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Dining In: President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak, center) and his advisors must negotiate a major international crisis while trapped by a snowstorm in a Colorado diner.

Bombs Away

Kevin Pollak makes an unlikely leader in the less-than explosive 'Deterrence'

By Richard von Busack

COMPARED TO THE SIMPLE, brutal use of the lever of love in the plot of Fail-Safe (staged in a live television version on Sunday, April 9), the new film Deterrence seems to be only an object lesson about the ruthlessness needed to be president of the United States. The futuristic scenario goes something like this: It's 2008. During his campaign for reelection, President Emerson (San Jose's own Kevin Pollak) is stranded by a snowstorm inside a roadside diner in Aztec, Colo. It's the day of the Colorado primary, and Emerson has run a close campaign. If this weren't enough to occupy his mind, Emerson receives some bad news: the son of Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait with a near million-strong army. Since most of the U.S. Army is busy eyeballing China across the Korean border, a conventional Gulf War II can't be fought. Emerson threatens Baghdad with nuclear annihilation, gives them an hour's ultimatum, and waits in the snowbound restaurant with his aides and a few frightened civilians for the crisis to develop.

The details of this outline seem too cooked up. You have to believe that this spawn of Saddam is just as treacherous as his father. ("Hussein's like his old man! He's a survivor!") You have to accept that 900,000 soldiers could suddenly appear out of nowhere on the Kuwaiti border, like Indians in a cavalry movie. And of the civilians in the diner, none of them seem to represent anything but averageness--one couple (Michael Mantell and Kathryn Morris) bicker and weep; one idiot redneck (Sean Astin) asks the president to make "crispy critters" out of the Iraqis. The president's advisors are barely rounded-out: Sheryl Lee Ralph, the best actor in the film, plays a peace-loving national security advisor named Gayle Redford. Timothy Hutton plays the pro-war advisor, former school chum, and, improbably, rival for the hand of the first lady.

Deterrence is a debut film by Rod Lurie, a West Point grad and the very mean former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine. His debut can't escape visual claustrophobia, despite all the whip-pans to make the diner look bigger. In the lead role is an actor miscast. One look at Pollak as president and instinctively you think, embezzling secretary of the treasury, yes, but president, never. Pollak radiates untrustworthiness even when he's trying to charm some would-be voters. And giving Pollak a cigar--the scepter of the corrupt politician!--doesn't help make him more presidential.

Essentially, Lurie seems to be pointing out that a U.S. president can be in the position to kill millions. It's not fresh news, nor is it old news freshly presented, and worse, the film isn't rigorously argued. A film would have to be damned eloquent to persuade an audience that a first nuclear strike was justifiable under any scenario. Despite the sentimental lines against vaporizing Baghdad--mostly on the grounds of the good old days of the Tigris and the Euphrates--there seems to be a part of Lurie that admires the political maneuvering that allows justification of the unthinkable.

Deterrence (R; 104 min.) written and directed by Rod Lurie, photographed by Frank Perl and starring Kevin Pollak, Timothy Hutton and Sheryl Lee Ralph, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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