Though not in the same class as the celebrated ’60s nuclear-confrontation pics — “Fail Safe,” “The Bedford Incident” and especially “Dr. Strangelove” — “Deterrence” is nevertheless an effective, cautionary tale for our times. Unfolding in 2008, during a presidential election campaign, pic posits a flare-up in the Middle East that leads an unprepared administration to threaten to drop a nuclear weapon on Baghdad. Unfolding entirely in one set — an incongruous Colorado diner where the president and his senior staff, along with casual diners and staff, are trapped by a snowstorm — pic is wall-to-wall dialogue but is expertly acted and fluidly handled by writer-director Rod Lurie, an L.A.-based film critic. Modest theatrical exposure should be followed by significant ancillary trading.
Opening with newsreel footage of presidents, from Roosevelt to Clinton, threatening muscle against America’s enemies, pic smoothly segues into the near future, when the flashpoint seems to be the Korean peninsula, which has become the focus of U.S. conventional forces. Following the recent death of the incumbent president, his veep, Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak), is fighting to be elected.
On this particular night he’s been in Colorado, where he’s succeeded in winning his party’s ticket in the state primary. But a sudden, violent snowstorm has forced Emerson and his aides to take shelter in a small diner located in the township of Aztec. Three customers — a married couple and a redneck Ralph (Sean Astin) — plus the diner’s staff, owner-chef Harvey (Badja Djola) and French-Canadian waitress Katie (Clotilde Courau), watch the most powerful man on Earth, his chief of staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton), national security adviser Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and assorted security types take the place over. There’s also a TV camera crew doing a day-in-the-campaign report.
While Emerson is making jovial small talk with his constituents, a crisis is reported on television: Udei Hussein, son of Saddam, and his forces have invaded Kuwait, slaughtering along the way several hundred American soldiers assigned to a U.N. peacekeeping force. Using makeshift telecommunications devices and the facilities at the diner, Emerson consults with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the secretaries of State and Defense. Using the TV crew, he goes on air to announce that, unless Hussein withdraws immediately and personally surrenders, the U.S. will launch a nuclear attack on Baghdad.
This bombshell is hotly contested by the president’s advisers, and by the civilians in the diner, with much of the debate centering on the fact that Emerson is a Jew and therefore potentially prejudiced against Hussein.
The ante is upped when the Iraqi ambassador announces that, once the B-52 carrying the nuke crosses into Iraqi airspace, his country will unleash 23 nuclear missiles from hidden silos against several American and allied cities.
Lurie adroitly turns the suspense screws, using his obviously limited budget to advantage by confining the horrific confrontation to the diner itself and to the TV screen, where commentators engage in furious debate, the Iraqi official pontificates and the missiles are seen in full flight.
Pollak gives a persuasive performance as the risk-taking president, with Hutton also effective as his more cautious chief of staff. Ralph argues the case for measured reason with considerable force. But the film ultimately takes a rather ambiguous attitude toward its story’s events. Certainly, as one of the characters notes at the end, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Quietly scary pic is solidly crafted in all departments.