BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Aug 29th, 2000 •

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DETERRENCE offers a strange juxtaposition of interesting political and social issues, anachronistically at least a decade out of date. The contrived scenario is filmed entirely in a small restaurant in the mythical city of Aztec, Colorado. While writer and director Rod Lurie may have had some vague ideas about social conscientiousness, he is woefully ignorant about technology and geopolitics.

Of course, the filmmaker had to contain the environment so that various personal interactions could occur. But are we to believe that the President of the United States doesn’t have access to basic weather forecasts? The snowstorm that isolates unelected (like Gerald Ford) President Emerson’s (played by Kevin Pollak) party is but the beginning of a long series of contextual errors that constantly detract anyone technologically savvy. To accommodate certain defense necessities the film is set in 2008. That allows for the installation of an anti-ballistic missile system while cell phone technology appears to be in retrograde. Not only can’t people get through at key times; the phones have grown in size and are not comparable to those on today’s market. Some things never change. It’s good to know that Coors beer will still be dominant in Colorado at that time.

In the plot, Saddam Hussein’s infamous son Odei has ascended to power in Iraq and is equally covetous of the vast oil fields to the south. Thanks to the disastrous cuts in military strength initiated by President Clinton, there is insufficient force available to protect the region and Odei decides to again move against Iraq. In the swift invasion a number of American peacekeepers are wiped out, a fact learned by President Emerson via IDS, the CNN-like news television of the day. (Yeah right – I guess the soldiers forgot to phone home as they were being overrun instantaneously) In fact, so inept has US intelligence services become, they missed the movement of 500,000 Iraqi troops across the southern buffer zone as they positioned themselves for the attack. But things gets worse. A bit later we learn they failed to determine that 23 US-made nuclear weapons were sold to Iraq by our allies, the French. Even less clear is how the Iraqis managed to form secret alliances that got these weapons strategically placed around the entire world. Further, they even managed to acquire and deploy nuclear submarines, again apparently without the knowledge of the intelligence agencies of the US or our allies. (Interestingly we could track the Soviet submarines all throughout the oceans but can’t find Iraq’s) With a few bold strokes of a pen, self-proclaimed “political junky” Lurie elevated Iraq from regional annoyance to near-superpower status.

For reasons inexplicable, President Emerson chooses to consult with the waitress, diner proprietor, and some bigoted pool-shooter rather than calling foreign heads of state for input on how to handle the crisis. While he notes the actions of Odei are in contravention of United Nations imposed sanctions, Emerson makes no attempt at establishing a coalition response. (And he reportedly was appointed to the presidency based on his foreign policy expertise)

Against the advice of the senior military leadership President Emerson issues a unilateral ultimatum stating that if the attack is not stopped in one hour and forty minutes, Baghdad is glass. That’s right, its not the military but the politicos that say “Nuke’em.” Why such an unrealistic timeframe is proposed is unknown. Anybody who has watched television when a hurricane approaches has a better feel for the time necessary for evacuation of a large city.

In response to the US ultimatum, Iraq discloses that they indeed have acquired the previously mentioned nuclear weapons and they are pointed at various cities around the world. Upping the ante, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN informs President Emerson that if US Aircraft enter Iraqi airspace the nuclear attack will commence. Now we know the bomb is being carried on a B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber. Just how the Iraqis would know when it entered their airspace seems to have been overlooked. Further, the film clip of the plane involved is actually an F-117A not a B-2. (And contrary to Lurie’s comments, it was specifically stated that a B-2 would carry out the mission)

To insure that the viewers understand the gravity of a nuclear attack, graphic details are provided. Unfortunately they are not quite right. While severe damage will occur, an air burst does not create a “1000 foot crater” as described by Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson, played by Timothy Hutton. Having been to Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was exploded, I can state that there is at best a very shallow crater about three feet deep as the energy is dispersed horizontally. If you doubt this check the pictures of Hiroshima after the blast. The pictures provided of hideously burned bodies are actually those on the hull of a conventionally bombed armored vehicle from Desert Storm.

The importance of a “teraflop computer” becomes clear late in the movie in one of the few surprise twists. Here again the writer has become enamored with technology he doesn’t understand. The task the computers are requested to perform could be done on with the computational capability of today’s hand-held calculators. The term teraflop merely suggests that the calculator can handle a specific amount of data, as can today’s supercomputers such as Thinking Machines. They are useful in computing phenomenally complex hydrocodes that predict nuclear reactions but are hardly necessary for the operation of nuclear weapons.

For some reason, possibly the height of Pollak, the director decided it was necessary to provide him with a Freudian phallic symbol as an emblem of power. I guess that’s so we’d know who was the boss. Throughout the movie, President Emerson is seen waving a rather large cigar. Finally after vanquishing the foe (but you already knew that so I’m not spoiling anything) he lights the cigar and heads off into the still raging snowstorm. Personally I wish Hollywood would learn that smoking is not necessary as an ubiquitous prop. Can you remember the last US president who really did smoke?

Despite the highly contrived circumstances, DETERRENCE is not without merit. The dialogue does allow many of the key participants to voice various viewpoints about the threat of use of nuclear weapons to forestall war. Had this film been made in the 1980s with the former Soviet Union as the adversary it would have been more germane. Even conversations about religion, Iraq as the birthplace of civilization, and nuclear winter are evoked.

Still many of the conversation pieces are quite good. For instance, the Commander in Chief of Strategic Command is ordered to provide the code to open the “football,” which contains the strike authorization codes. He is against the use of nuclear weapons in this case and so states. The President overrules his objection and he is ordered to provide the critical information. He complies and then immediately tenders his resignation. As a profession of arms it is this sort of honor that you can expect. National Security Advisor Gayle Redford, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, rightfully states that nuclear deterrence worked because of certainty, not by bluffing.

The recently released DVD version contains a director’s cut commentary to discuss his development of the film. He notes it was shot in 18 days for less than one million dollars, quite a feat in the Hollywood of today. The use of news film clips is very effective even though Lurie indicates he would change some of them slightly. Young film students will gain a great deal in listening to his concepts, filming techniques, and self-criticism.

It seems that Lurie has had minimal military experience. He’d probably make a fine lieutenant but believes himself to understand conflict at the general officer level. Unfortunately, he has listened to a few conversations and read a few books and articles about the current military capability and proclaims himself an expert. In fact, he would probably hold his own at Hollywood parties but wouldn’t last five minutes in the Pentagon dining room.

Though performing at a most modest level at the Big Screen box office, DETERRENCE can provide great food for thought. Consider it a foil for those interested in geopolitics and concerned with moral issues. What has been noticed is that many sensitive and caring people go away and think about what they saw for weeks to follow.

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