Guilty Pleasures: Deterrence (1999)


In 2008, U.S. President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) is running for—well, technically not re-election…more like election.  You see, Emerson was appointed vice president by the previous Commander-in-Chief, and then assumed office after President Buchanan left this world for a better one.  Emerson’s last-minute campaigning in Colorado has stranded him and several other members of his Presidential entourage—White House chief of staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton), national security adviser Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), etc.—in an Aztec, Colorado diner when a wicked blizzard kicks up.

The director presciently foretells our future hellscape/reality-show Presidency: check out Emerson’s challenger.

No sooner have President Emerson and Company settled in to wait out the storm when breaking news is telecast on one of the cable news channels (IBS!) that Uday Hussein, son of Saddam and now leader of Iraq, is back on his bullshit by invading Kuwait (again?).  The situation could be handled, of course, with the use of conventional troops…but if the U.S. relies on that gambit, it will spread itself thin in North Korea (yes, America is at war there as well—this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise).  So, Emerson takes off the gloves: if Iraq doesn’t pull out of Kuwait and surrender in ninety minutes…the U.S. will drop a nuclear bomb on the capital city of Baghdad.

dvdThere’s a story behind my acquisition of Deterrence (1999), the feature film debut of film critic-turned-director Rod Lurie (who would later helm a huge box office success with The Contender the following year).  I wasn’t unfamiliar with the movie (I came across an entry for it in one of Leonard Maltin’s movie guides and made a mental note to DVR it if it ever turned up on one of the movie channels to which we subscribe), but when I found the DVD for sale at I thought, for some unexplained reason, that I was purchasing a copy of Disconnect (2013), an entertaining little sleeper that I caught via a “freeview” a few years back.  I only realized I was having a brain fart seconds after I smashed the order button—but life is a cheesesteak hoagie, and sometimes you must take a bite and let the juices dribble down your chin.  (Okay, that analogy may need a little work.)

Stephen Holden’s March 2000 review for the film in The New York Times compares Deterrence to Twelve Angry Men (due to its single-set presentation—we never leave the diner) though I think it’s a bit more accurate to label it “Fail Safe for the 21st Century.”  Holden wasn’t too enthusiastic about the movie, calling it a “clunky political thriller” with “ham-fisted preachiness and mediocre acting.”  “…it often has the feel of a high school civics lesson packaged as melodrama,” he adds. “Its editorial pretensions are underscored by an opening black-and-white montage of actual presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Bill Clinton lambasting war.”

Ryan Cutrona, Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Kevin Pollak in Deterrence (1999)

He’s not wrong about this (though I’d take issue with his assessment on the acting—I had no complaints with most of the performances save Sean Astin’s cardboard turn as a jingoistic redneck…whose use of racial slurs prompts prez Pollak to offer him an exemption from paying taxes if Astin agrees never to talk to him ever again), which is why I’d argue that you need to enjoy Deterrence purely on a suspense thriller level (hence its Fail Safe feel).  The politics in the movie are terrible (I found myself succumbing often to that old eye-rolling malady of mine…particularly during a key plot point in the film) but there are pleasurable moments of roller coaster-like thrills punctuated with a nifty surprise or two.

The biggest surprise in Deterrence is Kevin Pollak’s performance as the trial-by-fire-tested Emerson.  I should probably explain this.  Pollak began his show business career as a stand-up comedian and impressionist, and his expert mimicry of the likes of Christopher Walken, Peter Falk, and (unquestionably) William Shatner would frequently have me falling down on the floor with laughter in the 1980s.  The problem is: in a lot of Pollak’s film roles, I can still hear him doing Shatner.  I’m not trying to trash him—he’s done exemplary work in movies like Avalon (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995), and a good many more.  But it’s difficult for me watching him sometimes because I keep expecting him at any moment to break out with the Shat.

Kevin Pollak

In Deterrence, however, Kev has matured to the point where I heard zero trace of Kirk—he really does a first-rate job as a U.S. President whose tenuous situation is challenged by two uncomfortable truths (according to the Iraqi ambassador): he wasn’t elected to office and he’s Jewish.  Pollak’s Emerson is a likable, genuine human being able to put strangers at ease while at the same time demonstrating a steely resolve that is mistaken for recklessness at first.  (I like a comment Pollak once made [which he attributed to his wife, comedienne-actress Lucy Webb] about his career: “[A]s long as the leading man needs a best friend or an attorney, I’ll continue to work.”)  Timothy Hutton provides excellent support (though learning that his character’s name was “Marshall Thompson” had me humming the Daktari theme in amusement) but it’s Sheryl Lee Ralph who really walks off with the picture as the national security adviser helpless to convince Emerson the course of action he’s taking may be a foolish one.  (I still think of Ralph from the TV sitcom It’s a Living, so she really made me sit up and take notice here.)

Things get tense in Aztec (“Home of the Screaming Beavers!”) as Ralph and Pollak engage in nuclear brinksmanship. (In the background are [L-R} Sean Astin, Cutrona, Joe McCrackin, and Scoot Powell.)
I’ve kept the plot details to a minimum because I’m always hesitant to give away anything that will interfere with anyone’s future viewing should they want to see this one (and have not already).  It’s by no means a perfect film; for instance, there’s a scene where Pollak’s president is conversing with the Iraq ambassador via a translator when one of the Secret Service men (Ryan Cutrona) assigned to his detail alerts him that the translator is being a little dishonest with interpreting the ambassador’s words (he knows this because he speaks the language! What are the odds?); this is one of those eyeroll moments I alluded to earlier.  The politics are clearly that of the cable news-talking heads variety (director Lurie, who wrote and produced the film, admitted that he got the idea for Deterrence watching CNN at home), but interestingly, I find Deterrence a stronger film than Rod’s subsequent The Contender (which has superb performances and good intentions…but plays over like warmed-over Aaron Sorkin).  If you’re asking yourself “Why haven’t I heard of this one?” Deterrence’s dismal box office take (budgeted at $800,000, it netted a grand total of $145,071) might explain why it’s not revisited much…but trust me—there’s a lot of entertainment here.

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