for a two-hour nuclear stand-off.

Lurie does a good job of setting up the taut dynamics of films such as "The Petrified Forest" and "12 Angry Men," and he infuses the movie's dialogue with the verisimilitude of an insider (the director is a West Point graduate). And he's done well by casting Pollak in a role demanding that he be ineffectual and physically unimpressive at first, only to become increasingly more menacing.

The director is less fluent with the camera, which he uses for too many close-ups and which loses track of the several players in the room. Although the presidential posse shares the cafe with a waitress, a cook, a loud-mouthed pool player and a well-groomed couple playing chess (all of whom get their designated Hysterical Outburst), at various times throughout the movie they seem to have stepped outside for a quick smoke. And the film's climactic scene depends too much on convenient deathbed confessions and whispered asides to qualify as a completely earned kicker.

What's more surprising is how literal "Deterrence" is. With so many side characters available for interesting twists -- including a character whose fluency in French could come in handy or an Arabic-speaking Secret Service agent who may not be everything he seems -- you'd think that Lurie might throw in a few curve balls, but he plays it by the book. The result is a carefully conceived and earnest movie that announces its many points just a bit too carefully and earnestly.

Sometimes a chess game is only a chess game, and "Deterrence" is that much the poorer for it.

`Deterrence'

Starring Kevin Pollak, Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph

Directed by Rod Lurie

Rated R (language and violence)

Running time 101 minutes

Released by Paramount Classics

Sun score: ** 1/2

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